Fragments of the Tocharian

How did Buddha get from India to China? And what does a 97-year-old translator in Beijing have to do with it?

Published January 29, 2008 8:16PM (EST)

Between 1902 and 1914 the German Ethnological Institute sent repeated expeditions into the great Taklamakan desert of Central Asia, in search of ancient manuscripts that had survived destruction due to the arid climate of the Tarim Basin.

One expedition brought back fragments of a manuscript written in a hitherto unknown language but employing a familiar North Indian script. Later dubbed Tocharian A, the language was deciphered by two linguists at Germany's Gottingen University, Emil Siel and Wilhem Siegling. The parchment turned out to be part of the Maitreyasamiti-Nataka, a Sanskrit Buddhist work in the Mahayana canon that foretells the coming of the Buddha.

In the mid-thirties a budding Chinese linguist, Ji Xianlin, <a href="arrived in Gottingen to study Sanskrit with Siel. Before receiving his Ph.D. in 1941, he also mastered Tocharian and a handful of other obscure languages. After the conclusion of World War II, he returned to China and began a long career as one of China's top specialists in ancient Indian languages and culture. In the late '90s, he published his own analysis and translation of newly discovered fragments of a Tocharian-language Maitreyasamiti-Nataka discovered in 1974 in the city of Yanqi in China's Xinjiang province.

Only a handful of people in the world can read Tocharian; mastering the language is not a path to notoriety. But Ji, the author of numerous books and monographs, has other claims to fame. Perhaps most amazingly, he secretly translated the entire Indian epic, "The Ramayana," from the original Sanskrit into Chinese, while experiencing the travails that afflicted nearly all Chinese intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.

Earlier this week, the Indian government bestowed one of its greatest honors, the Padma Bushan award, on the 97-year-old Ji, in honor of his contributions to cross-cultural understanding. In the realpolitik of Chinese-Indian diplomacy, the move was immediately interpreted as as indicating a positive direction in the relationship between the two countries.

Symbolically speaking, the theory has some merit. Ji has long been a believer in the transformative virtue of translation. When he received a lifetime achievement award in China in 2006 for his contributions to the field of translation, he observed that "The reason our Chinese culture has been able to remain consistent and rich throughout its 5,000 years of history is closely linked to translation. Translations from other cultures have helped infuse new blood into our culture."

How the World Works applauds such sentiments. And although, to be honest, I had no idea that the Tocharian language even existed 24 hours ago, after becoming curious about it when reading up on Ji, I now see the mysterious Tocharians as prototypical agents of globalization.

Why mysterious? Because hard evidence on who the Tocharians were or where they came from is scarce. Ethnically speaking, they are believed to be a Caucasian race that flourished for thousands of years in Central Asia before being swallowed up almost without a trace by their Turkic neighbors, sometime around the end of the first millennium (Recently discovered well-preserved corpses of European-looking bodies have even been cited by present-day Uighur Turk separatists as proof that China has no claim to Xinjiang.)

Tocharian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, but is distinguished by having traveled further East than any other Indo-European subgroup. Intriguingly, it shares some similarities with the most far-western Indo-European languages, such as Celtic. For early 20th century linguists, incorporating the new Tocharian data required a complete rethinking of theories of Indo-European linguistic migration.

With a civilization clustered around the oasis entrepots that marked the Silk Road connecting West to East, the Tocharians are thought to have played a major role in spreading Buddhism from India to China. That alone is an earthshaking event. Much earlier, theorized one archaeologist, the Tocharians might have introduced the wheeled chariot into China. The Mandarin words for lion and honey are thought by some linguists to be loan words from Tocharian (The word "Mandarin," incidentally, is Sanskrit in origin.)

Much more than that, we really don't know, although we can hope that somewhere in the desert caches of as-yet undiscovered manuscripts hold more clues to how culture and language spread across the globe in ancient times. The more we know about such interflows, the closer the ties that bind us all together. Or, as Ji Xianlin put it:

The river of Chinese civilization has kept alternating between rising and falling, but it has never dried up, because there was always fresh water flowing into it. It has over history been joined by fresh water many times, the two largest inflows coming from India and the West, both of which owed their success to translation. It is translation that has preserved the perpetual youth of Chinese civilization. Translation is hugely useful!"

UPDATE: An essay by Yo-yo Ma in Thursday's International Herald Tribune, "From the Berbers to Bach," evinces some delightful, (I think) synchronicities with the theme of this post.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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