References to China in Sanskrit lit

Patrick Olivelle jpo at UTS.CC.UTEXAS.EDU
Sat Nov 2 14:39:58 UTC 2002


I have had to deal with this in connection to the date of Manu. I
append some comments of mine in my intro to Manu.

The reference to the Chinese with the work c“na is problematic. The
term is not used by Pata§jali or the DharmasÂtras. The word was
probably derived from a central Asian language and is related to the
Qin (Chin) dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.), which, although short lived, was
the first to unify China. The term itself, however, may have been
older, because the Qin was a state in Northwest China prior to that
time with strong trade connection with Central Asia. The term
ŽChina¤, like ŽIndia¤ itself, is not a term of self-identification by
the Chinese. The term came back to China probably from India via
Buddhist monks and texts.  When a people known as c“na came to be
known in India is difficult to estimate. The terms absence in the
earlier literature, however, makes it likely that it could not have
been know before the 1st century B.C.E. It was during this time or a
little earlier under the Han dynasty that Chinese trade with the west
began to flourish.

We do have, however, the mention of —aka in the compound —akayavana
by Pata§jali (on Pýžini 2.4.10). So, the word yavana must have been
in circulation by the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E. Interestingly,
we have the progression from yavana in Pýžini, to yavana and —aka in
Pata§jali, to yavana, —aka, and c“na in the MDh and the Mahýbhýrata.

I doubt whether the term ciina could have come to India until the
expansion of foreign trade under the Han dynasty. An upper limit of
1st cent BCE appears to me reasonable, unless there is strong
evidence to the contrary.


>A colleague of mine in Chinese studies was wondering how old
>references to China are in Sanskrit sources.  As far as I can tell,
>there are references to ciina in Manu, Mahabharata, Ramayana,
>Milindapanha etc.  My question is what would be a reasonable date
>for these references.  For example, if the Mahabharata covers a span
>from 400 B.C. to 400 A.D., where would we reasonably locate the
>references to ciina?  The same question about Manu and Milinda.
>Evidently there is a debate about the names of China in ancient
>times among historians of China, and the dates of the earliest
>references in Sanskrit may have a bearing on some arguments.  Any
>suggestions are welcome.
>Madhav Deshpande

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