Ku­mara­jiva AD 334–413

BBC History Magazine - - Great Lives Of China -

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

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