20080217-280px-ZhangQianTravels dunhuasnhg mural 7th c wiki.jpg
Zhang Qian in a 7th century
Dunhuanshang mural
959 BC: King Mu (Mu Wang): West Chou king and the earliest reputed Silk Road traveller. His travel account Mu tianzi zhuan, written in the 5th-4th century BC, is the first known travel book on the Silk Road. It tells of his journey to the Tarim basin, the Pamir mountains and further into today's Iran region, where the legendary meeting with Xiwangmu was taken place. Returned via the Southern route. The book no longer exists but is referenced in Shan Hai Zin, Leizi: Mu Wang Zhuan, and Shiji. [Source: Silkroad Foundation silk-road.com |*|]

138-116 BC: Zhang Qian (Chang Ch'ien). Chinese general and envoy credited with opening the Silk Road after his mission from the Han Emperor Wudi to recruit the Yueh-chih people to form an alliance against the Xiongnu. First trip (138-125) skirted the Taklamakan desert via the northern route, passed the Pamir, then reached Ferghana. Returned via the southern route. His second trip (119-115), a mission to seek alliance with Wu-sun people, took him to Dunhuang, Loulan, Kucha, then the capital of Wu-sun kingdom in the Ili river. His missions to the west led to the formalization of trade, especially the silk trade, between China and Persia. |*|

A.D. 40-70: Anonymous author of the Periplus of the Erythraen (=Red) Sea. A merchant handbook, written apparently by an Egyptian Greek, about trade routes through the Red Sea and involving both East Africa and India. One of the most important sources for Roman Eastern trade, compiled after the discovery of how to use the monsoon winds to make the round trip to India. Includes extensive information on ports and products. |*|

A.D. 73-102: Ban Chao (Pan Ch'ao). Chinese general restoring the Tarim basin under Han's power and maintaining whole control of the area as west as Kashgar during his career there. He sent out emissaries to the area west and beyond the Tarim basin, including the area of modern-day Iran and the Persian Gulf. |*|

A.D. 97 Gan Ying (Kan Ying): First Chinese envoy to Ta-Ts'in (the Roman Orient) sent by general Ban Chao from Kashgaria in 97 AD. Journeyed through the Pamir mountains, Parthia, and reached as far as the the coast of the Persian Gulf. However he was dissuaded from continuing further west. The first known Chinese visited the Middle East as west as T'iao-chih, near the present Nedjef, Iraq. |*|

A.D. 399-413: Faxian (Fa-hsien). First Chinese monk reaching Indian and returning with a knowledge of Buddhism. Traveled the southern route through Shenshen, Dunhuang, Khotan, and then over the Himalayas, to Gandhara, Peshawur then India. He journeyed most of the way on foot and was the first known traveler passing through the Taklamakan desert from Woo-e to Khoten. Returned to China via the sea route. |*|

A.D. 518-521: Song Yun (Sung Yun)/Huisheng. Sung Yun of Dunhuang went with a monk Huisheng on a mission sent by the Empress Dowager to obtain the Buddhist scriptures in India in 518. Travled through the Taklamakan desert via the southern route passing Shanshan, Charkhlik, Khotan, then further west into the Hindu Kush, Kabul, Peshawar. The most interesting account is their visit to the Ephthalites (the White Hun) kingdom, who centered in eastern Afghanistan and controlled much of the Central Asia during the 5th and 6th centuries. Both wrote a travel account but none remained. |*|

A.D. 629-645: Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang). Chinese Buddhist monk and translator traveling across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Kindu Kush to India. Returned via the southern route. He spent his remaining life translating sutras into Chinese. .His travel and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels, such as Wu Ch'eng-en's famous novel in the 16th century, Journey to the West. |*|

A.D. 713-741: Hwi Chao. Korean monk but grew up in China. Traveled to India via sea route (route unclear). Lived there for several years and visited various Buddhist kingdoms in India, Persia and Afghanistan. On the returning journey, traveled to Kashmir, Kabul, passed the Pamirs and entered Xinjiang from Tashkurgan, then skirted around the Taklamakan desert from the northern towns, Kucha, Turfan and Hami. His account Wang wou t'ien tchou kquo tch'ouan or The Record to Five Indian Kingdoms provided vaulable information on the Islamic and Buddhist distribution among the Central Asian kingdoms during the 8th century. His book had been lost since Tang dynasty until an incomplete copy (14 pages, ~6000 words) was miraculously discovered by the French explorer, Paul Pelliot at Dunhuang cave in 1908. |*|

Transasia trade routes in AD 1

A.D. 751 - 762 Du Hwai: Chinese soldier defeated and prisoned by the Arab at the famous battle of Talas in 751. Stayed in the prison camp for ten long years and traveled to Tashkent, Samarkand, passed northern Iran to Iraq, west into Syria. On the Perisan Gulf, he boarded a foreign ship, returned to Canton via Indian Ocean and South China Sea. His book is a personal account of Talas battle and his prison life in Central Asia. |*|

A.D. 750-789 Wukong (Wu-K'ung). Chinese monk went as a delegation with the ambassador from Samarkand who was returning home. He fell ill there and could not return with his countrymen. On his recovery he became a monk and lived in Gandhara and Kashmir, not returning to China until 790. |*|

A.D. 821. Tamim ibn Bahr. According to Minorsky, "the only Muslim traveller who has left a record of his visit to the Uyghur capital on the Orkhon, i.e., to Khara-balghasun in the present-day Mongolia." The author likely was from Khorasan and was sent to the East in connection with political upheavals in Transoxiana. Only an abridged version of his narrative survives, known especially from Yaqut's geographical dictionary. |*|

A.D. 921-922. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan.Sent as ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph to the ruler of the Bulgars on the middle Volga River. The route went from Baghdad via the territories of the Samanid state and its capital Bukhara, through Khwarezm and north of the Caspian Sea. Although the account we have is not the original report, it has great value, since Ibn Fadlan "possessed extraordinary powers of observation." (Canard). The account is often best known for its rather lurid but valuable description of a Viking (Rus) funeral on the Volga; this served as the inspiration for a best-seller by the novelist Michael Crichton, Eaters of the Dead. |*|

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelers silk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life

Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com; Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu

King Mu (956-923 B.C.)

King Mu (Mu Wang, 956-923 B.C.) was a West Chou king and the earliest reputed Silk Road traveller. His travel account Mu tianzi zhuan, written in the 5th-4th century BC, is the first known travel book on the Silk Road. It tells of his journey to the Tarim basin, the Pamir mountains and further into today's Iran region, where the legendary meeting with Xiwangmu was taken place. Returned via the Southern route. The book no longer exists but is referenced in Shan Hai Zin, Leizi: Mu Wang Zhuan, and Shiji. [Source: Silkroad Foundation silk-road.com |*|]

King Mu reigned 55 years and is said to have died at age 105. Sima Qian wrote in “The Shinji”: “Man, the son of King Zhao, was enthroned: this was King Mu. King Mu was already fifty at the time he came to the throne, and the kingly way had decayed. [Source: Shiji 4.126-149 by Sima Qian, via Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

King Mu’s greatest enemy was the Dog Nomads, who eventually, in 771 B.C., overran the Zhou capital, killed the king, and brought the Western Zhou to an end. According to the judgement of a 5th century B.C. who wrote in the following passage it was King Mu’s failings that planted the seeds of the later disaster: “King Mu prepared to launch a campaign against the Dog Nomads. Moufu, Duke of Cai, admonished him saying, “This may not be. The former kings made their virtue bright and did not need to make a show of their arms. Weaponry should be husbanded and mobilized in the proper season. If it is mobilized thus it will inspire awe, but to make a show of troops is to play with them, and if one plays with them they will have no power to inspire fear. For this reason, the ode of the Old Duke says, Assemble our spears and halberds,/ fill our sheaths with bows and arrows./ Our quest is for excellent virtue, / we lay it forth in this grand music:/ Truly, may our kings preserve this!” /+/

Zhang Qian's Travels

Zhang Qian: Han-Era Silk Road Explorer

More than 1,300 years before Marco Polo left Italy for China on the Silk Road, Chinese explorers were traveling nearly as far to reach Central Asia and the Middle East. In 138 B.C., the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian (Chang Chien, Zang Qian) was sent westward by Emperor Wu (140-87 B.C.) with the assignment of finding allies to fight the Xiongnu. He was captured by the Xiongnu soon after departing and was held in captivity for 10 years before he escaped and crossed the Pamir mountains to reach the Fergana Valley Zjhang Qian reached Syria, and possibly Egypt, and returned to China 19 years after he set out and long after the Xiongnu were subdued. In the first great account of Silk Road travel he described the pleasures of Central Asian wine and fantastic animals such as the "heavenly horses" of the Fergana Valley that had striped bodies and sweated blood.

Kiyota Higa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Zhang Qian emerged on history's centre stage a few years after Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty ascended the throne in 141 B.C.. The emperor was dissatisfied with a long-standing reconciliation policy of paying tribute to the Xiongnu, a northern ethnic group, and decided to send a mission to the Yuezhi, who had been driven from their homes by the Xiongnu, in order to form an alliance with them against Xiongnu. Cui Jijun, 44, curator of the Zhang Qian Memorial Hall, presumes that Zhang Qian, who was chosen as leader of the mission, was probably around 20 to 25 years old at that time. "Considerable physical strength was vital in the harsh journey to the western regions. Emperor Wu preferred to appoint young people," Cui said. [Source: Kiyota Higa, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asia News Network, December 23, 2014 /+\]

“Zhang Qian and his group of 100 or so were captured by the Xiongnu in the course of their journey to Yuezhi. According to history books, during his 10 years in captivity, Zhang Qian got married and started a family. But he managed to escape to fulfil his duty and headed west, finally finding his way to Yuezhi. Though he was unable to form an alliance, he came into contact with different cultures in central Asia before heading back to Han.” Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu a second time. This time, however, he succeeded in escaping after a single year of captivity. In 126 B.C., twelve years after his departure, he returned to the Chinese capital, accompanied by but one of the hundred men who had started with him. “When he was finally able to report the circumstances of the western regions to Emperor Wu, 13 years had already passed since his departure. /+\

The reports of Zhang Qian's travels are quoted extensively in the 1st century B.C. Chinese historic chronicles "Records of the Great Historian" (Shiji) by Sima Qian. Zhang Qian visited directly the kingdom of Dayuan in Fergana (present-day Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), the territories of the Yuezhi in Transoxiana (present-day Uzbekistan), the Bactrian country of Daxia (present-day Afghanistan) with its remnants of Greco-Bactrian rule, and Kangju. He also made reports on neighbouring countries that he did not visit, such as Anxi (Arsacid territories), Tiaozhi (Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia), Shendu (Pakistan) and the Wusun. [Source: Wikipedia +]

After returning from his mission to the Yuezhi, Zhang Qian participated in a battle against the Xiongnu. He was once sentenced to death when he was accused of incompetence during a battle. Afterwards, he was appointed as an envoy to central Asia once again and is said to have returned with a good horse.

Zhang Qian on Fergana and Its Heavenly Horses

Tang rendering of a Fergana horse

After being released from captivity by Xiongnu, Zhang Qian visited Dayuan, located in the Fergana region west of the Tarim Basin. The people of Dayuan were portrayed as sophisticated urban dwellers similar to the Parthians and the Bactrians. The name Dayuan is thought to be a transliteration of the word Yona, the Greek descendants that occupied the region from the 4th to the 2nd century B.C. [Source: Wikipedia]

During his stay there Zhang reported the famous tall and powerful "blood-sweating" Fergana horse. :The people [of Ferghana]...have...many good horses. The horses sweat blood and come from the stock of the ‘heavenly horse,’ he wrote. The refusal by Dayuan to offer these horses to Emperor Wu of Han resulted in two punitive campaigns launched by the Han Dynasty to acquire these horses by force, which in helped to expand the Han Chinese Empire westward. New York Times- Silk Road Seattle]

Zhang Qian reported: "Dayuan lies southwest of the territory of the Xiongnu, some 10,000 li (5,000 kilometers) directly west of China. The people are settled on the land, plowing the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. The people live in houses in fortified cities, there being some seventy or more cities of various sizes in the region. The population numbers several hundred thousand". [Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson]

Zhang Qian on Rouzhi (Yuezhi) and Bactia

After obtaining the help of the king of Dayuan, Zhang Qian went southwest to the territory of the Yuezhi, with whom he was supposed to obtain a military alliance against the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian reported: "The Great Yuezhi live some 2,000 or 3,000 li (1,000 or 1,500 kilometers) west of Dayuan, north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered to the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi, and on the north by Kangju. They are a nation of nomads, moving place to place with their herds and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors." [Source: Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson ==]

On the origins of the Yuezhi, Zhang Qian said they originally came from the eastern part of the Tarim Basin, which led some historians to speculate they are connected to the Caucasian mummies of the Tarim Basin. Zhang Qian reported: "The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan (Fergana), where they attacked the people of Daxia (Bactria) and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui (Oxus) river." ==

A smaller group of Yuezhi, the "Little Yuezhi", were not able to follow the exodus and reportedly found refuge among the "Qiang barbarians". Zhang was the first Chinese to write about one humped dromedary camels which he saw in this region.

Zhang Qian probably witnessed the waning years of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, as it was being subjugated by the nomadic Yuezhi. They few small, powerless chiefs that remained were apparently vassals to the Yuezhi horde. Their civilization was urban, similar to that of Anxi and Dayuan, with a large population. Cloth from Shu (Sichuan) was found there.

Zhang Qian reported: "Daxia is situated over 2,000 li (1,000 kilometers) southwest of Dayuan (Fergana), south of the Gui (Oxus) river. Its people cultivate the land, and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Dayuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked and conquered Daxia, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is Lanshi (Bactra) where all sorts of goods are bought and sold." [Source: Shiji 123, translation Burton Watson]

Zhang Qian on Shendu (India) and Anxi (Parthia)

Bactia (Afghanistan)

Zhang Qian also reported about the existence of India southeast of Bactria. The name Shendu comes from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu", meaning the Indus river of Pakistan. Sindh was one of the richest regions of India at the time, ruled by Indo-Greek Kingdoms, which explains the reported cultural similarity between Bactria and India. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Zhang Qian reported: "Southeast of Daxia is the kingdom of Shendu (Sindh)... Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand li southeast of Daxia (Bactria). The people cultivate the land and live much like the people of Daxia. The region is said to be hot and damp. The inhabitants ride elephants when they go in battle. The kingdom is situated on a great river (Indus)" [Source: Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson ==]

Zhang Qian identifies "Anxi" (Chinese: ) as an advanced urban civilization, like Dayuan (Fergana) and Daxia (Bactria). The name "Anxi" is a transcription of "Arshak" (Arsaces),[20] the name of the founder of Arsacid Empire that ruled the regions along the silk road between the Tedzhen river in the east and the Tigris in the west, and running through Aria, Parthia proper, and Media proper. +

Zhang Qian reported: "Anxi is situated several thousand li west of the region of the Great Yuezhi. The people are settled on the land, cultivating the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. They have walled cities like the people of Dayuan (Fergana), the region contains several hundred cities of various sizes. The coins of the country are made of silver and bear the face of the king. When the king dies, the currency is immediately changed and new coins issued with the face of his successor. The people keep records by writing on horizontal strips of leather. To the west lies Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) and to the north Yancai and Lixuan (Hyrcania)." ==

Zhang Qian on Mesopotamia, Sogdiana and the Steppe

Zhang Qian's reports on Mesopotamia are in hazy terms. He did not himself visit the region, and was only able to report what others told him. Zhang Qian reported: Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) is situated several thousand li west of Anxi (Arsacid territory) and borders the Western Sea (Persian Gulf/ Mediterranean?). It is hot and damp, and the people live by cultivating the fields and planting rice... The people are very numerous and are ruled by many petty chiefs. The ruler of Anxi (the Arsacids) give orders to these chiefs and regards them as vassals. (adapted from Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson]

Zhang Qian also visited directly the area of Sogdiana (Kangju), home to the Sogdian nomads: "Kangju is situated some 2,000 li (1,000 kilometers) northwest of Dayuan (Bactria). Its people are nomads and resemble the Yuezhi in their customs. They have 80,000 or 90,000 skilled archer fighters. The country is small, and borders Dayuan. It acknowledges sovereignty to the Yuezhi people in the South and the Xiongnu in the East." [Source: Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson]

On Yancai (the vast steppe) he said: "Yancai lies some 2,000 li (832 km) northwest of Kangju (centered on Turkestan at Beitian). The people are nomads and their customs are generally similar to those of the people of Kangju. The country has over 100,000 archer warriors, and borders a great shoreless lake, perhaps what is now known as the Northern Sea (Aral Sea, distance between Tashkent to Aralsk is about 866 km)"[Source: Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson]

Kazak steppe

Legacy of Zhang Qian’s Mission

Kiyota Higa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Known to the Chinese as an explorer equal to Columbus, Zhang Qian opened up the Silk Road - the major route that connected the east and west of Asia during the time of the Han dynasty in ancient China. The determination that enabled him to cross the desert and overcome numerous difficulties was developed in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province, a strategic location of military importance since ancient times. [Source: Kiyota Higa, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asia News Network, December 23, 2014 /+\]

“The title "Lord of Bowang" was given to Zhang Qian when he achieved his feat, and that is how the area was named. I was able to meet descendants of Zhang Qian in this village. A "65th-generation" villager, 60-year-old Zhang Huazhong, told me stories of Zhang Qian's boyhood that have been handed down in the area. "He is said to have loved swimming" and, "it is said that when he found somebody being bullied, he would protect them". Zhang Qian's character is described in history books as being "patient and generous, and always trusting". Although there is no historical proof of what the people of Bowang told me, I listened with interest. Zhang Lijun, a 39-year-old "67th-generation" villager who worked for the local government told me that he always said to his 11-year-old daughter: "Never fear adversity. You are Zhang Qian's descendant."/+\

It is said that products such pomegranates, grapes, garlic and cucumbers were brought into China as a result of Zhang Qian's development of the Silk Road." Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in 1942: “Chang Ch'ien's [Zhang Qian’s] mission was a failure from a diplomatic point of view. But he brought back with him two important plants of western Asiatic origin. One was alfalfa, which was to prove of the greatest value to the Chinese as food for the horses used in their later military campaigns against the Huns. The other was the grape, which has ever since been one of China's favorite fruits. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

“Most important of all, however, Chang Ch'ien gave to the Chinese their first accurate knowledge of the expanses of Central Asia. Following his advice, they launched a series of military campaigns which during the next century broke the power of the Huns. Finally all of Turkestan was brought under Chinese rule. Across the desert the Chinese conquerors laid out a series of garrison posts. Thus, well before the birth of Christ, a trade route was established which crossed Turkestan from China, passed through Persian territory, and reached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. From there ships could continue the journey to Rome itself. Thus were Rome and China, then the two most powerful empires in the world, linked by trade.” <|>

Spread of Buddhism on the Silk Road

*th century image of Buddha's de[arture in western China

Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: “Trade routes were also traversed by Buddhist pilgrims. The most famous was the Chinese monk Xuanzang (602–664), who, in defiance of the emperor Taizong's prohibition against travel beyond China, departed Chang'an in 629 and walked to India. He returned triumphantly more than sixteen years later, accompanied by a caravan laden with sutras, statues, and relics, which he bestowed to the emperor. He chronicled his journey, describing the climates, peoples, and customs he encountered, in his book Record of the Western Regions. \^/ [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

There was great contact and interest in India as a hub for Buddhist knowledge. Xuanzang managed to bring back valuable Sanskrit texts to be translated into Chinese. There was also a Turkic–Chinese dictionary available for serious scholars and students, while Turkic folksongs gave inspiration to some Chinese poetry. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to travel on the Silk Road, The Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-hsien) left China around A.D. 399 to study Buddhism and locate sutras and relics in India. He traveled from Xian to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas. He crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “The spread of Buddhist doctrines from India to China beginning sometime in the first century CE triggered a profusion of cross-cultural exchanges that had a profound impact on Asian and world history. The travels of Buddhist monks and pilgrims and the simultaneous circulation of religious texts and relics not only stimulated interactions between the Indian kingdoms and various regions of China, but also influenced people living in Central and Southeast Asia. Indeed, the transmission of Buddhist doctrines from India to China was a complex process that involved multiple societies and a diverse group of people, including missionaries, itinerant traders, artisans, and medical professionals. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 <<>>]

“Chinese pilgrims played a key role in the exchanges between ancient India and ancient China. They introduced new texts and doctrines to the Chinese clergy, carried Buddhist paraphernaliafor the performance of rituals and ceremonies, and provided detailed accounts of their spiritual journeys to India. Records of Indian society and its virtuous rulers, accounts of the flourishing monastic institutions, and stories about the magical and miraculous prowess of the Buddha and his disciples often accompanied the descriptions of the pilgrimage sites in their travel records. In fact, these travel records contributed to the development of a unique perception of India among members of the Chinese clergy. For some, India was a sacred, even Utopian, realm. Others saw India as a mystical land inhabited by “civilized” and sophisticated people. In the context of Chinese discourse on foreign peoples, who were often described as uncivilized and barbaric, these accounts significantly elevated the Chinese perception of Indian society. <<>>

“Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing were among hundreds of Chinese monks who made pilgrimages to India during the first millennium CE. The detailed accounts of their journeys make them more famous than others. These travel records are important historical resources for several reasons. First, they provide meticulous accounts of the nature of Buddhist doctrines, rituals, and monastic institutions in South, Central, and Southeast Asia. Second, they contain vital information about the social and political conditions in South Asia and kingdoms situated on the routes between China and India. Third, they offer remarkable insights into cross-cultural perceptions and interactions. Additionally, these accounts throw light on the arduous nature of long-distance travel, commercial exchanges, and the relationship between Buddhist pilgrims and itinerant merchants. <<>>

Yijing’s Account Shows Lots of Chinese Buddhist Monks Traveled to India

monk in Kizil Cave

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “The biographies of Chinese pilgrims in Yijing’s Memoirs of Eminent Monks reveal that, despite the perilous nature of the journey, Buddhist monks from China visited India frequently and in considerable numbers during the seventh century. Some of these monks used the overland routes through Central Asia and Tibet to India. Others, similar to Yijing, took the maritime route via Southeast Asian ports. Some returned to China after their pilgrimages, others either decided to stay in India or died before they could embark on the return voyage. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 <<>>]

These biographies are short accounts of pilgrimages of Chinese monks who have left no records of their trips to India. In the biography of the monk Xuanzhao in fascicle one, for example, Yijing gives Xuanzhao’s genealogy and narrates his experience learning the Buddhist doctrine, the long journey he took to India through Tibet, the education he received at Indian monasteries, and his return to China through Nepal and Tibet. Shortly after reaching China, Xuanzhao was ordered by the Tang Emperor Gaozong to return to India to procure for him longevity drugs and physicians. Yijing reports that Xuanzhao accomplished his objective but died before he could return to China. Together with fifty-five other biographies, this account demonstrates the resolute and fervent desire of the Chinese clergy to visit Buddhist sites and study in India. <<>>

“Addressing the large number of Buddhist followers unable to undertake the perilous journey to India, Yijing wrote the following in his introduction to The Record of Buddhism: “If you read this Record of mine, you may, without moving one step, travel in all the five countries of India.” He ends the work by stating, “My real hope and wish is to represent the Vulture Peak in the Small Rooms [peak of Mount Song] of my friends, and to build a second Rajagrha City in the Divine Land of China.” <<>>

“These two statements represent the wishes of all other Chinese pilgrims, including Faxian and Xuanzang, who returned to write narratives of their pilgrimages to India. Through their narratives, they sought to provide the followers of the Buddhist doctrine in China an opportunity to envision the sites and events in the life of the Buddha that they considered sacred and miraculous. Additionally, these pilgrims, by returning with Buddhist texts, relics, and other paraphernalia, tried to recreate in China an Indic world where the followers could perform pilgrimages without embarking on the arduous journey to India and, at the same time, dispel their feeling of borderland complex. <<>>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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