In Chinese Buddhism the translation of Buddhist scriptures can be divided into four periods: the initial, the prosperous, the heyday, and the reviving. From the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty to the Western Jin Dynasty (184-316 A.D.) was the initial period; translators were mainly from abroad. The majority of the scriptures translated belonged to Theravada Buddhism. Usually the translators would summarize the general idea of the Sanskrit classics and translate accordingly. The prosperous period was from the Eastern Jin Dynasty to the Sui Dynasty (317-618 A.D.). At that time in Indian Buddhism, Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Asaṅga, Vasabandhu and other great MahaBodhisattvas developed thoughts of Mahayana Buddhism in succession. Besides Mahayana and Therevada sutras and vinayas, the translators also widely read through scriptures on Madhyamika (Middle Way) and Yogacara. A lot of great translators, one of whom was Kumārajīva (344-413 A.D.), emerged during this period. Because there were many omissions in the early translations of the Buddhist scriptures, he re-translated them based on the Sanskrit version. Under his leadership, monastics carried out large-scale translation work for more than ten years, and Mahayana Buddhism thrived greatly.
The heyday lasted from Emperor Tai to Emperor De of the Tang Dynasty. This was a period which continued the translation of Buddhist scriptures from past dynasties. Not only were the important Mahayana and Theravada classics of Esoteric Buddhism translated and complemented, but the classics of Esoteric Buddhism were also extensively translated and disseminated. After Emperor De of the Tang Dynasty, Chinese Buddhism came under attack by Emperor Wu of the Tang Dynasty and Emperor Shi of the Zhou Dynasty. Buddhist scriptures were seriously damaged. From the Song Dynasty, generations of emperors once again understood the importance of Buddhism to the operation of the country and promoted Buddhism nationwide. Not only were Chinese Buddhist scriptures collected and reprinted, but also new scriptures were translated. This trend, which could be taken as the reviving period of the translation of Buddhist scriptures, has continued to modern times, going from strength to strength.
This article is excerpted from "Chinese Buddhism in the New Era", the speech made by Ven. Master Xuecheng at the workshop of the Western Perspectives on Chinese Buddhism in Dec 2015.