Liang Qichao (1873-1929) was perhaps the first Chinese scholar to pay attention to the influence of Buddhist literature on Chinese language.

Prussian philosopher and linguist, Wilhelm von Humboldt has remarked in his classic study published in 1836 of human language entitled “On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of Human Species” that “Chinese and Sanskrit are considered to be the two poles that go into two extremes” as far as grammatical formations and sound systems are concerned. If that is the case how come Chinese absorbed thousands of words and concepts from Sanskrit?
It was made possible by the mammoth sutra translation project in China, an undertaking of the Chinese monarchs. In the beginning, sutras were translated by individuals, however, by the time of Fujian (337-385) of Former Qin, and Yaoxing (366-416) of Later Qin, translation was gradually brought under the fold of royal patronage, and by the time of Tang Dynasty, it entered the period of great prosperity. Chinese scholars have classified translation of Buddhist sutras into four stages. During the first stage (AD 148-316) scholar-monks like An Shigao, Lokakṣema, Yan Fodiao, Zhiqian, Kang Senghui, and Dharmarakṣa reigned supreme. The second stage (AD 317-617) was dominated by people like Dao’an, Kumarajiva, Faxian and Paramārtha and others. The third stage (AD 618-906) that covers the reign of Tang Dynasty is considered as the heyday of sutra translation. The most outstanding translators include Xuan Zang, Yi Jing, and Amoghavajra. During the fourth stage (AD 954-1111) there was sporadic translation as the climax was long over. The Kaiyuan Era Catalogue of Buddhist Canons and Zhenyuan New Buddhist Catalogue record that in a span of 734 years starting from 10th year of the Yongping Era in Han Dynasty (67 AD) to the 16th year of Zhenyuan Era in Tang Dynasty (800 AD), in all 185 prominent translators translated 2,412 sutras running into 7,352 fascicles.


The sutra translation also resulted in the creation of innumerable new images such as Vimalkirti, Guanyin (Avalokitesvara), and Mulian (Maudgalyayana) and associated sutra unfamiliar to Indian Buddhism on the one hand and dissemination of various thought systems of India and Central Asian polities such as astronomy, literature, music, theatre, languages etc., to China on the other. To cite an example, A Dictionary of Buddhism compiled by Japanese scholars lists more than 35,000 entries of Sanskrit in Chinese language. According to Professor Yu Longyu and Liu Chaohua, “These entries are not coined by the compiler, but created by various master translators through Han, Jin, and Tang dynasties, and added to the Chinese language as a new component. Every vocabulary is a concept and it could be said that 35,000 new concepts have been added to the Chinese language.”
Liang Qichao (1873-1929) was perhaps the first Chinese scholar to pay attention to the influence of Buddhist literature on Chinese language. According to him, in the early days, translators, in addition to the transliteration of proper nouns, retained old names as far as the abstract language was concerned. He calls it the “Lokakṣema School”. As regards the so-called terminology, they were not very particular about, which remained similar to its embryonic stage. As the translation progressed, it was felt that the old language and the new meaning were incompatible, and the usage was inevitably inconsistent and with distortion. Therefore, people endeavoured to create new vocabulary. The translation of Dao’an and Yan Cong is a reference point; Xuan Zang advocated “Five Untranslatable Situations”, Zan Ning propounded “Six cases of new translation” in the process. They discarded the usage of Chinese words and used new vocabulary in its place; for example, tathātā 真如, avidyā 无明, dharmadhatu 法界, sattva众生, bhāva缘缘, vipāka果报, etc.; or they retained the Sanskrit pronunciation and transformed it into a popular phrase, for example nirvana涅槃, prajñā般若, yoga 瑜伽, dhyāna禅那, kṣaṇa刹那, yojana由旬 etc.
It is visible from the new vocabulary listed here that monosyllabic Chinese of the pre-Qin period paved way for disyllabic and polysyllabic words. Hu Chirui’s Comparative Study of ‘Lunheng’ and the vocabulary in Eastern Han Dynasty Buddhist Scriptures has established this fact. Hu’s conclusion is that “The vocabulary used in Lunheng is more or less same as the pre-Qin classics, whereas the vocabulary in Buddhist classics has more similarities with the vocabulary used in Wei and Jin Dynasties. The source of vocabulary change in the medieval and modern times can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty Buddhist scriptures. Zhou Junxun’s Study on the Vocabulary of Wei Jin Southern and Northern Dynasties Mystery Tales and Supernatural Novellas also establishes this fact. He collated around 200,000 words from the tales of mystery and supernatural naovellas and discovered that of 4,372 polyphonic words, 2,215 were from the previous dynasties and 2,157 were newly generated. The newly created words were mainly polysyllabic, and the proportion of single and new words was as high as 1:11. It can be said that at this time, the Chinese mainly produced new words based on polyphony, expanding their vocabulary and satisfying the need to express new things and new concepts.
How did they create this? This was made possible through sat-samāsāh of Sanskrit. Karmadhâraya used to form words such as ālayavijñāna 藏识 or “all-encompassing foundation consciousness”; used Tatpuruṣā when one component is related to another, for example rudraakṣa 眼根Rudra-eye; Bahuvrîhi used for denoting a referent by specifying certain characteristic or quality the referent possesses, for example, Buddha 觉者 or the enlightened one; Dvandva in which multiple individual nouns are concatenated to form an agglomerated compound word in which the conjunction “and” has been elided to form a new word with a distinct semantic field, for example, life and death 生灭, like and dislike 厌欣 etc.; Avyayibhâva, an indeclinable, to which another word is added so that the new compound also becomes indeclinable, for example, athāšakti (immense power). Wei Chengsi maintains in his book, Chinese Buddhist Culture that even during the modern period these principles have been used to create countless new words in Chinese, such as “generator” 发电机, “death” 死亡, “hard”坚硬, “something”东西, “size” 大小 etc.
Prof. Yu Longyu and Liu Chaohua maintain in their study History of Sino-Foreign Literary Exchange: India and China volume that there should be at least three points to note as to why this happened: First, the Sanskrit vocabulary that had no corresponding Chinese words forced the translators to create new words such as reincarnation, life and death, karma, panchsheela, eight tribulations, etc. Second, a large number of newly translated words, along with the spread of Buddhism, became popular in the day-to-day sutra recitation and became part of the Chinese vocabulary. Third, with the popularity of Sanskrit translations in China, its word formation principle was also accepted by the Chinese and became part of China’s inherent word formation. Today, everyone understands new words like UFOs, aliens, “five stresses four points of beauty”, low-carbon economy and so on, but no one will say that the words formation principle is the one which was used by the masters of sutra translation. The internalized influence is silent and leaves no traces. Some of the everyday language developed in the course of sutra translation, such as “convenience” 方便and “spend” 花 which are essentially upāya and sādhya in Sanskrit respectively. In modern Chinese the word “convenience” has been further expanded to “when convenient” 趁便, “free ride” 便车, “notes” 便条, “for people’s convenience” 便民, “memo” 便笺, “simple” 简便 “casual clothes”“便服 “cheap” 便宜 and so on. Many other words such as 世界from loka, 不可思议 from acintya also follow this principle. Besides there are innumerable idioms and saying that have enriched Chinese language. A dictionary titled The Wisdom of Buddhism in Idioms has many such entries. Furthermore, many Indologists such as Chen Yinke (1890-1969) believe that the four tones in Chinese language were created in the process of sutra recitation. According to him, these are based on the three tones—Udāttd, Svarita and Anudātta of the Vedas. Xu Dishan (1893-1941) and eminent translator and folklorist confirms this when he says, the sounds of Sanskrit are either long or short, voiced or voiceless, and cannot be mixed up, unlike the Chinese ancient sounds. Therefore, people in the Six Dynasties (AD 220-589), added four tones to the Chinese. After the emergence of four tones and the yongming genre that was basically same as the Sanskrit verse, exerted direct influence on the Tang poetry. No wonder there are striking similarities between the Indian and Chinese poetics.
The influence of Sanskrit through Buddhism on Chinese language and literature is an irrefutable truth. Apart from the above-mentioned vocabulary system, this sprawls into permeation of Indian fables, folktales, literary genres, themes, images, and aesthetics into Chinese literature. These nonetheless have become inherent to Chinese culture, and without academic investigation, it is difficult for ordinary people to know their Indian blood.
This article has been compiled on the basis of the author’s forthcoming translation of Yu Longyu and Liu Chaohua’s work titled “China and India: Dialogue of Civilizations”.
B.R. Deepak is Professor at the Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.