Xuanzang rendering from Mogao Cave
In A.D. 629 (or 627, depending on the source), Xuanzang set off on a journey to India. It would be 17 years before he would return. Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “According to tradition, before Xuanzang left the capital of the great Tang dynasty, Chang’an (Xian), he had a vision of the holy Mount Sumeru. He beheld an unending horizon, symbol of the countless lands he hoped to see. Because the Tang Emperor had forbidden travel in the dangerous western regions, Xuanzang went forth as a fugitive, hiding by day and traveling by night. When the pilgrim finally reached the Jade Gate, he set out with his horse and a guide to cross the Gashun Gobi desert, a distance of 200 miles. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

The further west Xuanzang (also known as Hsuan Tsang and Hiuen Tsang and born Chen Hui, or Chen Yi) traveled from his starting point of Ch’ang An (Xian) the more difficult his journey became as he had to contend with long stretch of desert, mountain ranges and other obstacles. Of the Taklamaken desert he reported: "As I approached China's extreme outpost at the edge of the Desert of Lop, I was caught by the Chinese army. Not having a travel permit, they wanted to send me to Tun-huang to stay at the monastery there. However, I answered 'If you insist on detaining me I will allow you to take my life, but I will not take a single step backwards in the direction of China'." The officer himself a Buddhist, let him pass. In order to avoid the next outpost, he left the main foot-track and made a detour, which brought him to a place 'so wild that no vestige of life coult be found there. There is neither bird, nor four-legged beasts, neither water nor pasture'.[Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com]

Here, according to Wriggins, “his guide tried to murder him, he lost his way and he dropped his water bag so all the water drained out into the sand. Whether by miracle or by the horse’s instinct for finding water, Xuanzang reached the oasis of Hami, known as Iwu in Tang times, the easternmost of a string of oases at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains. From the summits of these mountains, rivers flow down to the desert dunes until they disappear in the sand. The precious water is transported through underground channels called kariz. With fertile land, and the increasingly prosperous trade of China with the West and the West with China, these oases flourished greatly.” \~/

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

Xuanzang’s Account of Western China

20080317-sand cnto.jpg
Sand dunes in Xinjiang
On the first leg of his journey Xuanzang reported: ““Leaving the old country of Kau-chane, from this neighbourhood there begins what is called the 'O-ki-ni country (Anciently called Wu-ki). The kingdom of 'O-ki-ni (Akni or Aani) is about 500 li from east to west, and about 400 li from north to south. [p.18] The chief town of the realm is in circuit 6 or 7 li. On all sides it is girt with hills. The roads are precipitous and easy of defence. Numerous streams unite, and are led in channels to irrigate the fields. The soil is suitable for red millet, winter wheat, scented dates, grapes, pears, and plums, and other fruits. The air is soft and agreeable; the manners of the people are sincere and upright. The written character is, with few differences, like that of India. The clothing (of the people) is of cotton or wool. They go with shorn locks and without head-dress. In commerce they use gold coins, silver coins, and little copper coins. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

The king is a native of the country; he is brave, but little attentive to (military) plans, yet he loves to speak of his own conquests. This country has no annals. The laws are not settled. There are some ten or more Sanghârâmas with two thousand priests or so, belonging to the Little Vehicle, of the school of the Sarvâstivâdas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu- po). The doctrine of the Sutras and the requirements of the Vinaya are in agreement with those of India, and the books from which they study are the same. The professors of religion read their books and observe the rules and regulations with purity and strictness. They only eat the three pure aliments, and observe the method known as the"gradual" one. |:|

Xuanzang in Turfan

Xuanzang stayed in Turfan for some time. The king of Turfan enchanted by the monk's knowledge of the sacred Buddha books, refused to let him leave, only reluctantly relenting when Hsuan-tsang threatened a hunger strike. Thus, Hsuan-tsang had peaceable conquered to royal will. The king gave him letters of introduction the rulers of the oases along the way, thereby providing the assistance that made his pilgrimage successful.” [Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ]

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “Several months after Xuanzang visited Hami,the kingdom reverted back to China. Like many another oasis it was caught between the depredations of Turkic nomads from the north and Chinese conquerors to the south and east. Xuanzang’s reputation preceded him. When Xuanzang was still at Hami, the king of Turfan sent an escort to conduct him to his kingdom, some 200 miles to the west. The king of Turfan was a powerful monarch with great influence throughout the Taklamakan desert, and happily for Xuanzang, he was also a devout Buddhist. The king’s subjects in the ancient kingdom of Turfan were neither Chinese nor Turks nor Mongolians, but an Indo-European people speaking a dialect of the Tocharian language. The government’s institutions however, were based on Chinese models. Reflecting this composite culture, modern excavations around Turfan have brought to light Christian, Nestorian, Manichean and Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and paintings. Bezeklik monastery in the nearby mountains contained sixty-seven (some say fifty seven caves) dating from the fourth to the fourteenth century. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

“The king was so attracted to Xuanzang that he tried to detain him by force. Xuanzang staged a hunger strike; the king relented. Once convinced of his determination, the king equipped him with gold, silver, rolls of taffeta and satin, 30 horses, and 24 servants. More important, he gave him 24 letters to be presented to the kingdoms he would pass through. Finally, he commissioned one of his officers to conduct him to the Great Khan of the Western Turks. Xuanzang was overcome by his generosity. Well he might have been, for the Empire of the Western Turks at that time extended from the Altai mountains in the former Soviet Union to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. \~/

Xuanzang in Kucha in Present-Day Western China

Uighur Prince

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “ From Turfan the pilgrim and his now large caravan traveled to Kharashahr Yanqi) and thence to the flourishing kingdom of Kucha. Xuanzang was impressed with the wealth and cultural richness of its civilization as well as its size. A Kuchan orchestra had been introduced at the Chinese court and during the whole of the Tang period took part in imperial fetes. An authentic portrait of the King and Queen of Kucha, originally from the Kizil monastery, reveal an elegantly dressed royal pair and a king with red hair and light skin like most of his subjects, clearly someone of Indo-European origin. The king, not a very prudent man eventually renounced Chinese suzerainty in favor of an alliance with the Turks. In 648 C.E, long after Xuanzang’s stay, the Chinese invaded his country and took the king prisoner. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

Xuanzang reported: “Going south-west from this country 200 li or so, surmounting a small mountain range and crossing two large rivers, passing westwards through a level valley some 700 li or so, we come to the country of K'iu-chi (Kuchê. Kucha in Xinjiang anciently written Ii uei-tzu). [p.19]. The country of K'iu-chi is from east to west some thousand li or so; from north to south about 600 li. The capital of the realm is from 17 to 18 li in circuit. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

The soil is suitable for rice and corn, also (a kind of rice called) keng-t'ao; produces grapes, pomegranates, and nu- merous species of plums, pears, peaches, and almonds, also grow here. The ground is rich in minerals — gold, copper, iron, and lead, and tin. The air is soft, and the manners of the people honest. The style of writing (literature) is Indian, with some differences. They excel other countries in their skill in playing on the lute and pipe. They clothe themselves with ornamental garments of silk and embroidery. They cut their hair and wear a flowing covering (over their heads). In commerce they use gold, silver, and copper coins. The king is of the K'iu-chi race; his wisdom being small, he is ruled by a powerful minister. The children born of common parents have their heads flattened by the pressure of a wooden board.” |:|

Xuanzang on the Buddhist Activity in Kucha

Xuanzang reported: “There are about one hundred convents (sangharamas) in this country, with five thousand and more disciples. These belong to the Little Vehicle of the school of the Sarvistivadas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu-po). Their doctrine (teaching of Sutras) and their rules of discipline (principles of the Vinaya) are like those of India, and those who read them use the same (originals). They especially hold to the [p.20] customs of the "gradual doctrine," and partake only of the three pure kinds of food. They live purely, and provoke others (by their conduct) to a religious life. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

Buddhist scene from Bezeklik caves

“To the north of a city on the eastern borders of the country, in front of a Dêva temple, there is a Great dragonlake. The dragons, changing their form, couple with mares. The offspring is a wild species of horse (dragon horse), difficult to tame and of a fierce nature. The breed of these dragon-horses became docile: This country consequently became famous for its many excellent horses. Former records (of this country) say: "In late times there was a king called 'Gold Flower,' who exhibited rare intelligence in the doctrines (of religion). He was able to yoke the dragons to his chariot. When the king wished to dis- appear, he touched the ears of the dragons with his whip, and forthwith he became invisible." |:|

“From very early time till now there have been no wells in the town, so that the inhabitants have been accustomed to get water from the dragon lake. On these occasions the dragons, changing themselves into the likeness of men, had intercourse with the women. Their children, when born, were powerful and courageous, and swift of foot as the horse. Thus gradually corrupting themselves, the men all became of the dragon breed, and relying on their strength, they became rebellious and disobedient to the royal authority. Then the king, forming an alliance with the Tuh-kiueh (Turks), massacred the men of the city; young and old, all were [p.21] destroyed, so that there was no remnant left; the city is now a waste and uninhabited. |:|

“About 40 li to the north of this desert city there are two convents close together on the slope of a mountain, but separated by a stream of water, both named Chau-hu-li, being situated east and west of one another, and accordingly so called. (Here there is) a statue of Buddha, richly adorned and carved with skill surpassing that of men. The occupants of the convents are pure and truthful, and diligent in the discharge of their duties. In (the hall of) the eastern convent, called the Buddha pavilion, there is a jade stone, with a surface of about two feet in width, and of a yellowish white colour; in shape it is like a sea-shell; on its surface is a foot trace of Buddha, 1 foot 8 inches long, and eight inches or so in breadth; at the expiration of every fast-day it emits a bright and sparkling light. |:|

“Outside the western gate of the chief city, on the right and left side of the road, there are (two) erect figures of Buddha, about 90 feet high. In the space in front of these statues there is a place erected for the quinquennial assembly. Every year at the autumnal equinox, during ten several days, the priests assemble from all the country in this place. The king and all his people, from the highest to the lowest, on this occasion abstain from public business, and observe a religious fast; they listen to the [p.22] sacred teachings of the law, and pass the days without weariness. |:|

“In all the convents there are highly adorned images of Buddha, decorated with precious substances and covered with silken stuffs. These they carry (on stated occasions) in idol-cars, which they call the "procession of images." On these occasions the people flock by thousands to the place of assembly. On the fifteenth and last day of the month the king of the country and his ministers always consult together respecting affairs of state, and after taking counsel of the chief priests, they publish their decrees. |:|

Xuanzang on the King of Kucha

Xuanzang reported: “ “To the north-west of the meeting-place we cross a river and arrive at a convent called 'O- she-li-ni. The hall of this temple is open and spacious. The image of Buddha is beautifully carved. The disciples (religious) are brave and decorous and very diligent in their duties; rude and rough (men) come here together; the aged priests are learned and of great talent, and so from distant spots the most eminent men who desire to acquire just principles come here and fix their abode. The king and his ministers and the great men of the realm offer to these priests the four sorts of provision, and their celebrity spreads farther and farther. |:|

Bezeklik Uighur princesses

“The old records say: "A former king of this country worshipped the 'three precious' ones. Wishing to pay homage to the sacred relics of the outer world, he entrusted the affairs of the empire to his younger brother on the mother's side. The younger brother having received such orders, mutilated himself in order to prevent any evil risings (of passion). He enclosed the mutilated [p.23] parts in a golden casket, and laid it before the king. 'What is this?' inquired the king. In reply he said, 'On the day of your majesty's return home, I pray you open it and see.' The king gave it to the manager of his affairs, who intrusted the casket to a portion of the king's bodyguard to keep. And now, in the end, there were certain mischief-making people who said, 'The king's deputy, in his absence, has been debauching himself in the inner rooms of the women.' The king hearing this, was very angry, and would have subjected his brother to cruel punishment. The brother said, 'I dare not flee from punishment, but I pray you open the golden casket.' The king accordingly opened it, and saw that it contained a mutilated member. Seeing it, he said, 'What strange thing is this, and what does it signify?' Replying, the brother said, 'Formerly, when the king proposed to go abroad, he ordered me to undertake the affairs of the government. Fearing the slanderous reports that might arise, I mutilated myself. You now have the proof of my foresight. Let the king look benignantly on me.' The king was filled with the deepest reverence and strangely moved with affection; in consequence, he permitted him free ingress and egress throughout his palace. |:|

“"After this it happened that the younger brother, going abroad, met by the way a herdsman who was arranging to geld five hundred oxen. On seeing this, he gave himself to reflection, and taking himself as an example of what they were to suffer, he was moved with increased compassion, (and said), 'Are not my present sufferings the consequence of my conduct in some former condition of life?' He forthwith desired with money and precious jewels to redeem this herd of oxen. In consequence of this act of love, he recovered by degrees from mutilation, and on this account he ceased to enter the apartments of the women. The king, filled with wonder, asked him the [p.24] reason of this, and having heard the matter from beginning to end, looked on him as a 'prodigy' (khi- teh), and from this circumstance the convent took its name, which he built to honour the conduct of his brother and perpetuate his name." After quitting this country and going about 600 li to the west, traversing a small sandy desert, we come to the country of Poh-luh-kia. |:|

“The kingdom of Poh-luh-kia (Aksu, border of China and Kazakhstan, formerly called Che-meh or Kih-meh) is about 600 li from east to west, and 300 li or, so from north to south. The chief town is 5 or 6 li in circuit. With regard to the soil, climate, character of the people, the customs, and literature (laws of composition), these are the same as in the country of g'iu-chi. The language (spoken language) differs however a little. It produces a fine sort of cotton and hair-cloth, which are highly valued by neighboring (frontier) countries.”


Xuanzang Returns to China

satellite image of
Taklamakan Desert
Following his public successes in India, Xuanzang resolved to return to China. Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “When Xuanzang finally departed in 643 CE he was given a military escort to carry the books and images he had been collecting from the Indian subcontinent. King Harsha presented him with his best and biggest elephant capable of carrying eight men as well as the thousands of gold and silver pieces given him for expenses along the way. The king also provided him with letters to rulers on the homeward route. Only 4 years later this remarkable, versatile monarch was gone; for the next 3 centuries there would be disorder and famine in northern India. Beginning with the fall of the Guptas and becoming complete after the death of Harsha in 647 A.D., north Indian history is confused and obscure for some five or six hundred years. As the Dark Ages divide the classical age of the Greek and the Roman, so do these centuries divide modern from ancient India. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

“Having decided not to return by sea, Xuanzang and his party turned to the northeast. They crossed northern India by way of Jalandhara and Taxila returning in the opposite direction by roughly the same route Xuanzang’s caravan had taken 13 years before. At length in 644 CE Xuanzang arrived at Hund on the Indus River but here a storm rose up and overturned his boats so that he lost 50 of his precious manuscripts. He sent to Udyana for extra copies of his scriptures, waiting 2 months hoping for their arrival at Kapisa. At length his caravan reached the Hindu Kush mountains. Like Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with his elephant and baggage train, their crossing in 644 CE proved to be far more difficult than they had imagined. Xuanzang’s biographer stated that their caravan consisted only of 5 priests, 20 followers, 1 elephant, 10 asses and 4 horses. At length they descended to Kunduz on the Oxus river where they waited another month for copies of the lost manuscripts. \~/

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “ He followed the caravan-track that led across the Pamirs to Dunhuang. In the spring of 644, he reached Khotan and awaited a reply to his request for return addressed to the Emperor Taizong. In the month of November, Xuanzang left for Dunhuang by a decree of the Emperor, and arrived in the Chinese capital Chang'an the first month of the Chinese Lunar Year 645.” [Source:Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ]

Xuanzang Crosses the Pamirs to Kashgar


Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “Instead of returning the way he had come to India on the northern caravan roads to Samarkand he ascended to the upper reaches of the Oxus River, climbing the Pamir range to reach Kashgar.(This was the route Marco Polo followed on his way to China in 1271 C.E.) Xuanzang crossed near the Tagdumbash Pamirs which Marco Polo has called the Roof of the World. This is where the ranges of the Hindu Kush crossing modern-day Afghanistan, the Karakorum in northern Pakistan and the Pamirs in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and the Tian Shan range in China all meet in the Pamir knot. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, mongolianculture.com \~/]

“On the other side of the Pamirs Xuanzang’s caravan again met tragedy when they were attacked by robbers in a very narrow defile. His elephant was chased by bandits, fell into the river and drowned. Aurel Stein has located what he believes to be the very gorge where this took place.[xviii] Xuanzang and his party made their way on the western slopes of 24,399 foot Mustagh-Ata, the second highest peak in the Pamirs. At last he reached Kashgar in China’s westernmost oasis on the edge of the Taklamakan desert in what is now Xinjiang.

Fifteen years after he left China he was now back in it— present-day China anyway. On Kashgar, Xuanzang commented on”the fine woollen stuffs and fine woven woollen rugs”of this important trade center. He also mentioned that the people had green eyes, suggesting the Sogdian or East Iranian origin of some of the population. \~/

The Chinese scholar Feng Qiyong discovered the route that Xuanzang traveled on his journey back to China from India. "I went to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 10 times and climbed the Parmirs Plateau three times to verify the Ancient Wahan Route that Xuanzang took when he first reenter China. After that, I traveled all the way from the ancient city of Milan, the Lop Nor salt lake, the ancient city of Loulan, and the Longcheng, Bailongdui and Sanlongsha areas to the Yumen Pass to finally confirm the last part of the route on which Xuanzang traveled from Yutian, an ancient Western kingdom, back to Chang'an, the then capital of the Tang Dynasty," Feng wrote in his autobiography.

Xuanzang Journey from Khotan Home

Khotanese donor ladies from Dunhuang cave

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: His next important stop was Khotan, a fortnight’s journey on the caravan road. It was the largest oasis on the Southern Silk Road. Khotan also produced rugs, fine felt and silk as well as black and white jade. Everywhere he found evidence of Indian influence. The local tradition was that Khotan had been settled by Indians from Taxila. Xuanzang visited a monastery built to commemorate the introduction of silk culture from China circa 140 CE when the king’s wife, a Chinese princess, brought silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress to the king. Xuanzang spent 7 or 8 months in Khotan still waiting for some of the lost scriptures. Finding a trader who was going to Chang’an, he sent a letter to the emperor, saying that he was on his way home. In 629 CE he had left China against the emperor’s wishes and didn’t know how he would be received on his return. But after several months a messenger arrived with the emperor’s reply in which he expressed great pleasure at the news of Xuanzang’s imminent return. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

“Soon afterwards, he left Khotan. Xuanzang does not provide much information about places on the southern Silk Road. After leaving Niya he describes the Taklamakan desert as “a desert of drifting sand without water of vegetation, burring hot and the hound of poisonous fiends and imps. There is no road, and travelers in coming and going have only to look for the deserted bones of man and beast as there guide...When these winds rise, then both men and beasts become confused and forgetful. At times sad and plaintive notes are heard and piteous cries so that between the sights and sounds of this desert men get confused and know not whither they go..Hence there are many who perish on the journey.” Marco Polo described similar phenomena.

Xuanzang rested from his desert traveling at Dunhuang at the juncture of the northern and southern silk roads and the home of Mogao Caves, a famous Buddhist shrine, library and gallery of Buddhist art. He is said to have deposited his precious manuscripts in the monastic library at the caves. A wall painting in Cave No. 103 illustrates a sutra and may portray Xuanzang on his way back from India with the elephant given to him by King Harsha. \~/

Xuanzang was still officially a fugitive in his homeland, China, because he had left without permission. Xuanzang wrote a letter to the emperor describing what he had learned and as a result, the emperor not only welcomed him back, but appointed him a court advisor. [Source: Asia Society]

Xuanzang Arrives Back in Chang’an

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “When the pilgrim arrived at Chang’an in 645 the emperor Taizong (626-649) was away on a military expedition, so high officials met him and guided him into the capital. A procession of monks carried his 657 books, gold and sandalwood images, and relics through the city. The streets were filled with vast crowds welcoming him home. Subsequently he went to Luoyang where the Emperor Taizong asked about the rulers, climate, customs, products and histories of the countries he had visited. First the emperor exhorted him to be one of his advisors on Asian affairs.“If your Majesty orders me to return to secular life, it would be like dragging a boat from the water to the land.”After Xuanzang refused,the emperor suggested that he write a book about the Western Regions which Xuanzang completed in 646 CE.” [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “Traditional sources report that Xuanzang's arrival in Chang'an was greeted with an imperial audience and an offer of official position (which Xuanzang declined), followed by an assembly of all the Buddhist monks of the capital city, who accepted the manuscripts, relics, and statues brought back by the pilgrim and deposited them in the Temple of Great Happiness. It was in this Temple that Xuanzang devoted the rest of his life to the translation of the Sanskrit works that he had brought back out of the wide west, assisted by a staff of more than twenty translators, all well-versed in the knowledge of Chinese, Sanskrit, and Buddhism itself. Besides translating Buddhist texts and dictating the Da tang xi yu ji in 646, Xuanzang also translated the Dao de jing (Tao-te Ching) of Laozi (Lao-tzu) into Sanskrit and sent it to India in 647. [Source:Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ^^]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: ; 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 ; 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 October 2021

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