24 September 2004

Buddhism and Sino-Indic Trade, 600-1400

Wow. The following is one of the most glowingly positive academic reviews I've ever read. It's by Colin Mackerras of Australia's Griffith University reviewing Tansen Sen's Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600–1400. Asian Interactions and Comparisons. (Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies and University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003).
This is a splendid book. It has an overarching theme buttressed by immense detail. It has a central argument, one that defies and challenges a conventional view. Its scholarly appurtenances are superb, including notes, documentation, and index. It is well written and interesting. Indeed, I found it quite difficult to put down, despite its length, weight, and academic content.

Professor Tansen Sen tells us that his primary objective is to rectify an "outdated model of pre-modern Sino-Indian relations" (p. 12). In essence, this model says that, after reaching an apogee in the ninth century, Chinese Buddhism declined and with it trade and commerce between China and India. The famous persecution of Buddhism under Tang Emperor Wuzong in the 840s dealt it a blow from which it never fully recovered. Sen believes, on the contrary, that Buddhism continued to thrive in China under the Song dynasty and at the same time in eastern India. In addition, exchanges between the two countries proliferated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and trade exploded during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He suggests that Chinese Buddhism became more indigenous in the tenth and eleventh centuries, meaning that it depended less on Indian Buddhism. However, this means only that Indian influence on Chinese Buddhism declined. It does not mean that Chinese Buddhism itself declined or that exchanges and trade between China and the Indian regions diminished.

I admit to having been raised in the school of thought that Sen believes is outdated. I was taught that Buddhism never fully recovered from Wuzong's persecution. Sen has a bit to say about this episode (for instance, on p. 74), but given its importance in the conventional view, I would have liked more attention given to it in the formulation of the new interpretation of history.

Yet I must concede that Sen has done a truly masterly job in presenting his alternative view of how Buddhism developed in China and the function it played in Sino-Indian relations. I commend his mastery over the sweep of history, the way he interrelates not only Sino-Indian relations but also the role of other neighboring states like Nanzhao and Khotan, and the way he balances out domestic conditions in both China and India.

Sen's scholarship is broad in its scope and sweeping in its coverage. One of the strengths of his approach is the way it links religion and mercantilism. In the seventh and eighth centuries, merchants "assisted the expanding number of Buddhist monks travelling across the overland and maritime routes, met the growing demand for ritual items, and actively financed monastic institutions and proselytising activities" (p. 210). Although mercantilism thus had its place from the start, Sen believes that trade and markets replaced Buddhism as the crucial factor in Sino-Indian relations in the later period. He also takes the big-picture approach in the way he places the Sino-Indian trading relationship in the context of the broader trading patterns that emerged over the whole of the great Eurasian continent in the five centuries that began roughly in 1000 and ended in 1500. The combination of the big picture and minute detail is one of the factors that makes for good scholarship and contributes to making this an excellent book....

Overall, this is a remarkable book. It is a real tour de force of religious and diplomatic history and has put forward a new and convincing historical interpretation. It is the most thorough book on the subject of Sino-Indian relations and Buddhism in medieval China and India yet written and will certainly become the standard book on the subject. I suspect it will retain that status for quite a long time. I strongly recommend this book to all those interested in the history of Buddhism, the history of China and India, and of the interrelationship among these topics.
This is historical revisionism at its best. The prevailing view in Korea, too, has been that the Chosôn Dynasty (1392-1910) persecuted Buddhism and favored Confucianism. But perhaps Buddhism had just been fully assimilated, while Neo-Confucianism was the latest fashionable import.

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