What is Chinese Buddhist Writing?

Starting with haphazard translations of Indian Sutras and culminating in majestic works of literature and philosophy, texts written in Chinese characters have long been crucial to the development of Buddhism in China—and by extension all of East Asia.

But Sanskrit and Pali are very different languages from Chinese. Chinese is not inflected, largely monosyllabic and has a vastly different phonology and cosmology. This made the job of translating Indian Sutras into Chinese writing very difficult, and thus makes our job deciphering their work just as tricky.

But, just as translating the Buddha’s words into Chinese enriched Chinese society, so too do the Chinese Buddhist Texts enrich ours when translated into English.


This course teaches you how to read Buddhist texts in Chinese.

Note that this course is still a work in progress by its author, John Kieschnick. The copy presented here is up-to-date as of December 2020, but you should check out Professor Kieschnick’s original webpage to be sure you get the latest materials.


While this course is primarily intended for English speakers with prior knowledge of Mandarin, it is designed to be (with the help of supplemental materials listed below) accessible to any student with time and courage.

For a quick introduction to how Indian Buddhist Texts were translated into Chinese, see: Translation, Transcription, and What Else?: Some Basic Characteristics of Chinese Buddhist Translation as a Cultural Contact between India and China, with Special Reference to Sanskrit ārya and Chinese shèng – Toru Funayama (.pdf)


The course is, as mentioned above, largely a copy-paste of John Kieschnick’s excellent (currently six volume!) Primer in Chinese Buddhist Writings.

It proceeds in four parts, corresponding to his three numbered volumes followed by the three supplemental volumes.

Volume 1: Foundations

… a series of lessons that introduce basic vocabulary and grammar, drawing on one authentic text

Note that the website and PDF linked above are not precisely identical versions. The answer key for the web version can be found here and here are the pdf answers

Audio recordings of the Chinese can be listened to here.

The learning objective for this first section is to read (and understand!) an entire Sūtra in Chinese—ideally without having to look at a glossary or dictionary.

General Resources for Learning Chinese

This is an extremely challenging but doable goal for someone new to Chinese. If this is you, I recommend the following resources to help learn the basics of the Chinese language:

An excellent collection of apps for phones, tablets and desktop computers for learning the fundamentals of Chinese. I especially recommend their mobile app “Pinyin Trainer” for learning the phonetics of the Chinese language throughout your day.

An excellent app for learning modern Mandarin Chinese from the ground up, with lessons covering exactly what you would hope from any introductory language class, presented in a simple and reassuring design.

An elementary grammar textbook for (modern) Mandarin Chinese.

Note that the image files unable to load to the right of the Chinese examples are actually links to audio recordings.

And even for the bilingual English-Chinese speakers, I recommend everyone get:

  • The world’s best Chinese dictionaries.
  • Note that students of this course may wish to purchase the optional “Flashcards” feature which will allow you to install this custom dictionary containing the vocab for the class and review said vocabulary in a flashcard-like interface.
  • Make sure to also download the (free) “Buddhist” Dictionary Add-on after you install the app, as it has many Buddhist terms the standard dictionary does not, based on The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism.

This Chinese-Sanskrit Dictionary may also be helpful for translating Chinese Buddhist texts, keeping in mind that native Chinese and Buddhist Chinese aren’t quite the same language:

The differences between Buddhist Chinese and the native Chinese language found in non-Buddhist documents are obvious.

Volume 2: The Indian Tradition

Once you’ve successfully completed the sutra in Volume 1, Volume 2 will introduce the three main EBT genres.

This volume assumes knowledge of the first, introducing three types of writings from texts translated in China from Indian originals in medieval times.

The answer key for this textbook can be found on Google Drive, here.

Like Volume 1, the final goal of this section of the course is also to read some Chinese texts with minimal reference to a dictionary—this time a sūtra, some short abhidharma passages, and a section of the vinaya. As these selections represent the full range of “Hinayana” texts preserved in Chinese translation, a student of early Buddhism has, at this point, finished the course and is ready to be a comparative, textual scholar!

Volume 3: Texts Composed in China

For those students of Mahayana Buddhism, however, the fun is only just beginning!

Buddhist Texts Composed in China – John Kieschnick (.pdf) (.pdf)

This textbook, following up on the previous two in the series, takes us past the Chinese translations of Indian texts in order to introduce the corpus of premodern texts of Chinese origin.

Note that the answer key for the book can be found on Google Drive, here and that there are a few supplemental volumes to this one, covering special topics:

All of the above can be found on the author’s website.

Volume 3 (whose structure should, by now, be very familiar!) should be completed first, followed by the Mahāyāna “supplemental” volume and then the Esoteric and Epigraphic volumes if interest and time remain.

Continuing Study

As we wrap up, I’d like to give a brief shout-out here to SuttaCentral and the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Text Database (SAT 2015) which host a very large number of canonical Buddhist texts in Chinese—most of which have yet to be translated into English.


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