Around 1,400 years ago, an intrepid pilgrim traveled 10,000 miles along the Silk Road for 17 years, past 110 countries and regions, to finally reach the heart of Buddhism at its source in India.
Things have changed over the centuries, but the courage and dedication of Buddhist monk Xuanzang (AD 602-664) is still remembered today as China accelerates its Belt and Road Initiative, which was launched in 2013.
The First International Conference on Xuanzang and Silk Road Culture was recently held in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, which was the beginning and end of his epic journey. It attracted more than 300 experts, scholars and religious figures from China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, the United States, Canada, India, Sri Lanka and Singapore.
The three-day conference included 16 forums on topics that included Buddhist literature and art, Buddhist discipline and history, Xuanzang and the Buddhism of Central Asia, Japan and India, Xuanzang’s impact on contemporary Buddhism and his translation work.
“The successful launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative relies on the mutual trust and understanding between China and the countries along the route,” said Li Li’an, an expert on Xuanzang and a professor from the Northwest University. “What he did 1,400 years ago broke the boundaries of different nations and ethnic groups, going beyond different religions and cultural backgrounds. Xuanzang is the best friendship and peace ambassador of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
After Xuanzang returned to Xi’an with the essence of the Buddhist sutras, he wrote “Buddhist Records of the Western World,” a book on his fascinating and extensive journey.
“The Silk Road Xuanzang trekked was back then a key link between the East and the West,” said Xue Keqiao, a researcher from the South Asia Studies Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “He not only traveled around India, but also noticed and recorded lots of other countries and regions on the Silk Road, which left us important reference materials for today’s research.”
Xuanzang noted many vital harbors along the Indian coastline, such as Tamalitti, Kancipura and Nagapattanam, where Chinese merchant ships once docked.
He also mentioned Sri Lanka, a vital shipping hub of the Maritime Silk Road that reached the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, West Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East. The trade and cultural exchanges between the island country and China were found to have begun hundreds of years ago with the discovery of Chinese coins and porcelain.
Xuanzang even noted six ancient Southeast Asian countries — Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. Though he didn’t go, Xuanzang included them in the book when he was in the region of today’s Bangladesh.
Not just a courageous explorer and devoutly religious figure, Xuanzang was also a great translator.
“He is one of the rare translators of Indic material into Chinese and the most prolific of any translator,” said Dan Lusthaus, a Buddhism scholar from Harvard University.
Xuanzang’s translations covered all Buddhist genres, and he introduced new Chinese equivalent for Indic terms that had already acquired standard Chinese renderings. His translations today are often labeled “the new translation” style in a newer and more accurate way, indicating a break or change with his predecessors’ efforts.
“Through this conference, people got to know more about the Silk Road, religion, culture, art, archeology, as well as the geography and history of China and Asia,” said Zhang Baotong, a researcher from Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences and senior adviser to the China Committee of the UN World Silk Road Forum. “What’s more important, the fortitude and bravery Xuanzang showed greatly inspires and encourages us today.”