Note: Many of the dates associated with Xuan Zang are uncertain and many sources quote differently. Pronunciation of the pilgrim's name also varies" This article uses the Pinyin (Chinese pronunciation) of Xuan Xang, commonly written as 'Hsuan Tsang' in Western literature. The information given is only general and should be read as such. Also note that names are spelt using Pinyin (guide to Pinyin link here) as is common in China today.
Beginning a Journey
If the Silk Road conjures images of faraway deserts, foreign lands and ancient centres of Bhuddist learning then Xuan Zang visited them all.
Xuan Zang (Shuan Zang) was born around 600 AD during a time of political change in China. From a young age Hsuan was an intelligent and serious child. He shunned other boys his own age and preferred study to play.
At the age of 12, his elder brother Chang-tse enrolled him in his convent where Hsuan committed the next 15 years of his life to the study of Bhuddist law. Over time, Hsuan became a master scholar who was well versed in all the theories of the types of Bhuddist thinking available in China at that time.
And yet, Hsuan wasn’t happy. He found that the teachings he had learnt and the views of other Bhuddist were different. He also saw many defects in the Chinese translation of ancient Bhuddist texts that had originally come to China from India many centuries earlier.
Off to India
In 629 AD the monk resolved to travel to India to study with the Indian masters and discover the truth for himself. Xuan Zang was 27 when he left the Chinese capital of Chang’an for India. He was a little under 6ft tall, handsome with broad eyebrows.
It was a time of trouble in China. The Tang dynasty ruled China now and Emperor Taizong stated that all laymen and monks must stay home unless on official business. No body in their right mind would disobey the emperor, yet during a period of bad frosts, a decree was issued asking all monks to leave for areas less affected and Xuan Zang took his chance.
Moving quickly, the young monk headed north, out of the rolling arable land around Chang’an and on to the Northern Silk Road towards the desolate wilderness of the Mongolian plateau and the Gobi desert. Passing north through today’s Gansu Province (map link here), the monk struck out through the Jade Gate at Dunhuang (link to Silk Road article here) and across the dreaded desert of Lop.
Crossing the Desert
Xuan Zang faced incredible problems on the road out of China. He had no passport and no permission to leave China. The desert ahead offered no water and no rest. There were five sentry towers in the Lop desert and each had orders to shoot all travellers without a passport on sight. The monk was anxious to avoid them.
As he attempted to avoid the sentry towers Xuan Zang became lost in the desert and almost died as a result. After many days wandering without water, his horse suddenly veered off the track and wouldn’t change direction. The horse had detected water on the wind, and brought the monk to an oasis in the desert. It was a miracle and Xuan’s life was saved.
The monk pushed on reaching Kumul (Hami), Turfan and Kucha which were all centers of Bhuddism at the time. In Turfan the king gave Xuan Zang a letter to take with him to the King of the Western Gokturks whom China was friendly with then. The king was also a Bhuddist and he gave the monk an escort of four novice monks and 25 others to travel with him.
Only one third of Xuan Zang’s escort made it out of China and across the Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains) into Central Asia. The journey was hard and treacherous and led over many dangerous passes. The monk showed courage and determination and in today’s world of creature comforts and easy transport, such a journey would be unthinkable.
Along the Silk Road
According to some sources it took almost a year to reach India. Xuan Zang impressed many kings with his knowledge and many more asked him to remain with them as an advisor. The monk passed through Tashkent (in today’s Uzbekistan) and even further on to the great Silkroad Bazaar (market) town of Samarkand. Like Kashgar to the East, Samarkand was once a great trading center on the Silk Road.
Xuan’s journey led him over the Pamirs and down into today’s Afghanistan where he visited many Bhuddist monasteries and temples. He visited the magnificent former Bactrian capital of Balkh and the famed Bhuddist centre of Bamian.
At the time Bamian housed around ten monasteries with a thousand monks as well as two huge statues of the Bhudda built in the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. Recently, during a period of trouble in Afghanistan, the Taliban (2001) destroyed the two Bhuddas as they believed they were an insult to Islam.
During the time of the Silk Road many of the countries that exist today did not back then. People lived in many small kingdoms whose size was limited by local mountains and rivers. Some of these kingdoms paid taxes to larger empires of the time such as the Chinese, Turkish and Persian empires and Xuan Zang passed through dozens of countries during his ‘Journey to the west’
From Afghanistan, our hero passed over the famous Khyber Pass into today’s Pakistan, Kashmir and India. He visited the famous centres of Peshawar where he stopped at the stupendous Stupa of Kanishka - this stupa was recently rediscovered in 1908 from Xuan Zang’s record of his visit almost 1500 years earlier.
At Nalanda University
We’ll pass on here quickly to Xuan’s time in Nalanda University. The scholarly monk spent two years studying Bhuddism in Kashmir under a talented Bhuddist master and at least another three years travelling. Bhuddism was slowly declining in India and the monk found only ruins where once there had been thriving centres of Bhuddism.
Nalanda University was once the greatest centre of Bhuddist learning in the world and Xuan Zang spent many years studying there and travelling to Bhuddist holy places across India. In Nalanda, Xuan mastered Sanskrit and 50 Bhuddist scriptures, becoming one of only a few in the world to have ever accomplished this.
At a conference held by the King of India, Xuan Zang showed that he knew more Bhuddism than any other of the scholars gathered. By the time he returned to China, the monk was very widely respected. After fifteen years of travelling, he’d accumulated over 600 scriptures, many important texts and Bhuddist relics.
As he was preparing to leave India, the Abbot (head master) of Nalanda asked Xuan why did he want to leave when he could spend the rest of his life visiting Bhuddist holy sites in India. He replied that he must return to China as there was much work to be done there.
Return to China
The return journey to China would not be easy and Xuan wrote to the Tang emperor asking permission to return home. At the time the emperor was expanding his empire to the west yet he knew little about the people who lived there. He quickly wrote back granting permission and Xuan Zang returned home along the Southern Silk Road to receive a hero’s welcome.
As Xuan Zang rode through Chang’an, the whole Chinese capital had turned out to welcome him in 645 AD. He’d taken over a year to return with all his sacred books carried on 22 horses. The Tang Empire was now strong in China and the Silk Road safe to travel once again. The emperor immediately asked Xuan to become his advisor which he gently refused. The monk promised to write a book about his experiences instead which he completed in 646AD.
A building called the Wild Goose Pagoda was built in Chang’an to house Xuan Zang’s new books and to give him a quiet place to begin translating them into Chinese. The monk spent the rest of his life translating these works with a team of scholars. He completed 75 pieces in total which changed Bhuddist thinking in China forever.
The monk is still fondly remembered and admired around the world. In 664AD, Xuan Zang died at age of 62. At the time of his death Chang’an was perhaps the most thriving capital in the world. Home to two million people and over 5000 foreigners from all over the Earth. Tang Dynasty China was perhaps the most prosperous period for the Silk Road.
Journey to the West
Xuan Zang’s journey of hardship and peril was used to write one of the China’s most famous tales called Journey to the West. The story was based on Xuan’s journey and includes several fictional characters such as monkey, a magical mischievous fellow who caused as many problems as solved them.
- The Silk Road Journey with Xuan Zang - Sally Hevey Wriggins
- Journey to the West - Wu Cheng’en
- Records of the Western Regions - Xuan Zang
- Xuan Zang - Wikipedia - Comprehensive resource detailing this Chinese hero’s epic journey.
- Journey to the West - a simplified version of Xuan Zang’s journey suitable for children.
- History of Xuan Zang - Overview of the great journey concentrating on specific periods
- Xuan Zang - A Biography of the Great traveller
- Xuan Zang- Summaries from Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica and others.