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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 1-28

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In Search of Longevity and Good Karma: Chinese Diplomatic Missions to Middle India in the Seventh Century *

Tansen Sen
Baruch College

China's diplomatic relations with ancient Indian kingdoms has attracted limited attention. Notable anthologies on China's relations with her neighbors make little or no mention of premodern Sino-Indian political contacts. 1 Indian kingdoms are also missing from John King Fairbank's framework of the "Aims and Means in China's Foreign Relations," proposed in his classic work on the Chinese world order. 2 A close analysis, however, reveals that diplomatic channels between China and India were in fact opened and maintained by diverse groups of people with manifold motives. A strategic military alliance between China and India was contemplated by one of the earliest Chinese envoys to Central Asia. Commercial specialists from [End Page 1] various parts of Asia frequently took part in Sino-Indian tributary relations. And Buddhist monks from China visited the courts of important Indian kings and helped establish and sustain diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Although generally neglected, a few studies that have focused on the premodern Sino-Indian diplomacy deal primarily with Indian tribute missions to the Chinese court. 3 The role of merchants and the commercial implications of such missions have been emphasized in a number of works. 4 A focus on tribute missions, however, not only fails to explain Chinese interests in pursuing diplomatic ties with India, it also conceals the important contributions of individuals in shaping the relations between the two countries. 5 By examining a series of Tang (618-907) missions to Middle India in the seventh century, this essay intends to demonstrate the multifaceted, complex, and unique nature of China's diplomatic contacts with India. At the same time, the study highlights the significant contribution of individuals to premodern Sino-Indian relations.

The four Tang embassies to Middle India, dispatched between 641 and 658, are especially noteworthy because at no other time, at least until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), were Chinese embassies sent to one Indian kingdom so frequently and within such a short period. This study focuses on the motives for sending Tang diplomats to India; it not only exposes Emperor Taizong's (r. 626-649) personal interest in Indian longevity doctors late in his life, but also provides a new perspective on Xuanzang's (600?-664) pilgrimage to South Asia. The examination further illustrates the ways in which Buddhism bridged the geographical gaps, compensated for any lack of political negotiations, and nurtured a dialogue between Chinese and Indian courts around spiritual matters. In order to argue that individual interests played a vital role in the ties between the Tang court and Middle India, [End Page 2] I shall explain the personal and out-worldly objectives of emperors, Buddhist monks, and laymen. These "human elements" of Sino-Indian intercourse, including the transmission of Buddhism, have often been overlooked and, according to Erik Zürcher, deserve due attention. 6

The first part of this study investigates the eminent Chinese monk Xuanzang's role in, and motive for, opening diplomatic ties between the Tang court and the kingdom of Kanauj (also referred to as Kanyakubja) in Middle India. The next section explores Emperor Taizong's interest in longevity drugs and doctors as a possible reason for sustaining official intercourse between China and India. A third section considers the contributions of Wang Xuance (fl. seventh century), the distinguished Chinese ambassador to India, to Sino-Indian diplomatic and Buddhist contacts. The article concludes with an examination of the impact of the Tang missions on contemporary Buddhist institutions in China and India, political alliances, commercial exchanges, and later Sino-Indian relations.

Xuanzang, Harsha, and Taizong

More than seventy embassies from India visited the Chinese court in the first millennium. Mostly commercial in nature, these embassies represented various Indian kingdoms. 7 The Chinese designated the Indian embassies as tribute missions and often reciprocated by conferring titles and return goods. 8 The fact...