These early intimations of a country to the west as a centre of high learning and spirituality were in sharp contrast to the attribution of a “barbarian” character to the semi-nomadic tribes inhabiting the steppes along Chinese frontiers to the west and north. China’s exposure to Buddhism from India in the early centuries of the first millennium had a lot to do with how India was perceived in contrast to the nomadic tribes on its frontiers. But the Chinese traditional literati, including Confucian and Taoist scholars, were dismissive of Buddhism and the Buddhist monks who came from India.

There were periods of persecution of Buddhists during the reign of several Chinese rulers. During these phases, Buddhism was rejected as a barbarian and alien influence, and India too was included in the category of barbarian nations.

But this was the exception rather than the rule. Gradually, Buddhism took root among the ordinary people of China and, over the centuries, became Sinicised. China emerged as an alternative centre of the Buddhist faith, with its own doctrinal contributions, places of pilgrimage and spiritual masters.

Despite the patronage of the Han emperor Mingdi, Buddhism did not really take root in China during the Han period. The royal court and the literati may have been suspicious of this alien faith and its strange tenets. The Confucian orthodoxy had already taken root and may have felt threatened by the new system and the tenets and ritual practices of Buddhism.

It was in the subsequent period of political turmoil and the rise of multiple kingdoms, both Han and non-Han, that Buddhism began to enjoy royal patronage and gain popular acceptance. This was the period of the Six Dynasties (220-589 CE) and the partial unification during the Sui dynasty (581–618 ce). Buddhist iconography entered the realm of Chinese art with models drawn from the Gandhara region.

In early references to India, the country is said to have five regions – east, west, north, south and the middle or central region. In some accounts, the central region or the Gangetic plain is called Zhonguo or “Central Country” – a term that is usually used to denote China as the Middle Kingdom.

The pilgrim Fa Xian who visited India in the fifth century CE referred to the country south and east of the Indus as constituting the “Madhya-desa” or Central Country. In such accounts, China was described as lying on the eastern periphery of India. It is not clear where this five-region division of India comes from, but it continued to be the frame defining India’s structure even down to the medieval Qing period (1644–1911).

In the writings of Chinese Buddhist monks and scholars during the Han, Sui and Tang dynasties (roughly from the first century BCE to the tenth century CE), it was India that was often described as the centre of the world, not China. This reverence for India was in sharp contrast to the later claim to centrality that marked Chinese narratives.

We should note that in Chinese descriptions, India was not one single, unified entity but a civilised, even spiritual space, occupied by several kingdoms and ruled by several kings. There was a clear awareness of the country’s diversity but also an understanding of its overarching oneness derived from both culture and religious faith.

Though China became aware of India in these early years of the first millennium, physical contact among the people was rare and an exception rather than the rule. Few Indians or Chinese actually had face-to-face encounters with each other. Knowledge about India and Indians was mostly mediated through the intermediate zone of Central Asia, Tibet and South-East Asia, which geographically separated the two countries.

For example, India and its culture, the tenets of Buddhism and descriptions of its geography were conveyed through peoples inhabiting the Central Asian oasis towns like Balkh, Khotan and Kucha. These people included the Sogdians, the Parthians, and later the Arabs. There were communities of Indian traders resident in Chinese cities, and there may have been Chinese traders residing in Indian ports and towns. During the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), there was an Indian quarter in Changan, the cosmopolitan capital of the Tang.

Nevertheless, these direct contacts were isolated, infrequent and superficial in nature.This continued to be the case up until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when familiarity with each other arose among the Chinese and Indians as a consequence of British imperialist forays into China and East Asia. The context of these more direct and wider contacts was not always a pleasant one from the Chinese perspective.

Chinese contemporary awareness of India became a subset of its traumatic encounter with the West. The India in the millennial imagination of China as an independent centre of civilisation, spirituality and knowledge, but comfortably distant, had to be reconciled with a modern India which had become a “slave nation” under the British and a launch pad for the latter’s depredations against China.

Ancient India could be an inspiration and even worthy of reverence. India under the British became an object of pity and derision, a teacher by negative example for China.

While India may have entered the Chinese imagination, in particular through the spread of Buddhism, there is almost no sign of China having registered in the Indian consciousness through its long history. It is only in the modern period that China emerged on the Indian radar screen, and despite a recognition of its impact on India and on Asia as a whole, little effort was made in India to become familiar with the country, its culture, its way of thinking and its world view. This continued even after Indian independence in 1947.

According to Chinese historical records, during the first millennium there may have been about 3,000 Indian monks and teachers who travelled to China to propagate their faith. Most appear to have made China their permanent home. While they left behind extensive translations in Chinese of Buddhist scriptures, there are no extant accounts of their impressions of the country they had made their home, nor of people they came in contact with. Perhaps these accounts exist but they have not been discovered as of now.

By contrast, several Chinese pilgrims and even envoys who travelled to India during this period, such as Fa Xian, Xuan Zang or the general Wang Xuance, left behind extensive accounts of the country they visited and the lives of its inhabitants. But for these accounts, our knowledge and understanding of ancient India would have been sparse or altogether a blank.

How China Sees India and the World

Excerpted with permission from How China Sees India and the World, Shyam Saran, Juggernaut Books.