The Silk Road to India

Beijing (English) - - MEMORIES • SILK ROAD - Trans­lated by Zhu Jiangqin Edited by Mark Zuiderveld

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

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