Differences of Chinese translations of Buddhist texts from different periods

I would like to ask @cdpatton for his opinions about the Chinese translations of Buddhist texts from different periods, if he doesn’t mind.

The following are my questions:
-Which period has “the best” Chinese translations? As in, they are accurate and easy to read.
-Among the Chinese Agamas, which collection, do you think, has “the best” translation?
-Among the Mahayana Buddhist texts, which text, do you think, has “the best” translation?
-Who do you think is the best “translator” of Chinese Buddhist texts?
-Do you see any certain characteristics or differences in vocabularies, styles, the flow of the passages, and other things when you study or translate all these Chinese Buddhist texts from different periods?

When I say “the best”, there certainly can be more than one choice. It’s entirely up to you, if you choose to answer my questions (it’s totally fine if you don’t).

*To the person who keeps rudely moving my topic to a different place without giving me a good explanation or two first, if you think that my topic should be placed somewhere else, please give me some good explanations first why you think it should be in a different category. Even then, it should be moved either by me who is the topic’s creator or the moderators themselves. It’s very rude of you to keep moving my topic to another category as if it were created by you without saying anything to me. It happened two times now. So, please don’t do this again. Otherwise, I will have to report you for creating unnecessary inconvenience to me.

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Quite a set of questions! I think I will respond with an essay instead of taking them one by one.

These issues are complicated because translation is an act of communication, and what’s considered best depends on who we ask. Translators and readers who know the original language will have different answers than readers who only know the target language. Practitioners will often have different answers that philologists and scholars. I’ll give my own personal thoughts about this, though.

Chinese Buddhist translations went through different periods of methodology that caused them to change quite a bit in vocabulary and grammar when we pass from the pre-Tang Dynasty era (200-600 CE) into the Tang and Sung eras (600-1200 CE). That’s because during the Tang Dynasty native Chinese Buddhists began learning the Indic languages and translating them with large teams of editors, sometimes under Imperial auspices. The result was quite different from the translations made by Indian missionaries in the earlier period. Once these changes were in place, missionary translators adopted the new vocabulary.

The translation method that was used in the 4th century CE usually worked like this:

  1. A Central Asian or Indian monk with a memorized text recited it
  2. A Central Asian or Indian monk who was fluent in a spoken Chinese dialect translated the recited text
  3. A native Chinese assistant fluent in writing wrote it down

That’s the bare bones version. Sometimes there was a team of editors and assistants who functioned to check for accuracy, but the process involved at least two people because missionaries found it difficult to learn to write Chinese. This method worked well enough, but it introduces opportunities for miscommunication. The translator may not realize when the text is misspoken or mis-remembered. He probably isn’t able to personally check the written document that results, either. What we think is a translator error could be a reciter or copyist error.

Another issue is that it was a common belief that Daoism and Buddhism had the same basis philosophically. There was even a theory that Buddhism was a foreign version of Daoism that had returned after many centuries of change outside of China. Early texts translated Buddhist concepts by borrowing Daoist terminology. It works once you understand the original language, but it causes some grief when Buddhist ideas are conflated with Daoist ones, or the nuances are lost in translation. For native readers, it probably reinforced the idea that Buddhism was really a type of Daoism.

Another issue with the earlier translations is that we simply don’t know what some obscure, archaic Chinese terms mean precisely. Sometimes they are characters that fell out of use; sometimes they changed from one use to another over the centuries. The other related problem is that the transliterations used were not standardized yet in the 2nd-4th century, and so it’s impossible sometimes to decipher them today.

Faxian became the first famous pilgrim-translator when he decided to go with a mission of Chinese monks to India to retrieve a proper vinaya in the 390s. This was after the four Agamas were translated, but before Kumarajiva begins work. Faxian began the move to a new era of Chinese Buddhist translation. Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing all undertook Marco Polo-esque travel adventures through Central Asia, India, and Indonesia. They often spent a couple decades in these countries, studying under Indian teachers, learning to read and write Indic languages, etc. Xuanzang, for example, eventually settled in at Nalanda for a number of years to study under Buddhist scholars there.

So, you can imagine what a difference this made to the quality of their translations. They had both the language skills and the Indian Buddhist education to translate these texts to Chinese as native speakers.

Xuanzang revolutionized Chinese Buddhist translation, sweeping away the practice of borrowing native terminology and creating a method of more literal translation. He translated vast amounts of Indian texts like the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, Madhyamika and Yogacara texts, and even the entire Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra in 400 fascicles (which I think may be the longest scripture ever created). Many of these texts would disappear from India a few centuries later because of the Islamic invasions. The fact that he decided to bring an entire library back to China preserved a great deal of Buddhist literature.

Yijing was not quite as prolific, but he did translate an entire vinaya corpus. The part of the canon that was missing from these new translations were the Agamas, unfortunately. We get only retranslations of some texts considered important to the Abhidharma or Mahayana literature.

What makes these later Chinese translations “better” to us is that they are more transparent representations of the original Indic texts, usually BHS. They weren’t necessarily better to native Chinese readers because they were more cryptic. Like today, you had to pick up a working knowledge of Sanskrit to understand them. Sometimes Sanskrit terms are broken down into parts and translated literally in a way that doesn’t really capture the functional meaning in a passage. The grammar is also not very Chinese. It’s more a kind of hybrid Buddhist Chinese.

Another problem for scholars who want to find the earliest versions of Buddhist texts is that these highly accurate translations are later versions. We have good translations of later texts and not-so-understandable translations of the early texts in the Chinese canon. It’s frustrating to scholars studying early Mahayana texts, for example. I think this is what drives the search for Gandhari remnants. They want to find a way to lift the “fog” of the early Chinese translations. I think it’s a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, personally. We’re just too far removed in time to get a really detailed picture.

Finally, to your questions about the Agamas themselves.

I don’t think there’s a better or worse translation between the four major collections. They were made by translators around the same time who worked with each other on different projects. Chu Fonian was an assistant to Gautama Sanghadeva [edit: Oops, confused Sanghadeva with Sanghabhadra. Chu Fonian actually had translated the Madhyama Agama separately, but it was lost], for example. Gunabhadra has a different style, but his translations are more fluent like Kumarajiva in my personal opinion.

The bigger issue with the four Chinese Agamas is the source texts rather than the translators. Chu Fonian was translating from a canon that incorporated Maitreya and early Mahayana thought. It can be seen in the Ekottarika Agama and in his translation of the Udana collection, Taisho 212. The Madhyama and Dirgha seem to be from similar canons, and perhaps the Samyukta fits with them more-or-less as well, but the Ekottarika is an outlier. It has many of the texts the Madhyama does, which is actually similar to the Pali Canon that places them in the Anguttara. Yet, there’s also a bunch of early Mahayana material, too. It’s quite a category buster.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the topic in the time I have to jot them down. Hope it helps some.



Thank you very much for your very detailed and educational answer.


A hearty second helping of thanks for this explanation. I found it very helpful, if a tad discouraging.

That answers the question I’d been forming while reading.

Well, phooey. :frowning_face:

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Perhaps I should have written “to get a perfect picture.” It’s often difficult to pin down exactly what the early translators were translating, but the meaning is fairly well preserved, if difficult to ferret out. They are ancient texts in a dead language, so the lacuna is unavoidable at this point. My feeling is that we’re reaching the point that very few people can decipher them, which is why they need to be preserved in modern languages.


If it was for sure oral in the sense that it was recited necessarily, then that would go towards reinforcing a suspicion that I had long held as an unqualified layman, namely that when Ven Yìnshùn corrects 法空 to 法定 in his critical editions of the saṁyuktāgama text at T99.84b16/SA296 (I encountered this first through The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, not being able to directly read Ven Yìnshùn’s Chinese publications yet), that it must necessarily reflect a Sanskrit/Prākrit dharmaniyāmatā being heard as dharmanairātmyatā (rendered 法空), probably do to a weird local accent of some sort on the part of the reciter or the hearer.

Here’s where I go off the deep end: I imagine there were all sorts of wild regional Prākritic pronunciations of Sanskrit in vogue at the time. The phonology of Gāndhārī is very strange for instance, and they clearly weren’t pronouncing the Sanskrit sounds the way they used to. Some texts are part of a Sanskritizing sub-corpus, but this Sanskritization is often here amounting to a mere cosmetic tidying of the spelling so that the spellings can reflect earlier (or more accurately, more prestigious and socially upward) Sanskritic pronunciations, rather than Gāndhārī or X or Y other regionalized Prākrit, for that matter.

The problem with suggesting something based on grounds as flimsy as a hunch that people had funny accents in the past and in certain areas, based on the vague possibility that dharmaniyāmatā could be “somewhere” and at “some time” pronounced in “such a way” that the hearer could potentially confuse it with how they would say/hear dharmanairātmyatā, that they then produced two different textual recensions of the text that reflect the present day Chinese and the Pāli of the Paccayasutta, the problem with suggest that is how on earth would you ever even begin investigating that let alone proving it in any way?

We just can’t know that much precisely about certain fine details like exactly how historical regional accents are pronouncing their consonants and how they are reducing their consonant clusters, etc. For example Pāli, phonologically, represents a particular Prākritic tradition of pronunciation of a body of generally-Sanskrit-based words and we can see that it has particular ways that it wants to transform, simply, and reduce the Byzantine consonant clusters in Sanskrit. Gāndhārī is often far more extreme, with a word like upāsaka coming out as uasao. Most of the consonants in that word have entirely melted away, reflecting a tradition of quite literally not pronouncing them, as much a tautology that may be.

In such a setting, more extreme than the setting that produced the wonderful ambiguities of Prākrit homonyms, like possibly bodhisatta from both bodhisattva and bodhiśakta, also the confusion in Chinese texts between ātmadvīpa and ātmadīpa, why not have a confusion between two words that more or less seem to fit in the text.

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Is there a suttanipata and or dhammapada in chinese, then translated in english?
Somebody is doing that with chapter 4 of Snp, from Chinese Arthapada Sutra (Pali Atthakavagga) translation work - Dharma Wheel but it is slow, so i hope there is already the whole snp translated.

for the parallels, there is already this discourse suttacentral net/t/suttanipata-translated-parallels-chinese-sanskrit/10357/23

We learn the general details about the method used in the prefaces to some texts. An example is the account by Daoan in the preface to the Ekottarika, which is summarized in the Introduction of BDK’s Madhyama translation:

“The famous Dao’an, who organized many translation teams, and Zhu Fonian (fl. 365–410), who was one of the few fully bilingual Chinese monks in Buddhist translation history, were residing in Chang’an at the time Dharmanandin arrived. Soon Dharmanandin was asked to recite both of the Āgamas he had memorized, and Zhu Fonian translated them into Chinese. The Chinese monk Huisong served as scribe and recorded what Zhu Fonian dictated. In this role Huisong probably exercised considerable influence on the final wording of the text.”

The trouble with these issues, as you have put well, is that we don’t really know. At the end of the day, you have to take the texts at face value and correct the things that look like typos. That’s been my basic conclusion as a translator. Otherwise, you can create all sorts of technical theories, but there’s not that much to base them on. It’s just as likely to me, to use your example, that a copyist accidentally changed 定 to 空 since they are visually similar. Or the original text may have actually read that way.

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I’m not sure about a Suttanipata collection, but there are probably parallels in the Agamas. There are two different Dharmapadas in Chinese, and each has an Udana-style commentary with stories attached to the verses. There’s also an Itivrttaka collection in Chinese. So, yes, the Chinese canon has some of these minor texts that are also in Pali. They were translated independent of each other at different times in history.


I would like to ask more questions to @cdpatton if he doesn’t mind.

There is something that’s been bugging me for a while now. Whenever I study Ven Analayo’s studies and translations, sometimes he will mention about adopting the variant readings of the Song, Yuan, and Ming editions.

So, more of my questions are:

-What are these Song, Yuan, and Ming editions?

-What are their relationship with the Chinese Agamas and other Chinese Buddhist texts? I thought there’s only one edition of each collection. For example, I thought that there’s only one version of T 99, which came from Ven Gunabhadra and his team. But then there is this example: in CBETA version of MA 183, it has this passage “有麤, 有妙, 有想來上出要”. However, the Song, Yuan, and Ming editions instead have this passage written as “有有, 有麤, 有妙, 有想來上出要” where “有有” is added at the beginning. This makes the passage from Song, Yuan, and Ming editions’ version of MA 183 correspond exactly with “atthi idaṃ, atthi hīnaṃ, atthi paṇītaṃ, atthi imassa saññāgatassa uttari nissaraṇan” of MN 7 (Source: Ven Analayo’s comparative studies of Majjhima Nikaya with its northern parallels).

-Which edition of the Chinese Buddhist texts is the most accurate?

-When you translate Chinese Buddhist texts, do you consult with these editions like Ven Analayo?


Over the course of 1500 years, the Chinese canon has gone through numerous official printings. They are commonly referred to by the dynastic era in which they were published (Song dynasty, Yuan dynasty, Ming dynasty). There are a couple modern editions that most scholars use today. There’s the Japanese Taisho Daizokyo that most scholars use as a reference, and a couple others that include more material.

Here’s a diagram of Chinese canonical editions. The Taisho is the last one at the bottom.

The first lesson of studying ancient texts closely is that there’s never just one version of anything. We don’t think about this in the modern world because we’re used to printing presses and copyright laws setting a text in stone and it doesn’t change after publication. (Though it does if it’s revised.)

When we study ancient texts, we have to deal with the reality that they’ve changed, even if only a little, over the course of thousands of years of people maintaining them. Typos are introduced and corrected, helpful editors add a bit or delete a bit, and so on.

So, when we read Gunabhadra’s translation of the Samyukta Agama, we’re reading the text as it has reached us, not the pristine version that his team produced.

That depends. The Taisho has a reputation of being aggressively edited, so scholars and translators often revert to older readings when they don’t agree with the changes. The Taisho editors carefully noted the divergences between their text and the earlier canonical editions to be transparent and help scholars with their research. That’s the source of the footnotes in CBETA; they’re reproducing the Taisho footnotes.

Essentially, when we suspect a typo, these footnotes serve as objective evidence that we aren’t the only ones who thought it was a typo in the history of the text.

Yes, I evaluate them when I finalize translations. There’s not much point in passing on incoherent typos. Often the footnotes aren’t relevant to English translation, though. Some are Chinese editors changing transliterations, editing for consistency, replacing ancient characters with synonyms that were better known, etc.


Thank you very much for your educational answer. It’s really great to have someone who is both a translator of Chinese Buddhist texts and very knowledgeable about them since there are far less studies of these texts than the Pali ones, at least when it comes to researches that are done in English.