6. Re-discovering Buddha’s Land: The Transnational Formative Years of China’s Indology

Translocal Lives and Religion - Connections between Asia and Europe in the Late Modern World - Philippe Bornet

Minyu Zhang [+-]
Beijing Foreign Studies University
Dr. Minyu Zhang is lecturer at the Department of Area Studies, School of Asian and African Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University. He studied Indian language and literature at Peking University. He researches early modern north Indian literature, Indian religions, and China-India cultural contacts. He is a key investigator of “Translation and Study of Sursagar” (Ministry of Education Grant Project, PRC) and “Translation of Chinese-Indian Classic and Contemporary Works” (China-India Governmental Cooperation Project). His recent publications include: “Evolution of Indian Sahajayāna”, “The Defeat of Asuras in Surasagar”, “Myth and Identity: reflection on the neo-Buddhist movement in Maharashtra, India”.


Since its reopening up in the 1840s, China came again into contact with India, the former “Buddha’s land,” which was at that time a conquered frontier of new powers. In that particular historical context, knowledge about India not only entails purely intellectual interests, but entangles with questions about China’s cultural self-identity and political ideology. Modern Indology was brought into China as a part of Western studies, first indirectly via Japanese scholarship and later directly from the Europe-US Western world. The internalized Buddhist legacy and the work of diligent Buddhist intellectuals added Chinese indigenousness to this branch of Western studies. Early scholars’ encounters with Western oriental studies paved the way for Ji Xianlin, who later studied Indology in Göttingen and brought back the German academic tradition to China. Other future Indologists, including both laymen like Jin Kemu and Buddhists like Baihui, turned towards India, following the Chinese diaspora along the revived China-India trade route. For the leftists who were anxiously seeking solutions to end China’s miseries, however, India provided only bitter lessons about how a “backward oriental culture” can weaken a nation. Pragmatic concerns intervened in scholarly life when China had to rely on the Allies’ strategic supply provided via India during the later years of World War II. As a result, the government established a Hindi programme in the new National Institute of Oriental Languages, which was later incorporated into Peking University. Hindi scholars like Yan Shaoduan and Liu Anwu preferred secular writings, those of Premchand and Yashpal in particular, depicting a progressive India that invoked a non-religious common affinity between the two countries. Thus, in the formative years of China’s Indology, Chinese intellectuals developed their perspectives within three important transnational networks; the revived Buddhist ancestral China-India connection, the scholarly network around Western, particularly German orientalists, and the political network based on socialist and anti-imperialist ideology. The internalization of these streams resulted in a distinct appearance of China’s Indology and still influences China’s perception of India.

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Zhang, Minyu . 6. Re-discovering Buddha’s Land: The Transnational Formative Years of China’s Indology. Translocal Lives and Religion - Connections between Asia and Europe in the Late Modern World. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Oct 2020. ISBN 9781781795835. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=31743. Date accessed: 11 Jul 2020 doi: 10.1558/equinox.31743. Oct 2020

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