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Why are India and China so different socio-culturally?

September 29, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Why are India and China so different socio-culturally? by Shawnxuande Li

Answer by Shawnxuande Li:

Thanks Adam for asking. A great question but big as well. It made me ponder even though I had thought about it before. I’ll try to give an answer based on my understanding of the geo-history and its changes through times. So I’ll start with the following two maps. The top map shows the distribution of monotheistic religion (purple) and polytheistic religion (yellow), and the second map is of Asian Population Density (not including Central and Western Asia).

Speaking systematic monotheistic and polytheistic religions we know that they are all originated from two areas. However, there is Indian Sikhism of monotheism too. So the top map shows that only Indian polytheistic religion had spread to south Asia, Mongolia, China and Korea, and further to Japan. With this spread of religion, there is one thing we need keep in mind: The Chinese culture didn’t have developed a systematic religion. Why? This is the first question that we need to find an answer to in order to interpret how Indian religion had impacted on Chinese culture. So I’ll come back to it later.

Now, let’s move to the second map of Asian Population Density. What stands out in this map is the vast area in northwestern China that separates India from eastern China. This geo-cultural phenomenon raises the second question: Why and How it might have impacted on the influence of Indian culture onto the northeastern Asia. I’ll address the second question first with three maps combined below, which shows the change of Chinese territory with its population in past 2000 years.

Notice the line from southwestern to northeastern China in all three maps. It is called the Hu-Line on which I had wrote an answer. In short this area was both geographically and meteorologically unsuitable for large scale farming and shepherding, and it’s also very difficult to travel thru. Now, if we go back to the second map (Asian Population Density) and look at the sub-continent of India, we can see that India is surrounded by Himalayan at its north that extends northeastward to form the Tibet Plateau and the rest of the vast area of thinly populated area, and oceans at both southeast and southwest. Only in its northwest there are mountains with few passes (red arrows) to travel thru between the sub-continent and outside world. This area, not the Himalayan, has been the entrance of invasions by Muslims and Westerner. The two big neighbored ancient civilizations had been separated from not only having wars to conquer each other but having relatively limited cultural exchanges comparing how much exchange between Europe and Mediterranean areas.

Therefore, unlike the spread of monotheism in the world, Buddhism was only peacefully brought into China first by Indian Buddhists traveling thru central Asia, so-called “silk route” today. The Buddhist monks were, like Christian priests, the scholars because knowledge mostly built up surrounding religion in ancient ages. Now, we need go to the the first question, Why didn’t Chinese have created their own systematic religion? —-in order to understand the impact of Buddhism on Chinese culture. My hypothesis is that, because ancient Chinese didn’t have a powerful writing system like Indians did, our ancestors probably had never been able to record abstract thoughts and hence unable to continuously quest for truth leading to religion. I’ll present two facts to backup my theory.

1 Chinese had only limited words at the time when Confucius was teaching, after Chinese characters had been actually developed for 1000 years already. Confucius’ Analects, which was recorded by his students, was composed of about total 16000 words, with about 1335 different words (one character for one word). That put Chinese in an awfully disadvantaged position comparing to Indians who had Sanskrit, a phonetic writing system, to record abstract thoughts, such as Buddhist Sutra, volumes by volumes.

2 Logically it was extremely difficult to express abstract ideas thru creating ideographic characters in early time. For example, the Six Classics edited by Confucius and his own Analects do not have the word Truth (and consequently, no truthful and true,真). Even the word to-be (是) was not there either in those classics.

It is not unreasonable to postulate that ancient Chinese had only limited ideographic characters to record concret ideas and thoughts mostly, and passed them down to next generations. With time Chinese thinking was shaped up by records from previous generations and became less and less interested in metaphysical ideas. Therefore, even ancient Chinese had had a writing system for thousand years at War State time, this ideographic system was not advanced enough to support a quest for development of metaphysical thoughts. None of other peoples without writing systems had ever developed systematic religion, which only came from civilizations using phonetic writing system.

With this understanding, let’s take a look at what influence Indian civilization had imposed on Chinese culture and beyond. Most Chinese take Indian influence too lightly and think that Chinese only accepted Indian Buddhism. The truth is that along with Buddhism coming to China Indian culture also deeply influenced Chinese in painting and sculpture, phonology, logic (Hetuvidyā), and literature. The idea of Karma—-you reap what you sow—-became a core ideal in Chinese classics of literature, and the way that Indian wrote Sutra opened up a new world of story writing to Chinese.

Most importantly are the thoughts in words that enriched Chinese thoughts immensely. Hu Shih wrote in his History of Chinese Philosophy (1918) that from 400 to 1000 every Chinese scholar was studying Indian philosophy and the Chinese philosophy was totally dominated by Indian thoughts. I want to point out only one fact that it is the Indian monks who studied Chinese language and did the translation of Sutra into Chinese first. They created the word to-be, by introducing shi (是), in writing because it was impossible to understand Sutra accurately without it. (See Hu Chirui (胡敕瑞 ), 2009, Peking University, for more references.)

In the North Buddhism was brought to Korea and then to Japan from Korea, and to Tibet and Mongolia; In the South Buddhism was spread to southeastern Asia. But Buddhism itself was replaced by Hindu in India when Buddhism was evolved into different denominations in other countries. In China India Buddhism evolved to Chinese Buddhism, which further developed into sub-denominations. Of which Zen should be mentioned to understand uniqueness of how Chinese culture interacted with religious faith. The creator of Chinese Zen, Huineng, was illiterate. But he created this idea of 顿悟, probably close to “sudden enlightenment”, that allows a believer to become Buddha based on his another idea that Buddha is in everyone, all depending on whether one is enlightened to be a Buddha. The uniqueness of Huineng’s idea is that this enlightenment has nothing to do with longtime study and practice, it can happen any moment. His idea was hugely revolutionary and made Buddhism a faith easy to be accepted that helped to spread Buddhism all over China. But some scholars, such as Hu Shih and Nakamur was very critical against Zen because they think it only helped further develop Chinese naive dialectic rather than learned the formal logic Hetuvidyā, which has been more comprehensively preserved in Tibetan Buddhism in contrast.

To conclude I think that Indian culture is very influential in Asia although Chinese culture also influenced eastern and southeastern Asia. In the exchanges between Indian and Chinese cultures, how much influence of Chinese culture had been imposed in Indian culture? That is a question I don’t know the answer but love to hear it from someone.

Why are India and China so different socio-culturally?

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