Translation and Buddhism in Premodern China: A contextualized overview | April 2017 | Translation Journal

April 2017 Issue

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Translation and Buddhism in Premodern China: A contextualized overview

Abstract: Translation scholars have mainly followed three strands in their research regarding the translation of Buddhist scriptures in China: describing translation traditions, analyzing discourses on translation, and examining translators’ specific choices from a sociolinguistic perspective. However, a more accurate overview of Buddhist translation activities in premodern China is highly needed to compensate for the flaws in some publications describing relevant Chinese traditions (Lefevere, 1998; Hung, 2005; Hung & Pollard, 1998, 2009; Li, 2009), especially the entry “Chinese Tradition” in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (first and second editions). With this end in view, this article aims to contextualize specific issues that are most relevant to Buddhist translation in the Chinese context (i.e. orality, inclusiveness, power, teamwork, conflict, Sinicization, censorship, canonization, and early monk-translators’ diverse textual strategies)from a macroscopic perspective.

Keywords: translation, Buddhism, premodern China, contextualize


Long (2007, p. 72) has contended that “the spread of philosophies and religions probably accounts for more translation activity in the first two millennia CE than any other single factor and certainly accounts for the most discussion about translation.” In premodern China, the translation of Buddhist texts spanned over 900 years from the middle of the second century tothe late eleventh century.

Researchers in fields other than Translation Studies have approached Buddhism in China from diverse perspectives such as literary impacts (e.g. Schmidt-Glintzer & Mair, 2001), philosophical thoughts (e.g. Fung & Bodde, 1966), religious influences (e.g. Mu & Zhang, 2000), and various aspects of history and society (e.g. Ren, 1993; Guo, 1994; Fairbank & Goldman, 2006; Zürcher, 2007; Nattier, 2008). Attempts have also been made to reinterpret Buddhist translation activities and address issues of authority and ideology in oral transmission and written forms of Buddhist texts (e.g. Berkwitz, Schober & Brown, 2009; Zhiru, 2010).

In contrast, translation scholars have mainly followed three strands in their research regarding the translation of Buddhist scriptures in China: describing translation traditions (e.g. Lefevere, 1998; Hung, 2005; Hung & Pollard, 1998, 2009; Li, 2009); analyzing discourses on translation (e.g. Cheung, 2006; Munday, 2012, pp. 32-35); examining translators’ specific choices from a sociolinguistic perspective (e.g. Chu, 2009; So, 2009). Some of these translation scholars have shared interests in the role of orality (Lefevere, 1998; Hung, 2005; Munday, 2012), the issue of power (Lefevere, 1998; Li, 2009), teamwork among translators and their assistants (Lefevere, 1998; Hung & Pollard, 1998, 2009; Munday, 2012), and specific methods adopted in the translation of Buddhist texts (Cheung, 2006; Chu, 2009; Munday, 2012).

However, there are flaws in some of the publications describing the Chinese traditions of Buddhist translation. The most visible flaw is presenting unsubstantiated arguments or information (Lefevere, 1998, pp. 20-23; Hung & Pollard, 1998, pp. 366-368; Hung & Pollard, 2009, pp. 370-372; Li, 2009, p. 17, p. 21). Other flaws are much less obvious, which include (1) relying on outdated or unreliable information, which has resulted in a mix-up over the two major styles favored by Buddhist translators (i.e. wen and zhi) (Lefevere, 1998, p. 21), an inexact description of teamwork among translators and their assistants (ibid., p. 22), and an inaccurate biography of the monk-translator Xuanzang’s life (Li, 2009,1 pp. 19-20); (2) disregarding issues of ideology and censorship and Buddhist translators’ alliances with secular power and their manipulation of power (Hung, 2005; Hung & Pollard, 1998, 2009); (3) misrepresenting historical information or inconsistently or incorrectly Romanizing personal names2 (Lefevere ,1998; Hung, 2005; Hung & Pollard, 1998, 2009; Li, 2009). Since some of these publications are well-cited or widely-read, a more accurate overview of Buddhist translation activities in premodern China, providing substantiated evidence and reliable statistics, based on authentic and updated sources of information, is highly neededto compensate for the abovementioned flaws. In the hope of adequately representing monk-translators’ translation activities, their association with power, and their role in the making of Chinese Buddhism, this article gives priority to “a proper contextualization” (Toury, 2001[1995], p. 29) of substantiated evidence and reliable statistics.

Tymoczko (2002, p. 17) has contended that translation research can be approached “from two directions: from the macroscopic direction, by looking at the big picture…; or from the microscopic direction, by looking at the particularities of the language of a translation.” The first issue published by The Translator in 2014 has defined two trends in translation history research: “translation as history” and “translation in history” (Olohan, 2014, p. 9). The former aims to deepen the understanding of translation “as a historical object in itself” (Rundle, 2014, p. 4) and focuses on “what translation is and how it works” (Olohan, 2014, p. 9). The latter considers translation as “an approach to a given historical subject” (Rundle, 2014, p. 4) and deals with the role of translation in “histories of an episode, period or phenomenon (other than the phenomenon of translation itself)” (Olohan, 2014, p. 9). Following a macroscopic approach, this article intends to contextualize Buddhist translation, focusing on its interaction with larger socio-historical context and its role in facilitating a process of acculturation across premodern history, which resulted in the “[S]inicization” of Buddhism in China (Cheng et al., 2009, p. 219). With this end in view, this article intends to provide a detailed overview of the power-ridden nature of the translation of Buddhist texts, the institutionalized form of team collaboration in Buddhist translation, the role of translation in the acculturation of Buddhism in Chinese cultural history, and other historically and culturally significant aspects.

This article chooses the “premodern” as its historical frame of reference. Premodern China is a heterogeneous entity. The translation of Buddhist texts in premodern China covers the time period between the 140s and the 1080s, which saw many dynasties and kingdoms ruled by Han3 or ethnic rulers. At particular historical moments, the territory of the present-day China was occupied by coexistent kingdoms and/or empires, whose subjects spoke regional dialects and/or ethnic languages, but shared the same written language (i.e. Literary Chinese, also known as Classical Chinese), the same literary canon, and most of the time, the same dominant ideology. This coexistence of heterogeneity and uniformity poses problems and invokes disagreements regarding scholarly efforts to periodize the translation of Buddhist texts. Therefore, instead of adopting a particular periodization method that is likely to invite controversies, this article focuses on specific issues that are most relevant to Buddhist translation in the Chinese context (i.e. orality, inclusiveness, power, teamwork, conflict, Sinicization, censorship, canonization, and early monk-translators’ diverse textual strategies)from a macroscopic perspective.

The thread running through the aforementioned topical issues is the ubiquity of power. On the one hand, an established monk-translator “can be the authority who manipulates the culture, politics, literature, and their acceptance (or lack thereof) in the target culture” (álvarez & Vidal, 1996, p. 2). On the other hand, monk-translators tend to seek support from the powerful to gain recognition as such authorities. In view of this, this article aims to highlight monk-translators’ entanglements with secular power in the shaping of Chinese Buddhism “to avoid the practice of apolitical historicism or purported objectivity or neutrality in historical narration” (Bandia, 2014, p. 113).

Orality and inclusiveness

This section intends to compensate for the missing information in some widely-circulated publications (i.e. Lefevere, 2001[1998]; Hung, 2005; Hung & Pollard 1998, 2009; Munday, 2012) about an overall picture of the role of orality as well as Chinese people’s inclusive attitude to translated scriptures conveying incompatible messages.

Source texts are typically considered as texts written in the source language, but it is not the case with Buddhist translation. It is believed that Indian Buddhism had accomplished the “critical shift from oral/aural to visual/literary culture” in “100 CE” (Zhiru, 2010, p. 91). However, “the oral transmission of Buddhist texts continued on for many centuries even after monks began putting sūtras into writing” (Berkwitz, Schober, & Brown 2009, p. 2).

In premodern China, early translations of Buddhist manuscripts were mainly based on oral transmission or teachings given by foreign monks or Buddhists, who seldom had sufficient knowledge of Literary Chinese (i.e. the official written language) to produce written translations without assistance (Storch, 1993; Gu, 2009, p. 30). The involvement of non-Chinese speakers is the most visible feature ofBuddhist translation in premodern China. About 120 identifiable non-Chinese Buddhist monks or lay Buddhists4 “from different Buddhist sects” (Berkwitz, Schober, & Brown 2009, p. 2), coming from ancient empires or kingdoms such as Ceylon, Funan, India, Kapisa, Khotan, Kucha, Parthia, Sogdiana5 and Yuezhi between the 140s and the 1080s, participated in the translation of Buddhist manuscripts (Zhang, 1981, pp. 14-24). According to statistics (Wang, 1984, pp. 113-115; Zhang, 1981, pp. 14-24), non-Chinese speakers account for about 60% of the total number of recognized Buddhist translators in premodern China.

Over 1200 existing Chinese versions of Buddhist manuscripts produced during the period from the 100s to the early 1000s (Wang, 1984, pp. 113-115) were translated from Sanskrit, Pali, and a variety of ancient foreign languages. This linguistic diversity makes comparative studies of the originals and translations of Buddhist texts almost a mission impossible. It is understandable that it took over a hundred years for early Chinese receivers to question the authority or credibility of translated scriptures.

The Chu Sanzang Ji Ji (Collection of Records on the TranslatedTripiaka),6 one of the most influential catalogues of translated Buddhist manuscripts compiled by the monk-scholar Sengyou (CE 445-518), has provided ample evidence for the prominent role of oral transmission in the production of earliest translations. For instance, its biographical section has mentioned that An Shigao, Lokakema (known as Zhi Loujiachen in Chinese) and An Xuan, three earliest non-Chinese translators of Buddhist texts, “orally presented the content” of the “multitude of scriptures” that they “had recited from memory” (Sengyou, 1995, p. 508, p. 511). Even in subsequent centuries when written texts were available, many non-Chinese translators (e.g. Dharmaraka, Kumārajīva, Buddhayas, Dharmakema, Vajrabodhi) had been recorded as having a marvelous memory and being able to recite a daunting number of Buddhist texts. In some cases where more than one language was involved, more than one non-Chinese monk would engage in different oral tasks in the translation process. Take translation of the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra for example, the Indian monk Zhu Shuofo orally presented the content, and the Yuezhi monk Lokakema provided oral translation (Sengyou, 1995, p. 511).

Admittedly, the dependence on memory and pure oral transmission has its own problems. On the one hand, there were historical records about failure to recite entirely or precisely on the part of non-Chinese monks (e.g. Dharmanandhī, Samghadeva, Samghabhuti). On the other hand, writing had been considered more reliable than oral output in premodern China. Though premodern historical records had distinguished Chinese translations based on “purely oral transmission” from those based on “oral transmission from the physically existing original,” many presumed “physically existing” source texts remained unidentified (Storch, 1993, pp. 4-5).

Regardless of the absence or presence of a physically existing source text, non-Chinese speakers were generally assisted by Chinese collaborators and helpers, who transcribed their oral transmission and edited or polished the written forms of translated versions. The conversion of oral transmission into written work was in line with the local tendency to prioritize writing over oral output. From the fifth century onwards, Buddhist translation was mainly based on transcribed copies and oral translation (Wang, 1984, p. 129).

Aside from transcripts obtained through rote memorization and oral transmission, the identifiable Buddhist manuscripts written in ancient foreign languages were either brought into China by non-Chinese monks and lay Buddhists who had come to propagate the Buddhist teachings or acquired by Chinese monks who had gone abroad to study Buddhism (Chen, 2007, p. 163). Zhu Shixing (CE 203-282) is the first Chinese monk who left China to acquire scriptures, whose efforts initiated an enthusiasm in seeking authoritative copies of Buddhist manuscripts. In the subsequent centuries, hundreds of Chinese monks went abroad of their own free will or were dispatched7 to study Buddhism. While only about 25% of them returned to China safely with transcripts of Buddhist texts (Ma et al., 2006, p. 67), the total number of the obtained transcripts was estimated at over 2300 titles (Wang, 1984, p. 35).

The enthusiasm in seeking authoritative manuscripts marked the dawn of a new era in propagation of Buddhism in China, which was characterized by respect for source texts and the demand for high-quality translations. However, the respect had not been strong enough to motivate a significant number of Chinese people to achieve a good command of the foreign languages in which the original Buddhist texts were written. Consequently, discussions concerning Chinese translations of Buddhist manuscripts predominate over comparative studies of source and target texts. Hence Chinese versions of Buddhist texts have received much more attention than their source texts.

It is notable that Chinese attitude to Buddhist manuscripts was indiscriminative--both Hinayana and Mahayana texts had been transcribed despite their conflicting messages (Wang, 1984, pp. 35-36). This fact contributed to the inclusive nature of the Chinese inventory of Buddhist texts. The “immensely broad range of” Buddhist texts “trickled into China” in disregard of “chronological or ideological sequence” conveyed “varying, or even contradictory, messages,” which often “possessed layers of cultural accretion added outside of India” (Zhiru, 2010, p. 95). All these manuscripts were indiscriminately incorporated into the Chinese inventory of Buddhist texts. This inclusiveness is a prerequisite for the emergence and popularity of Sinicized sects with their own agendas.

Admittedly, both orality and inclusiveness played a significant role in translating Buddhist manuscripts into Chinese. On the one hand, the dependence on orality was the most convenient solution to facilitate the collaboration between early Buddhist translators who were capable of communicating in spoken Chinese but were incapable of writing in Literary Chinese and their Chinese collaborators who knew little or nothing about their non-Chinese counterparts’ native languages. As the result, a culture of teamwork was developed and finally institutionalized. On the other hand, the inclusive attitude to translated scriptures carrying incompatible messages had created confusion in interpretation and contributed to “the standard hermeneutical practice” known as “classification of teachings”, which allowed local Buddhist schools to group and sequence translated manuscripts containing conflicting or incompatible messages according to their own “polemical agenda” (Todo & Shioiri, 1985, pp. 15-16; Zhiru, 2010, pp. 94-95).

Early translators’ diverse textual strategies

To optimize reception and attract the attention of local rulers and intellectuals, early Buddhist translators adopted a variety of textual strategies. Translation scholars (e.g. Chu, 2009; So, 2009) have noticed that monk-translators painstakingly borrowed Chinese concepts or terms to render Buddhist ones, but have not discussed the issue of geyi. This section will also discuss early monk-translators’ tendencies to conform to the prevailing ideology of the receiving culture, to use different styles for different audiences, and to cut out unnecessary segments or condense the source text to enhance readability.

The earliest identifiable translator is the prominent Parthian monk An Qing, more widely known as An Shigao (Loewe, 1986, p. 670), who had produced 34 translated Buddhist scriptures between the late 140s and the early 170s, most of which were affiliated with the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism (Ren, 1993a, pp. 142-144). An Shigao borrowed the Daoist term qi to explain the four great elements (Pali: cattāro mahābhūtāni) earth, water, fire and air in the Chinese version of Anban Shouyi Jing (Scripture on the ānāpānasmŗti) (Hong, 2002). He also explained the aim of practicing dhyāna by borrowing Daoist terms for the pursuit of immortality by bodily and spiritual cultivation (Ren, 1993a, p. 312). Having similar concerns, Lokakema, an influential monk-translator of Mahāyāna scriptures, used the Daoist term benwu (non-being) in his Daoheng Bore Jing (the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-Prajñāpāramitā Sutra) to translate tathata, one of the central concepts in Buddhism (He, 1998). When Zhi Qian (CE 222-252), one of the well-known scriptural translators, retranslated the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, he translated prajñā and pāramitā as da ming (great wisdom) and du wuji (being limitless), which were borrowed from Laozi, a central figure in Daoism (He, 1998).

These translation strategies were related to a tendency known as geyi (i.e. matching concepts), which refers to “rendering Buddhist teachings by borrowing the indigenous Chinese, mostly Daoist, concepts and vocabulary” (Cheng et al., 2009, p. 220). The sixth-century Gao Seng Zhuan (Biographies of Eminent Monks) attributed the term geyi to two Chinese monks, Zhu Faya and Kang Falang, who adopted this pedagogical or exegetical method to cater to well-educated gentry disciples (He, 1998). However, according to Chu Sanzang Ji Ji, the pedagogical or exegetical tradition can be traced back to the period from the late 190s to the early 230s (Sengyou, 1995, p. 234). Though scholars disagree on whether geyi can also be used to characterize the abovementioned translation strategies, they cannot deny that the tradition of geyi remained popular until the early years of the fifth century (He, 1998; Gu, 2009).

Besides terminological borrowing from Chinese, early translators had deliberately changed some segments of Buddhist texts that conflicted with prevailing Chinese ideologies. The dominant ideology of the Han Dynasty was Confucianism, which supported hierarchical differentiation (e.g. the wives’ subordination to their husbands, the servants’ subordination to their masters). When An Shigao translated the Śīgalovāda Sutra, he conformed to Confucian values by shifting from behavioral ethics based on equality between husbands and wives or equality between masters and servants to that based on a dominance-subordination hierarchy (Hong, 2002). Such practice may be considered as a manifestation of “self-censorship” (Merkle, 2005, p. 3) as a sensible self-preservation tactic.

Early translators also developed diverse styles for diverse audiences. For “an audience of Chinese literati” who felt a strong kinship with “a fine classical style”, the translators would avoid transliterations, use “elegant literary prose”, and domesticate proper names “to conform to Chinese standards” (Nattier, 2008, p. 18). For “an audience of immigrants of various nationalities” who preferred spoken Chinese and developed “a higher tolerance to foreign terms”, the translators would adopt a “vernacularizing” style and transliterate “complicated foreign words” (ibid.). The absence of “translations that combine vernacular speech with domesticated vocabulary may well be evidence that one audience was not yet being drawn to Buddhism” during the early period between the 140s and 280 CE--“the masses of uneducated, and monolingual, Chinese” (ibid.).

In some cases early Buddhist translators even produced abridged versions or summary translations for better reception (Zhang, 1981, pp. 9-10). Of course, the possibility that the non-Chinese translators made their choices under the advice of their Chinese assistants or collaborators cannot be ruled out altogether. Anyhow, these target-oriented strategies were effective in attracting potential local believers because they presented Buddhist ideas in a receiver-friendly way, catering to the needs of diverse audiences and following Chinese patterns of thought.

The issue of power

Hung (2005, p. 73) has misrepresented Buddhist translators in ancient China as “cultural translators” free from restrictions imposed by the government. This apolitical misrepresentation turns a blind eye to the fact that one of the dominant features ofBuddhist translation in China is the monk-translators’ alliances with secular power and their acceptance of “undifferentiated” (Lefevere, 1992, p. 17) patronage provided by kings and emperors since the late 370s (Zhang, 1981, p. 173). In contrast, Lefevere (1998) and Li (2009) have noticed the issue of power in Buddhist translation activities in China, but have failed to substantiate their claims.

During the process of expansion, Buddhist activists became increasingly involved in secular activities such as obtaining official positions, serving as imperial consultants, and organizing and leading rebellions (Ren, 1993b, pp. 138-142, pp. 177-181, pp. 264-287, pp. 571-574; Ren 1993c, p. 11, pp. 13-14, pp. 52-55). Buddhacinga (also known as Fotucheng, CE 232-348), a monk-scholar as well as a monk activist, is the first one that had brought Buddhism fully under the wings of the ruler of the state. Because of his efforts, the imperial court of Hou Zhao (CE 319-351) gave legal validity to Buddhist ordination of the Han Chinese. Having over 10,000 disciples, Buddhacinga was the mentor of many influential monks including Dao’an (CE 312/314-385), who was considered one of the most influential Chinese monks. Dao’an is the first monk-scholar who had raised questions about Chinese Buddhist apocrypha and the compiler of the first classified bibliography on translated scriptures--Zongli Zhong Jing Mulu (Comprehensive Catalogue of the Sūtras).

Dao’an was also the first officially recognized organizer of Buddhist translation projects. Later, several members of Dao’an’s team served as senior assistants to Kumārajīva (CE 344-413) from Kucha, one of the most renowned Buddhist translators in Chinese history. In Kumārajīva’s time, translation of Buddhist texts was organized and fully sponsored by the imperial government of Hou Qin (CE 384-417). Officially appointed as the coordinator of government-supported Buddhist translation projects, Kumārajīva produced 39 translated manuscripts (Ren, 1993b, pp. 332) with his teamand enjoyed high reputation among Buddhist followers. The first administrative office of Buddhism had been established as a state agency at that time, and two of Kumārajīva’s disciples were appointed as the chief and the deputy administrative officer.

In some circumstances, competition for power among monk-translators served as the motivation to suppress or dismiss different opinions. When Kumārajīva’s disciples felt that their mentor’s authority was challenged by Buddhabhadra, an accomplished monk-translator from India, they used their connections to dispel him (Wang, 1984, pp. 59-62). In the first half of the sixth century, there was open hostility between three renowned monk-translators active in northern China--Bodhiruci, Buddhasānta and Ratnamati. They refused to work under the same roof when they were asked by the Xianbei emperor to co-translate the same scripture. In the second half of the sixth century, Paramārtha (CE 499-569) and his translations were rejected by rulers of the Chen Dynasty in southern China because of slanders from an influential monk from a different sect (ibid., pp. 62-63).

In particular cases, involvements with powerful officials may place a monk-translator in unfavorable conditions and exert negative effects on his translation careers. Xuanzang, the most well-known Chinese monk-translator living in the seventh century, was an illustrative example.

Xuanzang was appointed the chief translator of government-sponsored translation projects during the reign of Emperor Taizong. When his team finished translating the Prajñāpāramitā H dayaSūtra, also known as the Heart Sūtra, in 649, Emperor Taizong composed a preface to the translation and praised Xuanzang as the “sangha leader” (Guo, 1994, p. 191). Besides his closeness with Emperor Taizong, Xuanzang also maintained a lasting friendship with two exceedingly powerful chancellors, Zhangsun Wuji and Chu Suiliang. When Emperor Gaozong came to the throne, the two chancellors and their supporters were exiled or demoted because they had conflicts with the new emperor. As a result, Xuanzang fell out of favour with Emperor Gaozong. When Lü Cai, a versatile scholar and a palace physician, raised doubts in 655 against the commentaries written by three disciples of Xuanzang on a newly translated Buddhist scripture, a public debate was held in the presence of some court officials sent by Emperor Gaozong. Though Xuanzang was the winner of the debate, the emperor appointed six court officials to supervise the implementation of quality control measures in Xuanzang’s translation team in 656. As the leader of a translation team, Xuanzang was in the position to decide whether to make retranslations to replace established texts or to produce new translations for untranslated scriptures. It is estimated that, of all the translated scriptures produced by Xuanzang’s team, retranslations accounted for about 40% (Liu, 2009, p. 26). Xuanzang also forbade his disciples or team members to study or discuss previous scriptural translations produced by other translators or teams that were considered inaccurate or flawed by him, which displeased some monks and officials (ibid., p. 24). Emperor Gaozong issued an order in 657 to remind Xuanzang that “priority should be given to scriptures that have not been translated” (ibid., p. 26). One year later, the emperor transferred Xuanzang to the Ximing Temple of the western capital, where he had no access to the scriptures brought back from India and no former disciples to assistant him in translating. Due to the strenuous political environment, Xuanzang asked to be transferred in 659 to the Yuhua Temple, where he spent his last years in isolation and finished translating the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra with little assistance.

Teamwork and its institutionalization

Lefevere (1998) and Hung and Pollard (1998, 2009) have provided oversimplified and inexact descriptions of teamwork among translators and their assistants. Munday (2012) has mentioned the topical issue but has not gone into details. In view of this, this section will contextualize the collaboration between monk-translators and their helpers and its institutionalization.

The organization of early translation teams was characterized by the combination of translation and religious instruction, which naturally leads to the regular presence of a large crowd of disciples and monk-scholars. Though the normal size of these translation teams may range from a hundred to several thousand people, only a small number of monks were actually engaged in translation-related tasks (Wang, 1984, p. 135). The majority of monks came to raise questions or receive instruction. The leaders of the translation teams were expected to enlighten their team members while providing oral translation for a particular Buddhist text. At the meantime, their interpretations or explanations of the text would be documented for convenience of reference.

Members of the scriptural translation teams in the Sui and Tang Dynasties were mainly eminent monks summoned by the imperial government from different regions of the nation. The size of these teams ranged from 3 to 52 people (ibid., p. 148). It is a new trend because a translation team in Kumārajīva’s time tended to have a large crowd of low-ranking monks who desired to learn Buddhist teachings, and monk translators were expected to explain the content of the scriptures under translation. A streamlined team comprised of qualified members not only saved time and energy but also guaranteed the quality of translation.

The prevalence of translation teams requires effective quality control procedures. Song Gaoseng Zhuan (Song Biographies of Eminent Monks), written by Zanning, an eminent Buddhist scholar-official living in the tenth century, has provided a detailed description of possible tasksperformed by the members of a translation team in the Tang Dynasty (Zanning, 1987, pp. 56-57):

  1. yizhu, the chief translator and the coordinator of the translation project. If this person is monolingual or insufficiently bilingual, his task will be restricted to oral presentation of the scriptural content in a foreign language, which will be orally translated into Chinese by duyu
  2. duyu, the bilingual or polyglot interpreter serving as the assistant of a chief translator who is monolingual or insufficiently bilingual
  3. bishou, who is expected to take dictation from the chief translator or the interpreter and enhance readability of the target text
  4. zheng fanben, the text inspector responsible for discovering discrepancies between the source text and the chief translators’ oral presentation
  5. zheng fanyi, the discussant responsible for clarification of the original meaning of the source text
  6. zheng chanyi, the text inspector responsible for discovering misrepresentations of Buddhist theories
  7. runwen, the stylist who is expected to embellish the target text. In Tang Dynasty, the majority of stylists were high-ranking central government officials
  8. zhengyi, the text inspector responsible for the correctness of the target text
  9. fanbai, monks responsible for Buddhist chanting before translating
  10. jiaokan, the editor and proofreader
  11. jianhu dashi, a supervisory position served by monks or a nominal position with merely symbolic powers filled by court officials
  12. zhengzi, the philologist responsible for providing explanations and phonetic transcriptionsfor difficult words. This is a situation-dependent position

Naturally, translations for Buddhist scriptures produced in the Tang Dynasty were considered more reliable and readable than those produced in previous historical periods.

It must be noted that translation teams were highly mobile (Wang, 1984, p. 147) and relied on the imperial government for full financial support and personnel recruitment. Naturally, two traditions had formed. First, the imperial government appointed officials to manage financial resources, handle the recruitment process, and supervise the literary quality of the translated manuscripts. Second, the team leaders maintained close contact with monarchs, aristocrats, and high-ranking officials. Close ties with the upper class may, to a remarkable degree, increase the visibility of the team leaders and contribute to the dissemination and reception of their teams’ translations.

Conflict, Sinicization, censorship, and canonization

In Chinese history, imperial governments provided support for the spread of Buddhism in most occasions and exerted control when acute conflicts of interest arose. Along with the expansion of Buddhism came the autonomy of the sangha, the community of Buddhist monks and nuns. Remaining out of government control and enjoying exemptions from taxation and military service, “Buddhist monasteries” had “served as hostels for travelers, havens of refuge, and sources of charity” (Fairbank & Goldman, 2006, p. 76). The high-ranking sangha members “became great landowners and assumed quasi-official positions in the administration” (ibid.). Conflicts of interest between the state and the sangha culminated in suppressions of Buddhism ordered by four emperors respectively in 446, 574, 842, and 955, which were merely temporary setbacks, soon overcome as Buddhism steadily gained popularity.

The Sui and Tang Dynasties saw the emergence or increased poularity of many Sinicized sects. From the Tang Dynasty onwards, the prevalence of Chan Buddhism, a completely Sinicized sect, significantly facilitated the localization of Buddhism characterized by “a strong tendency toward syncretism” in Chinese religions, which “was reflected in the advocacy of harmony among the various Buddhist schools and also in the promotion of ‘the Unity of the Three Teachings’ (in other words, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism)” (Cheng et al., 2009, p. 222).

The Sinicization of Buddhism was also manifested in the government’s efforts to “bureaucraticize Buddhism through administrative control, bestowal of titles, sale of ordination certificates, compilation of a Buddhist canon, and a system of clerical examinations to select talent” (Fairbank & Goldman, 2006, p. 79).

Since Xuanzang’s time, Tang emperors tended to appoint more high-ranking officials and Confucian scholars as target-text revisers or quality control supervisors for Buddhist translation teams (Zhang, 1999). This practice guaranteed the readability and reception of translated Buddhist scriptures, which, to an extent, accelerated the process of assimilation. When the second emperor of the Song Dynasty (CE 960-1279) established a translation academy in 982 to resume the translation of Buddhist texts that temporarily halted in the early 900s because of political instability and followed the operating standards set by translation teams of the Tang Dynasty, he appointed monk-scholars and scholar-officials to assist in or supervise the production of translations. For the first time in Chinese history, the scholar-officials served as ideological gatekeepers and reported their findings to the emperor directly. During the Song Dynasty, about 50% of translated Buddhist scriptures belonged to Tantrism (Todo & Shioiri, 1985, p. 24), which preached ideas incompatible with the dominant Confucian ideology. Based on supervision reports from the abovementioned officials, two emperors issued edicts ordering that some of the translations should be burned or prohibited (Mu & Zhang, 2000, p. 606). This royal interference as a manifestation of “preventive” censorship (Merkle, 2005, p. 3) aiming to prevent the circulation and dissemination of ideologically problematic scriptures is unique in the history of Buddhist translation in China. The fact that the Song monk-translators would not make ideological adaptations suggests that, because of the national acceptance of Buddhismacross three centuries, they had less worries than their predecessors. Accompanying the nationwide acceptance of Buddhism, the canonization of Buddhist texts had been prioritized for centuries.

“In the course of the canonization of the Buddhist scriptures, bibliographies and collections of canonical scriptures were compiled” (Schmidt-Glintzer & Mair, 2001, p. 164). Before the Song Dynasty, handwritten transcriptions of compiled versions of the Buddhist canon were “distributed by various state and monastic authorities” (ibid., p. 162). Woodblock printing became popular in the first half of the tenth century and was used to print Buddhist scriptures in the Song Dynasty. From 971 to 983, the first comprehensive collection of Buddhist texts, known as the Kaibao Edition, was printed according to the emperor’s order. Besides compiling bibliographies of Buddhist texts and biographies of renowned monks, this represents a landmark in the canonization of Buddhist texts, which resulted in “the Chinese Buddhist canon in the form (more or less) as we know it today” (ibid.). Other well-known collections were printed by monasteries in the twelfth or thirteenth century. The Liao Empire in northern China also contributed to the dissemination of translated Buddhist scriptures by republishing the Kaibao Edition between 1032 and 1062 (Mu & Zhang, 2000, p. 594). 

These efforts foreshadowed the termination of government-sponsored translation projects. In 1041, Weijing, a monk-official serving as the Deputy Chief at the Office for Ceremonies for Foreign Missions, submitted a memorial to Emperor Renzong contending that the translation academy was a financial burden to the state--the Song Empire had been fighting the Liao Empire for 25 years and was engaged in a war with the Tangut Empire. However, it was in 1071 that the translation academy was actually dissolved (ibid., p. 606). Seven years later, Huixun, a member of the government-sponsored translation team, suggested that the translation team should be disbanded due to the absence of a qualified translator as the team leader. After careful consideration, Emperor Shenzong abolished the official positions established for the benefit of Buddhist translation projects in 1082. That decision indicates that government-sponsored Buddhist translation projects were ultimately terminated (ibid.; Todo & Shioiri 1985, p. 26).


The translation of Buddhist texts in premodern China relies mainly on the collaboration between many non-Chinese team leaders and their Chinese assistants. The team leaders provide oral transmission regardless of the absence or presence of a physically existing source text and their collaborators or helpers transcribe, edit and polish the output. Translation of Buddhist texts was organized and fully sponsored by the imperial government since the late 370s. The sophisticated, institutionalized form of team collaboration in Buddhist translation appeared in the early 600s. Monk-translators as team leaders tended to make use of support from royal rulers or alliances with powerful officials to secure their position of authority, promote the translations produced by their teams, and suppress different voices from their counterparts. However, heavy secular involvements may cause unexpected difficulties when a shift of power occurs.

Buddhist texts from various cultural sources, in different languages, and containing contradictory messages had been indiscriminately translated into Chinese. As a result, local Buddhist schools reclassified and reinterpreted translated scriptures according to their own agendas. Early Buddhist translators showed a notable tendency to conform to the ideological inclinations and taste and needs of potential audiences. They borrowed Chinese concepts or terms to win wider acceptance, exerted self-censorship to avoid ideological conflicts, developed different styles for different audiences, and produced abridged versions or summary translations for better reception. Historical evidence of royal intervention as the manifestation of preventive censorship appeared in the second half of the tenth century when some of the translated scriptures preaching Tantrism were banned. Major efforts to canonize Buddhist texts include compiling bibliographies and collections of scriptures. The first woodblock-printed collection of translated scriptures of nationwide circulation emerged in the late 900s. The canonization of Buddhist texts and the popularity of Sinicized sects indicated a high level of acceptance, which ultimately quenched the enthusiasm for translation. Eventually, Buddhism in China had been completely localized to acquire a new identity--Chinese Buddhism.

Characteristics of the translation and reception of Buddhist texts in premodern China summarized in this article may be of interest to translation scholars engaged in studies of a global history of religious translation or translation traditions in diverse national and regional contexts.


  1. Li has also misattributed her source of information The Real Tripitaka: and Other Pieces (Waley, 1952) to “Monkey [Xiyouji]” (2009, p. 38).
  2. First, Lefevere (1998) and Li (2009) have alternately used the Wade-Giles system and pinyin to Romanize Chinese names. This inconsistency will lead to confusion. Second, some personal names and a book title have been improperly Romanized in (Lefevere, 1998), (Hung, 2005) and (Hung & Pollard, 1998, 2009). For instance, Lefevere (1998, p. 21) has improperly Romanizedthe Chinese transcription of Lokakema’s name as “Zhi Loujiachan,” and has misattributed his country of origin to Scythia; Hung and Pollard have incorrectly presented An Shigao’s name as “Parthamasiris” (2009, p. 370). In addition, Chu Sanzang Ji Ji《出三藏记集》(Collection of Records on the TranslatedTripiaka) has been improperly presented as “Chu sanzang ji出三藏记and inadequately translated into English as “Records of the transmission of the Tripitaka” (Hung, 2005, p. 60). Third, Hung’ description of the “Western Region” (2005, pp. 45-46) differs from the authoritative map of the “Western Regions and the Silk Roads” provided in (Yü, 1986, p. 406). Fourth, Hung and Pollard (1998, 2009) have failed to mention the historically significant wen zhi zhi zheng文质之争 (controversies over the refined style and the plain style) in their discussion of translation methods adopted by monk-translators.
  3. “The Han is the majority ethnicity in China, named after the Han dynasty, which united the core of what is now China starting in about 221 BC” (Eagan & Weiner, 2011, p. 31).
  4. Some of them followed the Chinese naming convention after they settled down in China. The most popular practice is to adopt a one-character surname to designate the ethnic origin rather than the “actual place of birth” (Nattier, 2008, p. 27)--the surname An stands for Parthia;Kang, for Sogdiana; Zhi, for Yuezhi; Zhu, for India (Todo & Shioiri, 1985, p. 32). It must also be noted that “at some time prior to the mid-third century CE it became common practice for a disciple to adopt the surname--which, in the case of a foreign monk, would be an ethnikon--Dharmaraka, a monk of Yuezhi origin, took the surname Zhu from his Indian teacher.
  5. Ceylon, Kapisa, Khotan, Kucha, Parthia, andSogdiana are respectively known as Shi Zi Guo, Jibin, Yutian, Qiuci, Anxi, and Kangju in Chinese.
  6. The title has been improperly Romanized in pinyin as Chusangzang Jiji and inadequately translated into English as A Collection of Records on the Emanation of the Chinese Tripitaka in (Cheung, 2006).
  7. Over 200 Chinese monks went abroad between 260 and 751; 157 went in the 960s


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