Historical Travellers From India To China

Geographic Obstacles of Travel Between India and China

India and China, two of the world’s oldest civilizations, have shared a complex history of mutual diplomatic ties, trade networks and cultural influence since the dawn of the common era. Travelling between India and China during this time was, however, often fraught with difficulty. In particular, the geographical obstacles imposed on travellers crossing the landscapes of Central and South Asia had a significant impact on the degree of contact India and China shared with each other.

One of the most significant of these obstacles was the daunting Himalayan mountain range. Peaks in the Himalayas reach heights of more than eight thousand metres, and the range as a whole stretches for nearly two thousand kilometres across Asia. In ancient times, this obstacle presented a huge barrier to any kind of travel, and greatly hindered the progress of merchants and diplomats from India and China.

The challenge of the Himalayas was compounded by the presence of hostile nomads. In spite of its vastness, Central and South Asia also featured small kingdoms and empires, many of which proved hostile to travellers from India or China, or imposed tariffs and fees to be paid by traders. In a region which lacked the efficient roads and postal systems of later centuries, this further hindered the extent to which contact between India and China could be established.

In addition to these physical challenges, India and China faced a certain amount of cultural distrust. Both countries were deeply familiar with their own religions and political structures and were therefore highly reluctant to integrate ideologies or customs which seemed alien to their respective societies. This was one of several forces which discouraged mutually beneficial relationships between India and China in the ancient world, and meant that rarely if ever did two countries share more than semi-formal diplomatic ties.

In spite of these formidable obstacles, some intrepid carriers of knowledge and ideas managed to make the journey from India to China. But these were largely accomplished individuals, well familiar with the language and customs of the countries they travelled through. Nevertheless, the limited contact between the two civilizations lent an air of mystery and foreboding to the task of travelling from India to China, and consequently the historical adventurers who managed to do this were held in high regard both in India and China.

Trade Networks Between India and China

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that India and China first began trading as early as the first century BCE. The majority of these early exchanges were conducted along a trade route known as the Silk Road, which linked the Mediterranean with East Asia. Goods like cloth, spices and metals were exchanged along this route, and even goods like exotic scents and medicines travelled along the Silk Road.

The presence of this trade route opened up conversation between India and China, and allowed the exchange of ideas as well as goods. Buddhist scriptures, for instance, travelled back and forth between India and China, and the spread of this faith in the Far East owes much to the presence of this cultural exchange. Similarly, Indian priests and scholars brought Hindu scriptures and texts to China, translated into Chinese and integrated into numerous philosophies of the time.

These exchanges were heavily informal in nature, and traders, monks and philosophers relied heavily on their knowledge of different languages, customs and cultures of the various countries on the route in order to negotiate their way from India to China. First-hand accounts of these traders’ journeys suggest that the Silk Road, despite its vastness, was a well-networked thoroughfare linking India and China with the rest of the world.

Archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of a thriving but isolated trade taking place within India and China. Archaeological sites like the ancient city of Loulan in western China, for instance, yielded a number of valuable artefacts like glass beads and pottery indicating a well-developed and intricate system of exchange within the two kingdoms.

The presence of these trade networks between ancient India and China ultimately allowed for a level of cultural and religious exchange in spite of the geographical and political difficulties encountered by travellers. Historians believe that the resulting interaction among the citizens of both countries was highly influential in the formation of the two civilizations, and likely served to promote some degree of mutual understanding.

Influence of Indian Culture in China

The trade networks and cultural exchanges which took place between India and China for centuries had a profound effect on both societies. In Chinese society, for instance, the influx of Indian icons introduced via the trade route proved to be immensely popular, and Indo-Chinese art and architecture thrived in the centuries before the common era.

The philosophical systems of both civilizations, so disparate in nature at the outset, were incrementally integrated, and numerous Indian schools of thought found their way into Chinese intellectual discourse in the form of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures and doctrines. These imports had a huge influence on the development of Chinese philosophy in the subsequent centuries, and left a lasting impact on the culture, religion and philosophy which emerged in China and still survives today.

The civilization of India also provided Chinese intellectuals with a model for their own society, and served as a source of inspiration and learning for the poets and writers of northern and western China. Chinese grammarians, scholarship and mystics indicated a heavy Indian influence in their writings, and as late as the twentieth century some Chinese thinkers still looked to Indian systems of thought for inspiration.

Further evidence of Indian influence can also be found in the cuisine of China, where the spices and ingredients used in Indian dishes were adopted and incorporated into local tradition. Unlike many of the other trading countries along the route from India to China, the Chinese eagerly incorporated elements of Indian cuisine into their own, often with impressive results.

The Impact of Buddhism

One of the most significant imports to China originating from India was Buddhism, a religion which continues to dominate the spiritual life of both countries today. In many ways Buddhism represented something of a bridge between India and China, its simple message of peace, mercy and understanding appealed to both civilisations, and the faith found a special place in the hearts of everyday people in China.

A key component of the spread of Buddhism to China was the presence of the so-called ‘monastic embassies’ in Northern India from the second century BCE. These embassies served as a bridge for Buddhist religious leaders coming from India and attempting to spread the faith in China. Hsuan Tsang, the famous Buddhist monk, even went so far as to cross the Himalayas at one point, and his journey became an integral part of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.

At the same time, Chinese Buddhism began to adopt many aspects of Indian thought, and as time progressed Indian literature was translated into Chinese, and Buddhist scriptures used to advance the faith in both countries. The emergence of distinct sects of Mahayana Buddhism in both countries complemented the immense success of the religion and it remains the most popular faith in East Asia today.

Intersection of Indian and Chinese Thought

The effect of the exchanges between India and China went far deeper than cultural borrowing and artistic inspiration. With the spread of Buddhist philosophy, certain aspects of Indian thought began to significantly influence Chinese intellectual discourse in the centuries before the common era.

The interaction between India and China allowed philosophers in China to gain exposure to the scholarly debate and rigorous reasoning which was taking place in India at the time. This had a profound influence on Chinese thought: it allowed the spread of Indian schools of thought and imports of Buddhist literature and also inspired the development of numerous Chinese philosophies, including Daoism and Confucianism.

At the same time, Indian thinkers also began to pick up Chinese philosophical traditions, and the presence of Daoist and Confucian texts in India began to further the development of Indian philosophy. To be sure, the exchange between Indian and Chinese thought had a profound impact on both civilisations, and many historians today believe it is ultimately responsible for the sophisticated and idiosyncratic philosophies of both countries which dominate the region today.

Recurring Contact Between India and China

In spite of the daunting geographical obstacles imposed on travellers making the journey from India to China, contact between the two cultures was able to continue for centuries. Remarkably, even in the present day, traces of Indian influence continue to be discovered in Chinese culture, and despite a rocky relationship between the two countries in more recent times, it remains apparent that India and China still share a rich cultural heritage.

Over the centuries, numerous individuals made the journey from India to China, ready to explore the secrets of the Silk Road. From traders and diplomats, to merchants and philosophers, these historical adventurers continue to offer a remarkable insight into the complex story of India and China, and demonstrate the impact of renewed contact between the two great cultures down the centuries.

Peaceful Relations for Cultural Exchange

In spite of the tensions which occasionally flare up between India and China in the present day, the importance of these two nations to one another in terms of their historical contributions and cultural debts is often overlooked. As recent reconciliations have demonstrated, peaceful relations between such great nations can be established, and history tells us that such relations often lead to vibrant and influential exchanges of ideas and beliefs.

What tends to be unacknowledged, however, is the simple fact that individuals from India and China have a long shared history of travelling to and from one another, and of exchanging cultures and philosophies. Thus, during difficult times, it is also important to remember the remarkable adventurers who set out from both countries in search of knowledge, and to honour their journey by embracing the truths of peaceful communication.

Influence of Indian Philosophy in China

The encroachment of Indian influences in Chinese intellectual life is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of India and China, and one which continues to affect both countries today. In particular, the philosophies and texts of Buddhism and Hinduism had a huge impact on the development of Chinese thought, and evidence of Indian influence can be found in numerous works of Chinese philosophy.

For instance, Indian thought influenced Chinese scholars’ conception of language, and Indian grammatical discourse showed Chinese grammarians the importance of analysing the structural components of language. Indian-influenced theories surrounding consciousness, meditation and Buddhist ethics also played an integral role in the formation of early Chinese philosophy, as can be seen through the works of ancient writers like Confucius and Lao Zi.

Similarly, the study of anatomy in China was heavily influenced by Indian scholars. The famous medical treatise Zhang Zhong Jing, composed between 200 and 100 BCE, is a testament to the degree of influence Indian physicians and texts enjoyed amongst the Chinese medical communities, and their work in this field was highly advanced and invaluable.

Advancement of Technology with the Exchange of Knowledge

The exchange of knowledge between India and China went well beyond mere religion and philosophy, however. Tradesmen from both countries exchanged a huge variety of skills between them, leading to the advancement of technologies which proved essential to prosperity. In particular, ancient inventors in both countries discovered innovative techniques for fabric production, metal extraction and even paper-making.

The growing acquaintance between India and China also allowed the two countries to work together to develop their own foundations of industry and commerce. This team approach allowed both countries to develop industrial

Bernice Sorrells

Bernice A. Sorrells is a freelance journalist and travel writer from the United States. She has written extensively about China, covering topics such as culture, history, politics, and economics. Bernice has traveled extensively throughout China, visiting many of its provinces and cities.

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