The Travels of Hsuan Tsang or, A Lesson in Indo-China Diplomacy

With the proposed upcoming visit of Chinese premier Li Keqiang, Indo-Chinese relations seem to be on everyone’s agenda. Not only are the two nations among the top in terms of contemporary economic development, these two BRICS countries also have a shared past. Part of what this article seeks to do then will be to highlight this common background. For this, I want to look at a figure originating from China but spending a good time of his life in India: Hsuan Tsang.

Hsuan Tsang was among a substantial number of Chinese scholars who visited India through the Silk Route. His work, along with others like Fa Hsien, Sung Yun and I Tsing, is indispensable for India’s history. Not only did the introduce Chinese culture to India, they took back values and lessons from India to their native country as well.

Living in the 7th century – a period when foreign travel was not permitted in China – Hsuan Tsang acted on a dream which had convinced him to visit India for all its splendor and teachings. He stealthily slipped away from the Chinese mainland via the gates of Yumen. For a year he travelled across the Gobi Desert, arriving in Turpan in 630. Here the Buddhist king of Tupan offered him various letters of introduction to serve him on his way forward. Thence, he travelled through the Khyber Pass and reached Gandhara (what is now Peshawar, Pakistan.) From here, he went to Taxila finding numerous Buddhist monks and monasteries on his way. From thereon, he would travel to Kapilavastu and proceed to Lumbini, the place where the Buddha was born.

After the initial seven to eight years of travel, Hsuan Tsang set out from Lumbini towards the site where the Buddha died at Kusinagara. Thenceforth, he travelled eastwards to Varanasi, Pataliputra and Bodh Gaya. He spent two years at Nalanda, the great university where he found thousands of fellow monks. Apart from Buddhism, he studied Logic, Grammar and Sanskrit here.

From then on, he sought to return to his homeland, passing many local Indian kingdoms along the way. All along, he recorded his thoughts and observations in his now priceless Hsi-yü Chi or Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. This work is considered monumental for Indian historigraphy.

Besides this, after a solid Indian Buddhist education, he procured and translated more than 600 Buddhist texts and devoted a lot of his time studying Indian philosophy. His records mention over a 100 Indian kingdoms as well as descriptions of various learned men and Indian kings and emperors.

His journey is the stuff of legend today. Among the many works that he inspired is the Ming novel, Journey to the West, considered part of the canon of Chinese literature.
The lesson to be learnt from a story such as Hsuan Tsang’s is that countries, borders and regions are man-made and porous. His life signified a crossing of boundaries, traversing differences and embracing similarities. Much can be retrieved from the teachings of his life for Sino-Indian relations today.