THE DIVINE WORDSMITH
Kumarajiva AD 334–413
Millions of Chinese speak the words of Kumarajiva every day. Far fewer have any idea of who he was. Yet he was perhaps China’s most influential linguist: translating some of the most important Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. This was an enormous undertaking, as it involved dealing with 2 million Chinese characters.
Kumarajiva was born in Kucha, a central Asian oasis town now on the far western borders of China. His mother was a devout Buddhist and brought her son up as part of a travelling religious community. When he reached manhood, she decided to leave for India; he would never see her again.
Kumarajiva settled down into a life of contemplation as a Buddhist priest, but a series of invasions and occupations from the east saw him kidnapped not once but twice, finally ending up at the great Chinese city of Chang’an (modern Xi’an). There his linguistic skills were observed at court with admiration, and he was given the task of rendering some of the key Buddhist teachings, such as the Diamond Sutra, into a form that Chinese worshippers could understand and use. It wasn’t always an easy task: Sanskrit and Chinese are very different linguistically, and at one point Kumarajiva complained that the translation work was like having to eat rice after someone had already chewed it. But Kumarajiva’s work has endured. In today’s China, immense numbers of Buddhists use his texts. And even though his name has faded, Kumarajiva’s achievement is woven into the fabric of contemporary China.
Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford. His books include China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (Penguin, 2014)
Kumarajiva’s gargantuan work ethic enabled him to translate key Buddhist texts – such as the Diamond Sutra (above) – from Sanskrit into Chinese
A statue of Kumarajiva in his hometown of Kucha. More than 1,600 years after his death, “immense numbers of Buddhists continue to read his texts”, writes Rana Mitter