In India in the Chinese Imagination, an excellent collection of essays published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, eleven scholars examine the way that Indian ideas have influenced the mythology, religion, and thought of China. The book is divided into three sections: Indian Mythology and the Chinese Imagination, India in China’s Imagining of the Past, and Chinese Rethinking of Indian Buddhism. In my view, they cannot be read at one sitting and absorbed; they must be read a few times, and one may find that some background knowledge and research is required to fully appreciate them.

Buddhism was by far the most important Indian export to China; about half of the book’s essays discuss Buddhism in some fashion. In “Transformation as Imagination in Medieval Popular Buddhist Literature,” Victor H. Mair writes that, traditionally, Chinese literature focused on record keeping, whereas fiction requires certain assumptions. These assumptions were supplied by Buddhism, Mair explains. Once that religion took root in China, the notion of transformation came to the fore:

In pre-Buddhist times, Chinese intellectuals harbored a suspicion of or even antipathy to bald fictionalization; in post-Buddhist times, Chinese audiences and readers came to revel in unrestrained imagination premised upon an acceptance of transformation as a kind of manifestation. (20)

This use of techniques to advance narrative was implemented on a limited scale by writers in the Tang dynasty (618–907).

In Chapter 5, “From Bodily Relic to Dharma Relic Stūpa: Chinese Materialization of the Aśoka Legend in the Wuyue Period,” Shi Zhiru examines Asoka’s suggestion that 84,000 stupas be constructed in honor of the Buddha. Emperor Asoka was an Indian Hindu who converted to Buddhism after observing the devastation that he had wrought among the Kalinga people on the eastern coast of India. The missionaries he sent out are largely responsible for the religion taking root in Asia. Shi concludes that the emperor’s stupas and relics were built in the Wuyue period (907–978) in areas of southeastern China — such as Zhejiang, Shanghai, Anhui, and Henan — where thousands of relics and stupas have been excavated.

Chapter 7, “The Hagiography of Bodhidharma: Reconstructing the Point of Origin of Chinese Chan Buddhism,” is John R. McRae’s attempt to locate the earliest appearance of the Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism and martial arts to China. McRae, who passed away while the volume was being prepared and to whom the book is dedicated, rejects previous efforts to situate the Bodhidharma historically. On the other hand, McRae also rejects the views of those such as Bernard Faure, who conclude that all reports about the Bodhidharma were false. Although much legend attends the Bodhidharma, McRae states that some accounts are plausible. “Our purpose here is to attend to the very beginnings of this hagiographical process, so we need to avoid being distracted by demonstrably later innovations” (128).

Faure’s contribution, “Indic Influences on Chinese Mythology: King Yama and his Acolytes as Gods of Destiny,” holds that the Indian Yama — variously the first man and the god of death — was altered to comport with the Chinese pantheon. Meir Shahar in “Indian Mythology and the Chinese Imagination: Nezha, Nalakubara, and Krsna,” traces an allusion to an enfant terrible in late-imperial Chinese literature (Dream of the Red Chamber) all the way back to ancient India. Stephen R. Bokenkamp states in “This Foreign Religion of Ours: Lingbao Views of Buddhist Translation” that kalpic cycles informed and altered Taoist works. Christine Mollier avers in “Karma and the Bonds of Kinship in Medieval Daoism: Reconciling the Irreconcilable” that Daoism altered and was altered by the concepts of Mahayana Buddhism. Her observation is a succinct commentary of this fine volume:

In this way, the new horizons developed by Buddhism on the questions of death and the apocalypse, predestination and the world beyond, started to transform and shape the Chinese imaginaire for ever after.

In my view, this book is an excellent and scholarly source for material concerning the appearance of Buddhism and other Indian ideas in China. It contains a glossary of terms, fifty-one pages of notes, and thirty pages of references.

India in the Chinese Imagination is available from the University of Pennsylvania Press, Amazon, and other retailers.