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Trans­lated by Sun Hong­shan Edited by Roberta Raine The “Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive” is China’s na­tional strat­egy. The his­toric Silk Road is not only an an­cient com­mer­cial trade route con­nect­ing Asia, Africa and Europe, but also a road be­tween the East and t

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On the 24th day of the first lu­nar month of AD 645, news caused a sen­sa­tion through­out Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907): Em­i­nent monk Xuan­zang (ca. AD 602– 664), who 18 years ear­lier had gone on a pil­grim­age to Tianzhu (the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent) to study and bring back Bud­dhist scrip­tures, was about to en­ter the city. To meet him, Em­peror Taizong (reign: AD 627– 650) or­dered his ad­viser to lead a group of of­fi­cials and a large con­tin­gent of guards to hold a wel­com­ing

cer­e­mony out­side the city. Hear­ing the news, all the lo­cals swarmed to the city gate to get a look at the em­i­nent monk.

Soon they saw Xuan­zang walk­ing slowly to­wards them, his face kind but weath­ered. As he dragged his feet, many peo­ple couldn’t hold back their tears. What a trek it must have been for a man alone to cover tens of thou­sands of miles! In­stead of dread­ing the long trip, he had pur­sued his dream.

At that mo­ment, Xuan­zang, though touched, did not shed any tears. He only re­called the day when he first stepped on the Silk Road to head west. That day it had been as crowded, but he had been daunt­less and young…

An Odyssey of the Heart

As a boy, Xuan­zang was in­tel­li­gent and dili­gent, and had an ex­cel­lent mem­ory and abil­ity to learn new con­cepts. Af­ter be­com­ing a monk, he stud­ied Bud­dhist scrip­tures, and to seek knowl­edge he once vis­ited great Bud­dhist teach­ers all over the coun­try. Af­ter more than ten years of work, he had be­come pro­foundly eru­dite, but he didn’t feel com­pla­cent. At that time the Tang Dy­nasty bris­tled with dif­fer­ent sects of Bud­dhism, whose creeds were var­i­ous; it was dif­fi­cult to tell what was an au­then­tic doc­trine. Worse still, there were far too few Chi­nese trans­la­tions of Bud­dhist scrip­tures, and some of those ex­ist­ing were not only ob­scure for their bad style but also burst­ing with mis­takes due to their de­vi­a­tion from the orig­i­nal mean­ing. To make clear the canons of Bud­dhism through fur­ther ex­plo­ration of the sects and their the­o­ries, as well as to pay re­spect to the sa­cred sites of the founder of Bud­dhism, Shakya­muni, Xuan­zang felt that he must go to Tianzhu, the birth­place of Bud­dhism, to study.

At that time, an­cient In­dia—still called Tianzhu in Chi­nese—in­cluded present-day In­dia, Pak­istan and Bangladesh.

On the way be­tween China and In­dia, how­ever, the Hi­malayan Moun­tains emerged; due to the lack of trans­porta­tion more than 1,300 years ago, peo­ple who went to In­dia by land had to walk a vast dis­tance: They would set off from Chang’an, pass through present­day Gansu and Xin­jiang, go west over the Pamir Plateau, and en­ter cen­tral and west­ern Asia, from where they would reach Pun­jab in In­dia via a pass in the Hindu Kush Moun­tains. This was an end­less and dan­ger­ous jour­ney, for a man could lose his life any­time and any­where along the way. Xuan­zang knew about that, but he was fear­less. He be­gan to look for com­pan­ions and pre­pare for the jour­ney.

Be­cause the newly-founded Tang Dy­nasty had yet to be united and its bor­der ar­eas were of­ten raided by the armed Tur­kic peo­ples, the Tang gov­ern­ment for­bade peo­ple to go abroad by them­selves. His com­pan­ions there­fore dared not go west with him, but Xuan­zang did not stag­ger in his res­o­lu­tion. How­ever, in the au­tumn of 627, a famine broke out in the Chang’an area, so the Tang gov­ern­ment per­mit­ted peo­ple to go wher­ever they could find food. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of this, Xuan­zang quickly took his pro­vi­sions, sneaked in with those flee­ing the famine, left Chang’an and started his long jour­ney alone.

Xuan­zang reached Guazhou (present­day Anxi in Gansu) with no trou­ble. Hence­forth, he passed through Yu­men Pass and the five out­posts set up by the Tang gov­ern­ment, and en­tered the vast Gobi Desert. Hav­ing trudged in the desert for sev­eral days, he fi­nally left it and reached Yiwu City (present-day Hami in Xin­jiang).

Soon af­ter Xuan­zang ar­rived in Yiwu, the king of Gaochang, Qu Wen­tai, heard the news. As Qu was a de­vout Bud­dhist, he was happy at the news that the em­i­nent monk of the great Tang Dy­nasty had come to the West­ern Re­gions (present-day Xin­jiang and parts of Cen­tral Asia). He im­me­di­ately sent his men to in­vite Xuan­zang into Gaochang City (present­day Tur­pan in Xin­jiang). Qu Wen­tai ad­mired Xuan­zang so fer­vently for his knowl­edge of Bud­dhism that he earnestly re­quested him to stay in Gaochang. Xuan­zang, how­ever, did not yield to the bound­less hos­pitabil­ity of the king. In­stead, he said to Qu Wen­tai, “Go­ing to Tianzhu is my long-cher­ished as­pi­ra­tion. Even if the moun­tains fell, the earth split, the seas dried up and the rocks rot­ted, noth­ing could stop me.” Xuan­zang was so de­ter­mined that the king of Gaochang was deeply moved and had to give up his re­quest.

On the eve of Xuan­zang’s de­par­ture, Qu Wen­tai sent 25 men to es­cort Xuan­zang, and gave him 30 horses as gifts, many ne­ces­si­ties and much money for the jour­ney. To fa­cil­i­tate travel for Xuan­zang, he also wrote let­ters to 24 other kings in the West­ern Re­gions along the way, ask­ing them to of­fer help to the em­i­nent monk. Grate­ful for the gifts and aid from the king of Gaochang, Xuan­zang ex­tem­po­ra­ne­ously com­posed a let­ter en­ti­tled Xie gaochang­wang qi (“grat­i­tude to the King of Gaochang”), ex­press­ing his heart­felt thanks.

Learn­ing in Sa­cred In­dia

With help from the king of Gaochang and other kings of the West­ern Re­gions, Xuan­zang passed through 16 coun­tries; then, af­ter sur­viv­ing storms, avalanches and in­nu­mer­able hard­ships, he passed through more than ten coun­tries. Fi­nally, in the au­tumn of AD 628, he ended his 25,000-kilo­me­tre trek and en­tered Tianzhu.

As soon as he got to In­dia, Xuan­zang be­gan his pil­grim­age. At that time, In­dia was ruled by king Shi­la­ditya, who paid spe­cial at­ten­tion to de­vel­op­ing Sino-in­dian re­la­tions. This was ad­van­ta­geous for Xuan­zang, who spent nearly four years meet­ing teach­ers and vis­it­ing the holy Bud­dhist sites. He trav­elled from north­ern to cen­tral In­dia ob­serv­ing cus­toms, cli­mate and ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures, and call­ing on con­sum­mate masters of Bud­dhism for teach­ings. Wher­ever he went, the lo­cal of­fi­cials,

Bud­dhists and com­mon­ers in­vari­ably ac­corded him a friendly re­cep­tion.

When Xuan­zang ar­rived in the Kash­mir re­gion at the west­ern foot of the Hi­malayas, the king sent his un­cle to meet him on the bor­der. There Xuan­zang stud­ied hard for two years. Hav­ing stud­ied in In­dia for some time, Xuan­zang found that the names for In­dia used by Chi­nese peo­ple at that time, such as Sindhu, Hindu, or Tianzhu, did not in­di­cate the right pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the word in the In­dian lan­guage. In his opin­ion, the Chi­nese translit­er­a­tion for In­dia, Yindu, was much bet­ter, so he used that, be­ing the first Chi­nese who had ever used the name. It was only af­ter Xuan­zang re­turned to China that the word Yindu pre­vailed, and is still used to­day.

For four years, Xuan­zang vis­ited all the king­doms of In­dia. On his way he in­ter­viewed many stu­dents, read and copied many Bud­dhist su­tras, toured well-known Bud­dhist sites, and col­lected ma­te­ri­als on the his­tory, cus­toms and ge­o­graph­i­cal con­di­tions of dif­fer­ent re­gions. At the end of AD 631, he stopped his pil­grim­age and ar­rived at the renowned Na­landa Monastery in Ma­gadha (present-day Bi­har).

Na­landa Monastery was the high­est Bud­dhist in­sti­tu­tion of learn­ing in In­dia, and also the cul­tural cen­tre of In­dia then. In the monastery there were more than 4,000 monks who were per­ma­nent res­i­dents, and if one in­cluded vis­it­ing monks and other Bud­dhists who came to study, the num­ber was nearly 10,000. The monastery had an enor­mous col­lec­tion of books; apart from nearly ev­ery Bud­dhist su­tra that ex­isted, there were also books on astron­omy, ge­og­ra­phy, medicine and crafts. In ad­di­tion, the ab­bot Shi­l­ab­hadra was the fore­most scholar and au­thor­ity on Bud­dhism in In­dia.

On ar­riv­ing at Na­landa Monastery, Xuan­zang re­ceived a rous­ing wel­come. Xuan­zang ex­pressed his grate­ful thanks, and af­ter be­ing shown around the monastery, he paid his re­spects to Shi­l­ab­hadra. Xuan­zang didn’t hes­i­tate to ex­press his will­ing­ness to be­come a stu­dent of Shi­l­ab­hadra, who, nod­ding ami­ably, ac­cepted the dis­ci­ple from China. Shi­l­ab­hadra pinned fer­vent hopes on Xuan­zang, not only en­cour­ag­ing him to keep on im­prov­ing in his stud­ies, but also of­fer­ing hos­pi­tal­ity to him the same as he would to a dis­tin­guished guest.

For the fol­low­ing five years, Xuan­zang read the col­lected Bud­dhist scrip­tures of the monastery, delved into the­o­ret­i­cal works of var­i­ous Bud­dhist sects and other re­li­gions, and at the same time stud­ied the di­alects and writ­ings of In­dia.

Xuan­zang soon gained fame through­out In­dia for his eru­di­tion and great knowl­edge. How­ever, he did not rest on his lau­rels. In 636, he bid farewell to Shi­l­ab­hadra to go on an­other pil­grim­age. In 641, when he was 42 years old, he re­turned to Na­landa Monastery. For the next sev­eral years in In­dia, his stud­ies in Bud­dhism and his rep­u­ta­tion reached new heights.

In AD 643, hav­ing stud­ied in In­dia for 15 years, Xuan­zang de­cided it was time to re­turn home. He car­ried with him the Bud­dhist su­tras and stat­ues that he had col­lected for years, along with the seeds of ex­otic flow­ers and fruits grown in cen­tral and south­ern Asia. Sat­is­fied with what he had ac­com­plished, and with the friend­ships he made with the In­dian peo­ple, he set out on his home­ward jour­ney.

Re­turn­ing Home

Af­ter Xuan­zang left the coun­try through North In­dia, he didn’t pass through Iron Gate Pass as he had done be­fore, but took a short­cut over snow­cov­ered moun­tains and through the south­ern part of the Pamir Plateau; he then en­tered Gansu along the south­ern part of the Tarim Basin, from where he reached Chang’an. Along the way, when he ar­rived at Yu­tian (present-day He­tian in Xin­jiang), he wrote a let­ter to Em­peror Taizong ex­plain­ing how he had gone abroad to

study with­out a travel per­mit, and that he had brought back many Bud­dhist su­tras but, hav­ing no means to carry them, he had to stay in Yu­tian and await or­ders from the em­peror. Em­peror Taizong or­dered the gov­ern­ment of Yu­tian and other cities to send peo­ple to es­cort Xuan­zang, and re­quired the lo­cal of­fi­cials at Dun­huang and else­where to meet him on the way. He also is­sued an edict that when Xuan­zang ar­rived at the capital of Chang’an, all the of­fi­cials and civil­ians should come to wel­come him.

Af­ter Xuan­zang re­turned to Chang’an, the Tang gov­ern­ment held a glo­ri­ous wel­com­ing party for him on Zhuque Av­enue, and in re­turn he ex­hib­ited what he had brought back from In­dia, in­clud­ing Bud­dhist su­tras, stat­ues, canopies, and seeds of ex­otic flow­ers and fruits. The peo­ple swarmed to Zhuque Av­enue to give a tu­mul­tuous wel­come to the mas­ter who had pro­moted friend­ship be­tween China and In­dia. A few days later, he was re­ceived by Em­peror Taizong at the im­pe­rial palace in Luoyang. Em­peror Taizong lis­tened with great in­ter­est as Xuan­zang told the em­peror what he had wit­nessed on the way and the sit­u­a­tion in In­dia. The em­peror in­ter­rupted him now and then with ques­tions about the con­di­tions and cus­toms of the West­ern Re­gions and the king­doms of In­dia. Xuan­zang an­swered all these ques­tions flu­ently. The em­peror was so en­thralled by his ac­counts of for­eign lands that he of­fered the Bud­dhist monk a min­is­te­rial post. Xuan­zang, how­ever, pre­ferred to trans­late Bud­dhist scrip­tures, so he re­spect­fully de­clined the im­pe­rial of­fer. He went back to Hongfu Monastery, and with the sup­port of Em­peror Taizong he gath­ered to­gether more than 100 em­i­nent monks and be­gan to trans­late Bud­dhist scrip­tures from San­skrit into Chi­nese and write schol­arly books.

Xuan­zang brought back 657 Bud­dhist su­tras writ­ten in San­skrit. Un­der his lead­er­ship, monks trans­lated la­bo­ri­ously for 19 years. Their ef­forts saw the com­ple­tion of the translation of 75 su­tras, a to­tal of 1,335 fas­ci­cles. Dur­ing this pe­riod, Xuan­zang of­ten worked deep into the night. Day and night he con­tin­u­ally trans­lated su­tras. In ad­di­tion to do­ing translation, Xuan­zang wrote Datang xiyu ji ( Great Tang Records on the West­ern Re­gions) as Em­peror Taizong had re­quested. The book con­sists of 12 vol­umes and de­scribes the cus­toms, culture, cli­mate, an­i­mals, plants, min­er­als, his­tory, re­li­gion, and ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures of the 110 coun­tries or re­gions that Xuan­zang passed through, as well as an­other 28 that he had heard about dur­ing his jour­ney. Be­cause his de­scrip­tions are so vivid, au­then­tic, and el­e­gant in style, the book has be­come a gem among an­cient Chi­nese books, and pro­vided pre­cious ma­te­rial for later gen­er­a­tions to study the his­tory and ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures of In­dia, Pak­istan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Cen­tral Asia, as well as Sino-in­dian com­mu­ni­ca­tions in an­cient times. The book has long been trans­lated into for­eign lan­guages such as English, French and Ja­panese and has spread widely, con­tribut­ing to world culture.

While Xuan­zang was in­tro­duc­ing In­dian culture to China, he also in­tro­duced Chi­nese culture to In­dia. For ex­am­ple, he brought mu­sic pop­u­lar in the Tang Dy­nasty and the Tao Te Ching writ­ten by philoso­pher Laozi (ca. 571– 471 BC). He also trans­lated Da cheng qixin lun (“awak­en­ing of faith in the Mahāyāna) back into San­skrit, en­abling the book—which ex­isted in China but had been lost in In­dia for a long time—to cir­cu­late in its orig­i­nal coun­try again. Xuan­zang was there­fore spo­ken of highly by In­dian schol­ars. Due to Xuan­zang’s ac­tiv­i­ties in In­dia as well as his in­tro­duc­tion of the Tang Dy­nasty, the In­dian gov­ern­ment and peo­ple in­creased their un­der­stand­ing about and ad­mi­ra­tion for China. In AD 641, Shi­la­ditya sent a spe­cial en­voy to visit China. Em­peror Taizong was so de­lighted at this that he im­me­di­ately dis­patched an en­voy with his per­sonal let­ter to In­dia. Hence­forth, China and In­dia con­tin­ued to send en­voys back and forth, re­sult­ing in greater eco­nomic and cul­tural ex­changes and closer per­sonal con­tacts.

Af­ter his re­turn from In­dia, Xuan­zang was nos­tal­gic for his In­dian teach­ers and friends, who also had af­fec­tion­ate mem­o­ries of him. There was a se­nior monk called Huitian, who, cling­ing stub­bornly to his own opin­ion, was sharply re­futed by Xuan­zang in a de­bate; later on, he in­creas­ingly felt that Xuan­zang was cor­rect and should be re­spected. In the sum­mer of AD 652, Huitian—who lived at Ma­ha­bodhi Monastery in cen­tral In­dia—asked a col­league of his to take some books and other gifts to Xuan­zang as me­men­tos. Huitian, to­gether with Zhiguang, a stu­dent of Shi­l­ab­hadra, wrote a let­ter to Xuan­zang that read: “We of­fer you two rolls of cloth to ex­press how much we miss you. Be­cause the jour­ney is long, we hope you will ac­cept these mod­est gifts. If there are some books you want, we will copy them and have them brought to you.” Read­ing the let­ter, Xuan­zang was moved to tears. For two years he lodged the monk who had de­liv­ered the let­ter, and when the monk went back to In­dia, he asked him to take some gifts and a let­ter in re­ply to Huitian and Zhiguang. Also in­cluded was a list of books that he had lost on his jour­ney back from In­dia, which he asked them to copy and send to China. He also told them about the progress of the translation of Bud­dhist su­tras.

The novel Jour­ney to the West, which tells the mytho­log­i­cal tale of a Tang-dy­nasty monk who goes west to ac­quire Bud­dhist su­tras, is well-known and much-loved all over China. The Tang monk, the hero in this clas­sic, im­presses peo­ple be­cause of his ad­ven­tur­ous jour­ney. In fact, the pro­to­type of the hero in the novel is the em­i­nent monk Xuan­zang. His friend­ships with In­di­ans and the broth­erly af­fec­tion be­tween them have long cap­tured the imag­i­na­tions of peo­ple and are an en­dur­ing sym­bol of Si­noIn­dian friend­ship.

Statue of Xuan­zang

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