Developing of Chinese Language from Buddhism

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Developing of Chinese Language from Buddhism


Chinese language has been known for its pictographic script and tonal patterns. However the tenacity of a language is reflected in its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Chinese language has survived the onslaught of various languages, cultures and religions yet has managed to retain the flavour of its ‘special characteristics’ (中国特色). One of the major reasons touted for this is that despite the rigidity of the language and limitations of its script, Chinese language has been extremely versatile in its vocabulary incorporating various words from various languages and eventually ‘Sinifying’ them to suit the conditions of the language. Buddhism has had a deep influence on China not only because of its philosophy but also because of its ability to gel with the Chinese psyche. This ability is reflected in the vocabulary of Chinese language which has adopted not only Buddhist thoughts and concepts but also its various words to suit the Chinese understanding of the world at large. While Chinese have Sinified Buddhism to the extent that a new branch called Chinese Buddhism has emerged, the Chinese language could not remain untouched by Buddhist concepts and ideas and many of the words used today were actually derived from Buddhism.

This paper shall dig into the age old contact between Chinese and Sanskrit language and derive interrelationships between the two and the development of Chinese language in the ensuing process.

Keywords: Interrelationship, Chinese, language, Buddhism, Sanskrit


Drawing relationship between Chinese language and Buddhism is not merely a refurbishment of the past but an attempt of how the cultures of the two countries impacted each other. In ancient times the intellectuals of both nations who were pioneer in their fields did not resist themselves in humbling down to the neighbour for the sheer want and expansion of knowledge. This explains the travels of Xuan Zang, Fa hien from China and Kumarajiava and Ashavaghosha from India (to illustrate a few travellers) who whole heartedly accepted the knowledge from beyond the borders and do not hesitate to incorporate it in their culture.

The impact of Buddhism in the development of Chinese language was felt all through, some through direct translation some through transliteration and some through concoction of meaning and sound producing a completely different word. Shi Xiangdong also points out that contribution of Sanskrit language to Chinese has been immense in terms of loanwords, new linguistic structures, development of Chinese grammar and Chinese phonology and contribution of Chinese tones, its initials’ and finals. Chinese scholars have found the areas of the impact of Buddhism all pervading on Chinese language and literature. Wang Li too supports it citing that Chinese have become so comfortable with these words that they do not even know that the ancient Chinese used a different word for the same meaning (Xing, undated). Buddhism developed along the lines of ancient silk route through trade and business between ancient India and China (Smitha, 2015). The monasteries and temples worked beyond serving as places of ‘prayer and salvation’ and also became warehouses and banks for Indian traders when they came to China. This simple act of economic convenience for trade gradually blossomed into a tree of Buddhist understanding and concepts which eventually bore fruits of influence into the psyche, way of living and the language of the Chinese people (Ibid). The first Chinese attracted towards Buddhism were the local people living around the monasteries and temples. They were generally the poorest of the lot, abandoned by their king, exploited by their nobles and marginalised by their clan (Ibid). These were those three groups, for whom Confucianism specifically asked for ‘filial piety’. Buddhism on the other hand spoke of pity and salvation of all citizens. Nobody was the chosen successor of divine providence as there was no God in Buddhism. Soon Buddhist ideas of drinking tea, wearing cotton, building complex architecture and expansion of literature became a fashion statement of the then China (Ibid). Buddhist teachings were translated and for those concepts which did not have a corresponding Chinese term, a word was either borrowed from Taoists texts or a new word created to explain the phenomenon (Ibid). That is why Chinese language has a subtle influence of Sanskrit grammar. In fact Zhu Qingzhi (2003) points out that since the Chinese did not learn Buddhism in its native language but through translated versions, many a concepts and words were introduced which were foreign to original Buddhism. He calls the Chinese language of that time as Buddhist Hybrid Chinese which was very different to both original Buddhism and then prevailing native Chinese. However, it soon became a part of native Chinese because of widespread acceptance by the common people.

Contribution of Buddhism to Chinese language

Buddhism gave many loan words to Chinese language which enhanced its vocabulary like fo 佛 (for Buddhist) mou ni 牟尼 (for muni) shijia 释迦 (for shakya). These words had meaning directly related to the essence of Buddhism and added to both the vocabulary and concept of Chinese language. It is said that Buddhism spread in China through its translated versions which continued for a long period of time. Zhu Qingzhi (2003) writes that this happened from eastern Han dynasty to northern Song dynasty during which time almost 2,411 scriptures of Buddhist teachings were translated. This was a long period and involved many translators, and clearly both Chinese language and Buddhist teachings had gone through various cycles of evolutions and interpretations which marked the development of Chinese language as very different from the original one. First of all as Jerry Norman points out that translated versions of Buddhist teachings are marked with vernacular flavour (Zhu, 2003). Clearly the scholars who came, stayed and translated wanted themselves to be understood and they interspersed their works with a lot of local colloquial language depending on the area and the era they were in. Also since a lot of commoners were attracted to Buddhism and classical Chinese was a court language generally spoken and written by the elite, the translations reflected the influence of the local dialect than the standard language. Hence a parallel can be drawn that while modern Chinese through the attempts of Hu Shi reflects a strong bearing of the western world (Ibid). Classical Chinese actually has a heavy tone of influence of Indian culture and language. Since that was also evolving depending on the dynasty from which the scholar came and the language he spoke. Classical Chinese also has a strong reflection of not just local Chinese colloquial language but also Indian language.

Zhu Qingzhi (2003) explains a unique kind of translation in Buddhist translations called loan translations. Here the word translated retains the inner structure of the original language. For example the ‘anu’ in Sanskrit as a corresponding term as ‘sui’ in Chinese like anugantavya is equivalent to suixing. It is said that these loan translations offered a lot of changes in semantic and grammatical structure of Chinese language. For example the gatha (verse) style of rhythmic singing of scriptures was retained in Chinese by the formation of four word compounds or couplets (Ibid). A few examples of this are given in the table below to serve as an illustration:

Table 1 Illustrative list of four word compounds derived from Buddhist Sutras

Chinese Character

English meaning from Buddhist Sutra


Heavy and light industry


Western and Chinese medicines


Male and female Buddhist worshippers


Water, fire and air element


Body, language and mind action


Yong, middle and old age


Bhikshu and bhikshuni

Source: Zhu (2003:16)

Apart from these four word compounds there were many new words which got added on as Buddhism not only introduced new vocabulary but also new concepts to Chinese literature. It is found that though some words had traces of religious inclinations like pusa 菩萨 (boddhisatva), some other words neutralised their religious tones and led to emergence of new words:

Table 2 Illustrative list of words derived from Buddhist Sutras

Chinese Character

Actual word from Buddhist Sutra

English meaning












Be worried






Golden lotus

Source (Zhu, 2003:20)

Another contribution of Buddhist translations to Chinese was the formation of coordinate compound words where a word with simple meaning combined with another word to form a word which bore the essence of meaning of both the words (Ibid). Buddhist vocabulary was not only used in Buddhist scriptures but also in non- Buddhist Chinese literature starting from Jin dynasty. Words like 幻化 huanhua, (माया or magic) or 梦幻menghuan (which meant स्वप्न or dream) were used even by those poets and scholars of that time who did not practise or believe in Buddhism. The process of de-syllabization which began in Chinese came from the four word गाथा style of Buddhism.

Buddhist scriptures led to the development of Chinese vocabulary, introduction of the technique of desyllabisation, advancement of phonology and elevating the status of colloquial vernacular Chinese (Guang, undated). It has not only given new words to Chinese language but has also given new meanings to existing Chinese words: like fa which means both law and dharm धर्म or xing 性which means both nature and gender. Also a lot of words developed through literal transliteration of Buddhist words into Chinese. In fact a lot of Buddhist concepts who had no words for themselves in Chinese created new words through transliteration and translation primarily by Kumarjiva. The table below gives the list of Chinese idioms which emerged from Buddhist stories

Table 3 Illustrative list of Chinese Idioms derived from Buddhist Sutras

Chinese character

English meaning


To borrow things from another person to entertain one’s own guests


Great compassion and loving kindness


The purification of six sense organs


The only way


All the four elements of solidity, fluidity, temperature and mobility


Illusions like the moon in water or flower in the mirror


Mind is like a monkey


To save a person is better than building a seven storey stupa


An evil person can become a good person if he realises his bad deeds

Source: Guang Xing

Liang (1994) points out at the stupendous increase in polysyllabic and disyllabic words of Chinese language and attributes it to the rise in translation of Buddhist scriptures. She notices that most Buddhist translations done by Gunasara or Kumarjiva had more polysyllabic words than words from non Buddhist literature. Guang points out a few taken from Buddhist studies like pu ti xin 菩提心 (the mind of enlightenment), zheng si wei 正思维 (right thought), po luo mi duo魄罗米多 (parmita/perfection), fei xiang fei fei xiang 非想非非想 (neither thought nor non-thought) etc.

Another important contribution has been the expansion of Chinese language from a logogram language to a phonogram language. The Chinese were used to xiang xing wen zi 象形文字 which meant that symbols had meanings attached to them, but the development of Buddhism lent phonetic sound to a character through the concept of qieyun. In fact it is said that the concept of four tones in Chinese language has been invariably linked to Buddhist translations. Guang Xing cites Chen Yinke (2001) who was the first Chinese scholar who attributed the development of Chinese tones to recitation of Buddhist sutras. Chen pronounces that the four tones of Chinese were created by imitating the three tones of Buddhist recitations which were actually derived from the recitation of Vedic mantras. While Chen’s arguments have been questioned by many other Chinese scholars who do not attribute development of Chinese tones to Vedic chantings, they do, by and large acknowledge that the Chinese tones system was influenced by Buddhist sutras. Professor Jao Tsung (1993) opines that the four tones in Chinese were actually created from the fourteen phonetic sounds of the Mahaparinirvan Sutra. Guang Xing argues that whether or not the four tonal patterns developed from Ved but Sanskrit was introduced to China through Buddhism and in a way Chinese tonal patterns developed because of Sanskrit language. The Buddhist translations were done by monks who were not only of Indian origin but also of Chinese origin. Noted among them is Xuanyin who compiled Yiqiejing Yinyi and explained various Chinese characters in Buddhist texts (456). Another noted scholar was Huilin who studied under Amoghvajra and was a learned scholar in both Indian and Confucian texts and was also the most well read author during the Qing dynasty (Ibid). Similarly Fayuan’s Fanyi Mingyi Ji which had more than 2000 transliterations from Sanskrit during Song dynasty or Yijing’s Fanyu Qianzi Wen which was a bilingual dictionary of that time promoted the linguistic studies between Chinese and Sanskrit (Ibid). The table given below shows the presence of vernacular language in a lot of Buddhist translated texts

Table 4 Illustrative list of Chinese texts derived from Buddhist Sutras

Chinese Text

English Meaning


Transformation texts


Sutra lecture texts


Prologue for the sutra lecture texts


Stories showing karmic consequences


Stories showing the effects of karma


Record of sayings


Record of lamps

Source: Zhu, Qingzhi (2003:237)

Philosophy in China and Buddhism

It is seen that Chinese language has been heavily influenced by Buddhist translations, words, idioms, syntaxes and grammar. Ma Tianxiang (2013:89) agrees in his writings that Buddhism had a greater impact on Chinese literature because both had a similar objective of writing for ‘conveyance of truth’. Chinese literature for him has actively absorbed the philosophies and ideals of Buddhism in all its manifestations like sentences, poetry, novels, dramas, painting etc. Buddhism got imbibed within the native ‘characteristics’ of people as reflected in their various works like Xie Lingyun, Tao Yuanming, Liu Xie, Zhaoming etc.

After Tang and Sui dynasties, Buddhism had grown so strong that it began to be viewed as a religion/school of thought parallel to Confucianism and Taoism. Most poets of the Tang dynasty like Bai Juyi, Wang Wei, Su Shi, Huang Tingjian belonged to the period between Confucianism and Buddhism and hence their poem reflects an essence of both. Many poets of that time like Han Yu who were strongly opposed to the practice of Buddhism could not but help admire the Buddhist thought which invariably found a reflection in their works (Ma, 2013:91). Another example is the case of Lin Qingxuan whose poetry is a strong reflection of Buddhist thought (Ji, 2005). A Taiwanese writer, in his works like ‘chen zhong mu gu, zhu qing sha bai’ reflect a connection to be drawn between Buddhism and humanism and have been well received by many (Ji, 2005). He in his poem elevates the concept of Buddhism as a route to salvate from difficulties ‘欲为诸佛龙家, 先做众生牛马”. In the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Buddhism pervaded into almost all manifestations of culture like poetry, painting, sculpture (Ji, 2005). It is said that the concept of water painting emerged into Chinese culture because of Buddhist inspiration. Some renowned writers have shown deep influence of Buddhism in their poetry like Xie Lingyun, Liu Xie, Wang Wei, Meng Haoran, Su Shi, Yan Yu, Cao Xueqin, etc. The writer also points out that most of the modern writers of China like Lu Xun and Hu Shi were aficionados of Buddhism over Western thought (Ji, 2005). Similarly authors like Su Manshu and Xu Dishan evoked religious fervour in a communist nation (Ji, 2005).

Similarly Taiwan’s traditional mindset has been nourished by Buddhist philosophy after the wave of modernization of Taiwanese literature (read influence of Western thought) in the 1960’s, the 1970’s saw a revival of local literature where the writers intended to discover their cultural route and found solace in Buddhism (Ibid). Example: Lin Qingxuan, Su Manshu and Xu Dishan. Lin Qingxuan’s representative work in prose writing is a ten volume book on ‘Bodhi series’ <pu ti xi lie菩提系列> where the implied meaning of Bodhi is consciousness (Ibid). This book is an attempt to disseminate Buddhist knowledge, Buddhist thought and Buddhist philosophy. In other words it attempts to convey to the world ‘godly wisdom’ (shen si zhi hui 神思智慧), and dispel people’s sorrow (Ji, 2005).

Going beyond the philosophical aspect Wang Jihong (2006:91) argues that it was the impact of Buddhist Chinese which lasted for 1000 years that initiated a ‘language contact’ of Chinese with not only Sanskrit but also other languages. He quotes Lu Cheng’s ‘new Chinese version of Tripitaka dictionary’ where it is written that although the exact number of translations of Buddhist text is not known yet it is anticipated that 5,702 volumes and 46 million words of Buddhist literature have come into Chinese language (Ibid). Buddhist Chinese refers to the language of the ancient Chinese Buddhist literature, including all the Chinese Buddhist scriptures, the Buddhist writings of the Middle Ages, and the literary works aimed at propagating Buddhist teachings and the Chinese translation of Buddhist scriptures. Wang (2006:92) observes that while Chinese translation of Buddhist scriptures has been given enough weightage, the utility of Buddhist Chinese as a language product has been overlooked. It is no hidden fact that Buddhism has enhanced vocabulary in Chinese language for example 和尚、尼姑、塔、过去、现在、未来、刹那、世界Monk, nun, tower, past, present, future, moment, world etc. But Buddhism also gave the concept of combining number with objects for example si hai 四海 etc (Ibid: 93). Sanskrit is a typical inflected language, which uses inflexions rather than words to express grammatical relations; its affixes and lexical are very close, so that affixes become part of the word; inflections tend to represent one or more of the meaning of category. The Chinese is a typical isolated language (isolating language), with the function words and word order rather than the inflection of the tail to express the grammatical relationship. The translations that happened in the Middle Ages were done by Buddhists whose original working language was Sanskrit and this had a profound impact on their Chinese translations Similarly Buddhism is often considered as being instrumental in bringing about renaissance in Chinese literature by giving concepts like Boddhisatva, karma theory etc. Moreover it appreciated the aesthetic value of Chinese literature by lending various stories and fables to it especially during the Tang dynasty. Another aspect is that it led to the evolution of bianwen, some of the most famous being 《维摩诘经变文>>《大目乾连冥间救母变文》《降魔变文》etc (Ibid)


The evidence of the influence of Buddhism over Chinese language is too strong to deny. Moreover it can also be noticed that Buddhism not only impacted the vocabulary but also the tonal patterns and grammar of Chinese language. Yet this is not to stay that Buddhism managed to stay away from the influence of Chinese language. In fact Buddhism in order to be accepted by the local population had to undergo radical changes and Sinified itself to a great extent. Perhaps this is why Buddhism evolved a completely different language referred to as the Buddhist Hybrid Chinese which accommodated a lot of vernacular words and patterns to explain its contents. Vice versa it also lent a lot of words and concepts and enriched the legacy of Chinese language. To sum up, one can say that while Buddhism bore a great impact on the psyche of the Chinese people, it without a doubt did a great service to the Chinese language also.


  • Chen, Yinke and Sisheng Sanwen 2001:Jingming Guan Congshu Gao Chubian Beijing Sanlian Shudian 367-381
  • Guang, Xing undated: “Buddhist Impact on Chinese Language” 21 July, 2017
  • Jao, Tsung-I 1993: Yindu Boerxianni zi Weituo Sansheng Lunle: Sisheng Wailai Shuo Pingyi Shanghai Giju Chubanshe
  • Ji, Mingjun 2005:欲为诸佛龙家先做众生牛马,论林清玄及其神思散文的世俗性 世界华文文学论坛 2005, (4):25-29
  • Liang, Xiaohong 1994: The Structure of Buddhist Vocabulary and the Development of Chinese Vocabulary 1994, Beijing Language and Culture University Press
  • Ma, Tianxiang 2013:文以载道声气相求- 局赞的文学佛教馆 哈尔滨工业大学学报( 社会科学版) 15(4):89-93
  • Smitha, Frank 2015: 25 August 2017
  • Wang, Jihong 2006: 语言解除与佛教汉语研究安阳工学院学报03(21):91-94
  • Zhu, Qingzhi 2003:The Impact of Buddhism on the Development of Chinese Vocabulary (I)” Universal Gate Buddhist Journal 15(5):1-41