The Silk Road to India
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 West for economic, political and cultural exchanges. Many Chinese envoys once stepped on this road during the past 2,000 years or more, writing legends in world diplomatic history, still commemorated by later generations along the Silk Road.
For thousands of years, along the ancient Silk Road, melodious bells rang from envoy's camels loaded with tributes of peace and friendship from the far West. On the Maritime Silk Road, there were once magnificent fleets of treasure ships with coloured flags flapping on the ocean.
Both constituted an overseas tributary system which featured “harmony among nations that enjoy universal grace from the majesty” desired by the monarchs who held that “All people belong to one family and the monarch
should care for people living in faraway places.”
In 659, the palace of Polidu (a country in the Western Regions during the Tang Dynasty) was bustling with excitement. The King of Polidu, seated north of the hall, was all smiles and introducing to the diplomatic mission an upcoming performance of acrobatic magic for receiving foreign envoys. The performance was always applauded by the envoys.
The acrobatic magic show was enthralling. Wang Xuance, head of the mission, seated to the right of the king, asked the king if he could take an acrobatic troupe back to Chang'an. The king was pleased that he agreed readily. This warm scene of peaceful diplomacy was staged by Wang in the history of international communications.
Yet Wang's most heroic undertaking and greatest contribution is not just to have promoted friendly exchanges between the Tang Dynasty and Polidu, but his three journeys to India, which turned a new page in ancient China-india relations.
Friendly Ties between China and India
Wang's first journey to India had to do with Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602–664). Around the 15th year (in 641) of Zhenguan Period of the Tang Dynasty, the envoy of Tianzhu (India was called Tianzhu in ancient China) came to China with a letter from Harsha (reign: 606–647, emperor of the Empire of Harsha) who expressed wishes for friendly exchanges between China and India.
Emperor Taizong (reign: 626–649) of the Tang Dynasty gave a positive response. The envoy came to pay a state visit to Tang on Harsha's behalf. Thinking highly of the visit, Emperor Taizong appointed Li Yibiao, chamberlain for the Palace Garrison, as formal envoy, and Wang Xuance, county magistrate of Huangshui County, Rongzhou (present-day northwestern Luocheng, Guangxi), as assistant envoy to escort the envoy back to India.
In mid-sixth century, the Gupta Empire collapsed and was split into many smaller countries that vied for power. The chaos continued until the mid-seventh century when Harsha won. After establishing the Harsha Empire, Harsha furthered his military expansion. After years of battles, he conquered many small areas in India. Harsha attached great importance to building the army and commanded a massive army of 60,000 and 100,000 horses.
After building his empire, to strengthen national reputation, Harsha rolled out a welcome mat to envoys from other countries. During this period, he met with Tang Monk Xuanzang, and expressed to him his wish for diplomatic relations with the Tang Dynasty.
The first time his envoy visited the Tang Dynasty was to deliver his letter. Later, to strengthen relations between China and India, Harsha sent a second envoy to visit Tang. Wang went to India as guardian to the envoy.
In 643, a 22-member delegation headed by Li and Wang set out from Chang'an. Along the new Silk Road just opened by Princess Wencheng, they journeyed via Lanzhou, Xining, Lhasa and Nepal, and arrived in India. They travelled at top speed all the way to Lhasa. Here, they paid a visit to Princess Wencheng, and sent their regards to Emperor Taizong. Then they bid her farewell and set out on the “ancient Tubo-nepal path” to India.
After a few months, they arrived in the capital of Patna, Magadha. The nation was full of Buddhist followers, with many temples throughout the capital. During their stay,
Li and Wang exchanged ideas on Buddhist culture with locals. The delegation also visited other regions in India and temples.
Harsha was pleased at the news of the envoy's visit that he sent ministers to welcome the delegation in the outskirts. When the delegation entered the city, the entire city burned incense on both sides of the street as a welcome sign, which was a grand welcoming ritual.
Harsha then received them with hospitality in his palace. He accepted Li's invitation and Wang to visit China, and promised to send more envoys to the Tang Dynasty. During their stay in the palace, Li and Wang paid visits to other countries on the Indian peninsula.
In 645, the delegation arrived in the town of Rajgir, climbed the Griddharaj Parvat ( Vulture Peak), and made stone inscriptions. Then they visited the Mahabodhi Temple to set up a monument. Song Fazhi, a painter's apprentice, made a copy of the figure of Buddha under the bodhi tree, which was brought to the capital of China and later copied. After completing their mission of visiting sacred Buddhist sites, the delegation returned to China to report on their mission.
Harsha sent another envoy to present Emperor Taizong fire beads, tulips and bodhi trees. At the same time, King of Kamarupa, in East India, hearing that there had been Taoist classics in the Tang Dynasty before Buddhism was introduced to China, requested from them Sanskrit versions of the Taoist classics. Li
Yibiao told Emperor Taizong his request and the emperor ordered Wang to translate Tao Te Ching into Sanskrit.
In 645, soon after the delegation returned to Chang'an, the envoy of India arrived in Chang'an. Harsha wanted to further consolidate the relationship between his country and the Tang Dynasty. He then sent his envoy to Chang'an the moment the Tang delegation left. Emperor Taizong received India's delegation with hospitality and gave them many gifts.
Wang’s Missions to India
Soon after the envoy of India returned home, Emperor Taizong sent Wang again to visit India. For this visit, Emperor Taizong appointed Wang, a general assistant, as the formal envoy and Jiang Shiren as assistant envoy to lead the mission to India along the Tibetan Route.
In 647, the delegation headed by Wang set out from Chang'an. They soon arrived in India. However, what Wang met with this time wasn't Harsha, but Arunasva, the new king. Arunasva was rude, arrogant and unreasonable that he was unwilling to establish diplomatic relations with the Tang Dynasty. Conflict broke out between both sides. Arunasva had more peoplele and power, and Wang had to overcome difficulties to escape Central India.
Wang didn't know that Harsha died and Arunasva was his official until he came to East India. Arunasva didn't follow the court's inheritance system, but made himself king. After he ascended the throne, he sent forces to attack small bordering countries, strongly opposed by the people.
The small bordering countries didn't dare provoke him. When Wang arrived that evening, the king of East India received them in private. He wanted to help Wang but couldn't find a way. Later, the king of East India gave Wang many gifts to take back to the Tang Dynasty. Not wanting to get East India into trouble, Wang and his men left that night.
To get rid of Arunasva's spies, the delegation moved on after they left East India. They eventually came to the western borders of Tubo ( Tibetan regime in ancient China), which had friendly relations with the Tang Dynasty. Wang and his men stayed there. To send a punitive expedition against Arunasva, Wang wrote a letter for help and had it delivered by his subordinate Jiang Shiren to Tubo that night. Wang wrote another letter to Nepal asking for help.
Jiang Shiren arrived in Lhasa and told everything to Srongtsen Gampo, the King of Tubo. The king sent an elite army unit of 1,200 to go with Jiang Shiren to the western borders of Tubo. When they arrived, the 7,000 cavalries of Nepal arrived. Seeing such a large reinforcement, Wang felt relieved. After making precise operation plans with his subordinates, he returned to Central India.
After driving away Wang's delegation, the arrogant Arunasva ceased any plans for defence, regarding his troops too powerful for Wang to resist, since Wang only had dozens of men. He thought it was hard for Wang to get reinforcements from the Tang Dynasty in a foreign country.
However, he neglected Tubo and Nepal, and other smaller areas in India. When he spent too much time indulging in wine and women, Wang and Jiang led troops to besiege the capital.
After several days of battles, Wang was able to siege Arunasva. Later, many Indian tribes and towns surrendered one after another. Wang was able to visit India a second time, thanks to his superb ability to maintain friendly relations between the Tang Dynasty and other countries to help him win their support.
When he returned home, Wang was highly praised by Emperor Taizong. In 658, Wang embarked on his third journey to India to escort a Buddhist cassock to the Mahabodhi Temple. Along his journey, he had many monuments built which documented each
time he passed and where monuments were set and what happened during his journey.
Wang completed his mission when he arrived at the destination. He attended lectures by local monks and visited many temples. India was in peace in this period. Most people were Buddhists. Buddhism prevailed wherever Wang visited.
Wang's three missions to India started the history of official exchanges between China and India. Before the Tang Dynasty, ancient economic and cultural exchanges were mainly non-governmental. When Wang had friendly exchanges with India on behalf of the Tang government, Chinese culture spread in India.
As ancient India absorbed China's culture, the refining process of sugar and painting and sculpture techniques of ancient India were also brought to China. Wang's three missions helped the exchange of Buddhist culture. At the same time, Chinese Taoism was also introduced to India, which helped further enrich Indians' spiritual life.
After Wang returned home, he wrote down his own experiences into a book titled Zhongtian zhuxingji (“Journey to Central India”). Thanks to this book, Wang wasn't buried and forgotten, and this book has become a key tome to learn more about him.
Wang’s Journey to Central India
The Tang Dynasty is a peak period in Chinese history, unrivalled by the previous dynasties in terms of territory or frequency of foreign exchanges. Among all foreign exchanges, those with India were the most extensive. In the early Tang Dynasty, the Tang government sent over ten missions to visit India.
Eminent monks travelled to study in India, thereby pushing the political, economic and cultural exchanges between China and the India to a new height. Exchanging Buddhist culture was a major stepping stone.
In the early Tang Dynasty, Master Xuanzang initiated contacts between the Tang Dynasty and India. After he returned from India, Xuanzang wrote on the order of Emperor Taizong the world-renowned masterpiece Datang xiyuji (“great Tang records on the Western Regions”), which documents the natural scenery, customs, language, political, economic and cultural conditions of India at that time. The book is a valuable reference for people today to study India's history in that period and the history of world cultural exchanges.
In the few years after Xuanzang returned from his study in the five Indian countries, Wang travelled between the Tang dynasty and India three times and contributed to promoting the political, economic and cultural exchanges between two countries.
After he came back from his missions to India, like Master Xuanzang, he composed “Journey to Central India” based on his experiences and knowledge, which kept detailed accounts of the geography, topography, landscape, scenery, religion, culture, politics, economy and social customs of the five Indian countries.
The book was published in ten volumes of books and three volumes of pictures. The great pity is that, not as lucky as Xuanzang, his book was lost during the Song Dynasty, and his deeds were little known by later generations with his name buried in history. It is hard to find his name in Chinese history textbooks.
In spite of this, things were opposite abroad. Since the historical records of India are missing, a lot needs to be patched and explained by historical Chinese documents. The facts of Wang's “Journey to Central India” and his work can't go unnoticed.
Although his book was lost, clues have been found among vast records and literature. Once any significant discovery is made, it will be written in articles and taken as an important historical basis in the author's works and be published.
Data obtained by previous scholars inform readers today that Wang did write “Journey to Central India” after he returned from his missions. According to data that can be read today, scholars suppose that this book went even farther than Xuanzang's book in terms of subjects and territory.
The book serves as a great reference for studying the Tang Empire and the five Indian countries in that period and even for the study of world history of political, economic, cultural exchanges. Wang's book was valued on an equal level as Xuanzang's during that time.
Upon its publication, Wang's book had great influence on China's Buddhist literature and folk literature, giving birth to many witty and humorous stories. For example, the story recorded in the book about how Maitreya in Mahabodhi made the figure of Sakyamuni was adapted in China into the “Holy Painting” story.
Another story about how the donkey in Uddiyana carried grain to support monks in the Dantaloka was adapted by Chinese monks into the story of Wutai Mountain after the beliefs in Manjusri Buddisattva were established in the mountain. In addition, based on the book's descriptions, the painter Yang Tingguang of the Tang Dynasty also painted “West in Memory” on the sunlight blocking wall in the Zhaocheng Temple. In the late Tang Dynasty, the painting also influenced and was painted in the murals at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province.
More people come to know about this Tang Dynasty envoy and take delight in talking about his three missions to India, which helped strengthen relations between China and India and South Asian countries. People have grown familiar with stories about how he spread basic theories and Taoist etiquette to India and other countries as well as promoting China's national prestige and bridging Chinese and Indian cultures.
Rubbings from Wang Xuance’s epitaph