[INDOLOGY] Origin of Mah?c?na

Dan Lusthaus yogacara at gmail.com
Sun Mar 13 20:51:52 UTC 2016

The conversation did take a speculative turn with the tantric geographic identifications. It is unambiguous however that earlier the Chinese and Indians were identifying China as Mahācīna and Cīna. In certain contexts, the Chinese transcribed the sounds rather than use the character for Qin.

The following from Huili's Biography of Xuanzang, written contemporaneously with Xuanzang (mid-7th c reflects early Tang usage of how Indians supposedly referred to China. 

《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》卷2:「其夜眾僧皆夢神[8]人告曰:「此客僧從摩訶脂那[9]國來,欲學[10]經印度,觀禮聖迹,」(CBETA, T50, no. 2053, p. 231, a13-15)

摩訶脂那]國 = Mahā-cīna country.

Some editions omit 國 (guo / country), leaving just 摩訶脂那 = Mahā-cīna.

Li Rongxi translates this: "During that night all the monks of the monastery had a dream in which a divine being told them, 'This guest monk coming from Mahācīna wishes to study the scriptures in India, to visit and worship the holy sites...'"

Later in the same text, an Indian monk is asked by fellow monks to send a letter to Xuanzang who is now back in China. The letter begins:

《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》卷7:「:「微妙吉祥世尊金剛座所摩訶菩提寺諸多聞眾所共圍繞上座慧天,致書摩訶支那國於無量經律論妙盡精微木叉阿遮利耶」(CBETA, T50, no. 2053, p. 261, b8-11)

Li Rongxi's tr: 
The abbot Prajñādeva, of Mahābodhi Monastery at the Diamond Seat of the mysterious and auspicious World-Honored One, surrounded by a multitude of learned monks, begs to send this letter to the Mokṣācārya of the country of Mahācīna, who is most learned in the subtle teachings of many scriptures, disciplinary texts, and treatises, extending to him unlimited respect and wishing that he may live in good health with least ailment and trouble.

Prajñādeva is rendered in translated Chinese (Hui tian 慧天); Mahābodhi is transcribed (摩訶菩提); Mokṣācārya is also transcribed (木叉阿遮利耶). And China is referred to as 摩訶支那國 Mahācīna country.

It is nteresting to note that the first Mahācīna transcription uses 脂 for the "chi" sound, while the second uses 支 (in modern mandarin, both are pronounced zhi-first tone): 摩訶脂那 and 摩訶支那. Both 脂那 and 支那 are recognized as old transcriptions of China.

CBETA yields 30 hits for the second transcription 摩訶支那, all from Tang, Song, and Ming, showing that this name for China was occasionally used long after the Later Qin.

Cīna 支那 has 534 hits, but one would have to weed through them to see which refer to China or something Chinese, and which are used for other transcriptions.

The first transcription 摩訶脂那, however, gets no hits aside from the one in the Biography above. 脂那 Cīna by itself gets 52 hits. E.g. 《佛本行集經》卷11〈11 習學技藝品〉:「脂那國書(大隋)。」(CBETA, T03, no. 190, p. 703, c20), Abhiniṣkramaṇa sūtra, tr. by Jñānagupta between 587-597 CE, during the Sui Dynasty. Amongst a list of countries, it includes "the country of Cīna" and in parentheses, "Great Sui".)

The term Cīna was not just a geographical identity, but an ethnic one as well. The Biography of Xuanzang refers to Chinese as an ethnic lineage thus:

《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳》卷5:「又其王聰慧,建國相承多歷年所,自云本是脂那提婆瞿怛羅([26]唐言漢日天種),」(CBETA, T50, no. 2053, p. 250, b25-27)

Li tr:
The king was wise and intelligent and had been on the Throne for many years. He acknowledged himself to be a descendent of the Cīna-deva-gotra (the Divine Stock of Han).

That is transcribed and then translated: 脂那提婆瞿怛羅 (唐言漢日天種)
脂那 = Cīna
提婆 = deva
瞿怛羅 = gotra

唐言 = "in Tang [=Chinese] language"
漢日天種 = 漢 Han [=Chinese] + 日天 = sun god + 種 = seed.

This is interesting because we have three Chinese references to "China": Cīna, Tang, and Han. The Chinese recognize that foreigners call them China, they identify with their current polity, the Tang dynasty, and ethnically as Han. Like Arjuna in the Gita they can have many names.

So it is unambiguous that the term China or maha-Cina was being used as self-reference still in the Sui and Tang, and additional citations from Song, Ming, etc. sources could be easily added. It also confirms that Indians (and others) were using the name China or Maha-China already in the 6th and 7th centuries.

Incidentally, I have found at least one usage of "In Qin language it would be" in a text from the late 3rd c., which would predate the Latter QIn dynasty by nearly a century:

Chronicle of Aśoka, tr. by An Faqin 安法欽, a Parthian, ca. 281-306
《阿育王傳》卷7:「此是兒志乃至初生。即名須達秦言善意)」(CBETA, T50, no. 2042, p. 127, a16)

It says: "...Sudatta, in Qin language is good intention."

Dan Lusthaus

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Andrea Acri 
  To: indology at list.indology.info 
  Sent: Sunday, March 13, 2016 9:16 AM
  Subject: Re: [INDOLOGY] Origin of Mah?c?na

  The issue as to what were the geographical entities denoted by the terms cīna and mahācīna (at different times, mainly in Buddhist Tantric texts) has generated quite a lot of discussion; however, I was not aware of an Eastern Indian/Burmese identification. Here suffice it to say that Mahācīna appears to refer to China proper in the Aṣṭasahāsrika-Prajñāpāramitā Nepalese manuscript of AD 1015, since it locates Mañjughoṣa there (mahācīne mañjughoṣe, which refers to Mañjuśrī at Mt Wutai). 

  According to Geoff Wade, Zina was the term used by the inhabitants of Yelang (a polity in the western Guizhou region) to refer to themselves, and is possibly the source of Sanskrit cīna (see ‘The Polity of Yelang and the origin of the name ‘‘China’’’, Sino Platonic Papers 188, May 2009, available online).



  On 12 March 2016 at 7:13:10 am, Loriliai Biernacki (loriliai.biernacki at colorado.edu) wrote:

    I located the Dvivedi quote, in case anyone is interested: --“ityatra varṇitau cīnasnānanamaskārau islāmadharmānuyāyināṃ vaju-namaj-karmaṇī anuharataḥ”- this comes from the intro to the Śaktisaṁgama Tantra, vol.4, p.42.

    Maybe yes, my own sense is that in this context C?na points less to a known region and more simply functions as a place-holder for the category of the foreign; in part I think this because the practices in the C?n?c?ratantra, which are primarily sexual in nature, appear to be rooted in practices popular in Bengal and Western Assam, unlike the practices associated with Eastern Assam, Sadiya for instance, and Burma, known for human sacrifice.
    Of course this doesn’t discount your point that C?na might have simply referred to a vague geographic region that these writers supposed to be located where contemporary Burma, Nagaland etc are. I suspect that the Bengali and Western Assamese writers use the term because it already signified a functional geographic “other”, in this case somewhat denigrated, (maybe similar to the medieval and early modern European uses of the “orient”?), and maybe also not so different from one of V.V. Dvivedi’s 20th century introductions where he compares the c?n?c?ra practice to Muslim practices.
    All best,

    From: INDOLOGY <indology-bounces at list.indology.info> on behalf of Dominik Wujastyk <wujastyk at gmail.com>
    Date: Thursday, March 10, 2016 at 9:17 PM
    To: Indology <indology at list.indology.info>
    Subject: Re: [INDOLOGY] Origin of Mah?c?na

    I'm an outsider in this discussion, so pardon any naive remarks.  I was under the impression, though, from something I read somewhere (that statement wouldn't get past Wikipedia) that C?na in Tantrika texts, especially the Mah?c?n?c?ratantra, referred to what we today call the Assam-Burma region.  Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Northern Burma that sort of area.




    Professor Dominik Wujastyk*
    Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Society and Polity

    Department of History and Classics

    University of Alberta, Canada

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