Chinese Religion and Philosophy

It is always an interesting idea for me how religion becomes “localised”. Here is an article about one Chi-Yu Chu from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in both Chinese and English, about how translation contributed to distinctive Buddhist practice in China as compared to South and Southeast Asia (of course this too is a generalisation, as “Chinese-style” Buddhism made inroads into Southeast Asia among the non-Han populace as well, not only in Vietnam but also in Cambodia for a period). Here is a pertinent section:

Because there were no Chinese equivalents for many of the Buddhist ideas, translators began expressing Buddhist beliefs in native Daoist concepts which everyone understood.
“A reason why Chinese Buddhism is different from Indian Buddhism today can be traced back to this root cause in the first translations,” said Dr Chu.
The creation of terms sometimes had interesting results. For example, Parthamasiris from Persia, the earliest recorded translator of Buddhism attempted to render the “sound and the sense” of anapana, a breathing exercise practised to enter a serene contemplative state of the mind.
Said Dr Chu: “He started with the transliteration, anban, but that was not enough because in Chinese it doesn’t mean anything. So he added an explanation shouyi, a Daoist concept.
“Although shouyi too refers to a breathing exercise, it also means ‘guarding the mind’ or purifying the brain.
“But in the Buddhist culture, anapana means guarding the mind against thought. In other words, not thinking anything. “So the basic concepts are totally different,” said Dr Chu. Early translators also had a basic discrepancy in their translation strategy, he added.

I would be even more interested to learn about the process of localisation for “Chinese Islam” and “Chinese Christianity” (although I’m aware there is far less of a distinctive local character to the latter than the former in modern times, due to the greater cultural continuity of “Chinese Islam” as a concept), as well as other religious groups, such as the famous Kaifeng Jews (who appear to have historically been Qara’ites based upon their patrilineal passage of the faith, so it seems strange that Western Talmudic Jews are teaching them “proper” Judaism, seems a bit cultural imperialist, but the same thing is happening to the Hui now too).

UPDATE (many extra thanks to 俊呈): More links on “Chinese Islam” and “Chinese Christianity”. With regard to Chinese Islam he adds:


(“China’s Islam* has many sects, the oldest is ‘gedimu’ (qadiym, ‘old’ in Arabic). There’s also the purely Han school of thought ‘Western Temple’. There’s also the very new ‘Ihwani'”)

I would also like to thank 俊呈 for linking me to the Chinese Text Project (Chinese and English), which, in the site’s own words is:

a web-based e-text system designed to present ancient Chinese texts, particularly those relating to Chinese philosophy, in a well-structured and properly cross-referenced manner, making the most of the electronic medium to aid in the study and understanding of these texts. You may wish to read more about the project, view the pre-Qin and Han or post-Han tables of contents, or consult the instructions, FAQ, or list of tools.

Obviously the English section includes translation below the Classical Chinese text, so if you want to start localising various Chinese “家”s into your life the same way the Chinese once localised Buddhism into theirs, that’s a great place to start!

Or if you want to read the original Classical Chinese, there is a book “for sale” (by which I mean, “for you steal off the internet”, I know you don’t have any money, and anyway it’s from Harvard, and do they really need your money? I ask you) by the name of “A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese” by Paul Rouzer, which presents Classical Chinese with character pronunciation guides for people who are studying modern spoken Japanese, Korean, Mandarin AND Cantonese.

So don’t say that I never did anything for you, you ungrateful kids.

*It is also common to refer to Islam as “回教” (“Hui” belief, which you’ll note in the link once had pan-Abrahamic associations in China) and “清真教” (“Halal” belief, as “清真”, “pure truth”, is used to refer to Halal food. Mosques are also known as “清真寺”). 俊呈 used 伊斯蘭 (“Yisilan”, a transliteration of “إسلام”)