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Sanskrit had an influence on Chinese language

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.


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