1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hsüan Tsang

HSÜAN TSANG (Hiouen Thsang, Hiwen T’sang, Yüan Tsang, Yuan-Chwang), the most eminent representative of a remarkable and valuable branch of Chinese literature, consisting of the narratives of Chinese Buddhists who travelled to India, whilst their religion flourished there, with the view of visiting the sites consecrated by the history of Sakya Muni, of studying at the great convents which then existed in India, and of collecting books, relics and other sacred objects.

The importance of these writings as throwing light on the geography and history of India and adjoining countries, during a very dark period, is great, and they have been the subject of elaborate commentaries by modern students. Several Chinese memoirs of this kind appear to have perished; and especially to be regretted is a great collection of the works of travellers to India, religious and secular, in sixty books, with forty more of maps and illustrations, published at the expense of the emperor Kao-Tsung of the T’ang dynasty, A.D. 666, with a preface from the imperial hand. We will mention the clerical travellers of this description who are known to us by name.

1. Shi-tao-’an (d. 385) wrote a work on his travels to the “western lands” (an expression applying often to India), which is supposed to be lost. 2. Fa-hien travelled to India in 399, and returned by sea in 414. His work, called Fo-Kwo-Ki, or Memoirs on the Buddha Realms, has been translated by Abel-Rémusat and Landresse, and again into English by the Rev. S. Beale; Mr Laidlay of Calcutta also published a translation from the French, with interesting notes. 3. Hwai Seng and Sung-Yun, monks, travelled to India to collect books and reliques, 518–521. Their short narrative has been translated by Karl Fried. Neumann, and also by Mr Beale (along with Fa-hien). 4. Hsüan Tsang, the subject of this notice. In relation to his travels there are two Chinese works, both of which have been translated with an immense appliance of labour and learning by M. Stanislas Julien, viz. (a) the Ta-T’ang-Si-Yu-Ki, or Memoirs on Western Countries issued by the T’ang Dynasty, which was compiled under the traveller’s own supervision, by order of the great emperor Tai-Tsung; and (b) a Biography of Hsüan Tsang by two of his contemporaries. 5. The Itinerary of Fifty-six Religious Travellers, compiled and published under imperial authority, 730. 6. The Itinerary of Khi-Nie, who travelled (964–976) at the head of a large body of monks to collect books, &c. Neither of the last two has been translated.

Hsüan Tsang was born in the district of Keu-Shi, near Honan-Fu, about 605, a period at which Buddhism appears to have had a powerful influence upon a large body of educated Chinese. From childhood grave and studious, he was taken in charge by an elder brother who had adopted the monastic life, in a convent at the royal city of Loyang in Honan. Hsüan Tsang soon followed his brother’s example. For some years he travelled over China, teaching and learning, and eventually settled for a time at the capital Chang-gan (now Si-gan-fu in Shensi), where his fame for learning became great. The desire which he entertained to visit India, in order to penetrate all the doctrines of the Buddhist philosophy, and to perfect the collections of Indian books which existed in China, grew irresistible, and in August 629 he started upon his solitary journey, eluding with difficulty the strict prohibition which was in force against crossing the frontier.

The “master of the law,” as his biographers call him, plunged alone into the terrible desert of the Gobi, then known as the Sha-mo or “Sand River,” between Kwa-chow and Igu (now Hami or Kamil). At long intervals he found help from the small garrisons of the towers that dotted the desert track. Very striking is the description, like that given six centuries later by Marco Polo, of the quasi-supernatural horrors that beset the lonely traveller in the wilderness—the visions of armies and banners; and the manner in which they are dissipated singularly recalls passages in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. After great suffering Hsüan Tsang reached Igu, the seat of a Turkish principality, and pursued his way along the southern foot of the T’ian-shan, which he crossed by a glacier pass (vividly described) in the longitude of Lake Issyk-kul. In the valley of the Talas river he encounters the great khan of the Turks on a hunting party,—a rencontre which it is interesting to compare with the visit of Zemarchus to the great khan Dizabul, sixty years before, in the same region. Passing by the present Tashkend, and by Samarkand, then inhabited by fire worshippers, he reached the basin of the Upper Oxus, which had recently been the seat of the powerful dominion of the Haiathelah, Ephthalites or White Huns, known in earlier days to the Greeks as Tochari, and to Hsüan Tsang (by the same name) as Tuholo or Tukhā;ra. His account of the many small states into which the Tukhāra empire had broken up is of great interest, as many of them are identical in name and topography with the high valley states and districts on the Upper Oxus, which are at this day the object of so much geographical and political interest.

Passing by Bamian, where he speaks of the great idols still so famous, he crosses Hindu-Kush, and descends the valley of the Kabul river to Nagarahara, the site of which, still known as Nagara, adjoining Jalalabad, has been explored by Mr W. Simpson. Travelling thence to Peshawar (Purushapura), the capital of Gandhara, he made a digression, through the now inaccessible valley of Swat and the Dard states, to the Upper Indus, returning to Peshawar, and then crossing the Indus (Sintu) into the decayed kingdom of Taxila (Ta-cha-si-lo, Takshasila), then subject to Kashmir. In the latter valley he spent two whole years (631-633) studying in the convents, and visiting the many monuments of his faith. In his further travels he visited Mathura (Mot’ulo, Muttra), whence he turned north to Thanesar and the upper Jumna and Ganges, returning south down the valley of the latter to Kanyakubja or Kanauj, then one of the great capitals of India. The pilgrim next entered on a circuit of the most famous sites of Buddhist and of ancient Indian history, such as Ajodhya, Prayaga (Allahabad), Kausambhi, Sravasti, Kapilavastu, the birth-place of Sakya, Kusinagara, his death-place, Pataliputra (Patna, the Palibothra of the Greeks), Gaya, Rajagriha and Nalanda, the most famous and learned monastery and college in India, adorned by the gifts of successive kings, of the splendour of which he gives a vivid description, and of which traces have recently been recovered. There he again spent nearly two years in mastering Sanskrit and the depths of Buddhist philosophy. Again, proceeding down the banks of the Ganges, he diverged eastward to Kamarupa (Assam), and then passed by the great ports of Tamralipti (Tamluk, the misplaced Tamalitis of Ptolemy), and through Orissa to Kanchipara (Conjeeveram), about 640. Thence he went northward across the Carnatic and Maharashtra to Barakacheva (Broach of our day, Barygaza of the Greeks). After this he visited Malwa, Cutch, Surashtra (peninsular Gujarat, Syrastrene of the Greeks), Sind, Multan and Ghazni, whence he rejoined his former course in the basin of the Kabul river.

This time, however, he crosses Pamir, of which he gives a remarkable account, and passes by Kashgar, Khotan (Kustana), and the vicinity of Lop-nor across the desert to Kwa-chow, whence he had made his venturous and lonely plunge into the waste fifteen years before. He carried with him great collections of books, precious images and reliques, and was received (April 645) with public and imperial enthusiasm. The emperor T’ai-Tsung desired him to commit his journey to writing, and also that he should abandon the eremitic rule and serve the state. This last he declined, and devoted himself to the compilation of his narrative and the translation of the books he had brought with him from India. The former was completed A.D. 648. In 664 Hsüan Tsang died in a convent at Chang-gan. Some things in the history of his last days, and in the indications of beatitude recorded, strongly recall the parallel history of the saints of the Roman calendar. But on the other hand we find the Chinese saint, on the approach of death, causing one of his disciples to frame a catalogue of his good works, of the books that he had translated or caused to be transcribed, of the sacred pictures executed at his cost, of the alms that he had given, of the living creatures that he had ransomed from death. “When Kia-shang had ended writing this list, the master ordered him to read it aloud. After hearing it the devotees clasped their hands, and showered their felicitations on him.” Thus the “well-done, good and faithful” comes from the servant himself in self-applause.

The book of the biography, by the disciples Hwai-li and Yen-t’sung, as rendered with judicious omissions by Stan. Julien, is exceedingly interesting; its Chinese style receives high praise from the translator, who says he has often had to regret his inability to reproduce its grace, elegance and vivacity.

Authorities.Fo-Koue-Ki, trad. du Chinois, par Abel-Rémusat, revu et complété par Klaproth et Landresse (Paris, 1836); H. de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang, &c., trad. du Chinois par Stanislas Julien (Paris, 1853); Mémoires sur les contrées occidentales ... trad. du Chinois en Français (par le même) (2 vols., Paris, 1857–1858); Mémoire analytique, &c., attached to the last work, by L. Vivien de St Martin; “Attempt to identify some of the Places mentioned in the Itinerary of Hiuan Thsang,” by Major Wm. Anderson, C.B., in Journ. As. Soc. Bengal, vol. xvi. pt. 2, p. 1183 (the enunciation of a singularly perverse theory); “Verification of the Itinerary of Hwan Thsang, &c.,” by Captain Alex. Cunningham, Bengal Engineers, ibid. vol. xvii. pt. 1, p. 476; Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yan, Buddhist Pilgrims, &c., by Sam. Beal (1869); The Ancient Geography of India, by Major-General Alex. Cunningham, R.E. (1871); “Notes on Hwen Thsang’s Account of the Principalities of Tokharistan,” by Colonel H. Yule, C.B., in Journ. Roy. As. Soc., new ser., vol. vi. p. 82; “On Hiouen Thsang’s Journey from Patna to Ballabhi,” by James Fergusson, D.C.L., ibid. p. 213. (H. Y.; R. K. D.)