In the Footsteps of Xuanzang

By Daniel Waugh

The best known of the travelers on the fabled "Silk Road," the overland trade route across Eurasia, is the Venetian Marco Polo, whose account enjoyed great popularity beginning almost in his own lifetime. There are those who argue Polo in fact never made it all the way to China, just as there is some quibbling by academics about whether we should even use the term "Silk Road" to describe what was in fact many routes of trade and interaction, most of which never were traveled along their whole length by any individual. The quibbling aside, throughout much of the history of the two millennia of our era, important political, economic and cultural interactions have occurred across Eurasia. Even reports about the latest concerns of modern governments and investors regarding the wealth of natural resources in Central Asia invoke the term "Silk Road" as a kind of short hand for a remote and somewhat exotic path to fortune.

As part of my preparation for teaching a course on the cultural and economic history of the "Silk Road," I participated this past summer in a month-long seminar organized by the Silk Road Foundation and the Dunhuang Research Institute. My goal was to learn about the spread of Buddhism in China, especially its influence on the visual arts, and to learn more generally about the significance of the Dunhuang region for the history of interactions between China and areas to the west and south. Dunhuang occupies a strategic location at the western end of the Hexi Corridor—the major connecting route historically between metropolitan China and Central Asia. This is the point where the "Silk Road" splits into two branches, one of which then goes north of the impassable Taklamakan Desert, and the other along its southern fringe, connecting the oasis towns whose survival depends on snow-melt from the adjoining mountains. When the Han Dynasty established Chinese control in Central Asia, the defensive line o f the Great Wall was extended beyond Dunhuang. One can still see in the area remains of the Han watchtowers and wall, dating back nearly two thousand years. In subsequent centuries, while not always under Chinese control, Dunhuang continued to be an important commercial and administrative center. The local elite was intimately involved in the patronage of several major Buddhist centers, one of which is the Mogao Caves.

Buddhism came to China in the late Han period (ca. 100 C.E.) and spread rapidly, although its successes were frequently interrupted depending on such factors as the level of imperial patronage and the degree to which Confucian and Taoist values were being emphasized. The first of the Mogao caves were excavated in the fourth century C.E. A monastic complex grew at this small oasis some dozen kilometers from Dunhuang, and the cliff face along its river now has well over 500 caves, the great majority of which contain sculpture and wall paintings. There is an unbroken sequence of Buddhist art, some of it in pristine condition, for nearly a millennium beginning in the fifth century. The Mogao caves had the good fortune of being spared the mass destruction of Buddhist monuments that occurred in China during the ninth century (at that time Tibetans controlled Dunhuang), and they escaped the ravages of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Dunhuang was on the route taken by important monks who traveled to India to learn Buddhism at the feet of South Asian teachers and who then brought back to China previously unknown Buddhist scriptures for translation and commentary. In the city of Dunhuang today one can visit the "White Horse Pagoda," which, according to legend, commemorates the horse that accompanied the important monastic translator Kumarajiva. Perhaps the best known of these travelers who passed through Dunhuang was Xuanzang in the seventh century. He returned from India with hundreds of manuscripts, to whose translation he devoted himself in his last years at the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an). There one can still visit the pagoda erected in his honor in the late seventh century.

To follow in the footsteps of Xuanzang is also to retrace the steps of the most famous early twentieth century explorer of Central Asia, Sir Aurel Stein. Stein’s name is inextricably connected with the Mogao Caves, since in 1907 he became the first European to gain access to a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts that had been sealed in one of the caves until discovered at the turn of the century by a local Taoist monk. Stein invoked the name of Xuanzang, whose routes he had in fact been attempting to trace, to persuade the monk to sell him a major portion of the collection. In the following year, a famous French Sinologist Paul Pelliot was able to remove the most valuable of the remaining manuscripts. These collections now reside safely in London and Paris and are now being made available over the Internet through the International Dunhuang Project. Although the Chinese understandably have complained bitterly about such "theft" of their cultural treasures, had Stein and Pelliot not taken them, the odds are that many would not have survived. Thanks to these collections, it is possible to create an often remarkably detailed picture of both secular and religious life in the Dunhuang region over a millennium ago. In addition to the Mogao manuscripts, Stein excavated at various Han watchtowers along the Silk Route hundreds of fragments of writing (often on strips of bamboo)—among them, the day-to-day records of the military administration of these defensive lines.

I feel privileged to have been following in the footsteps of Xuanzang and his twentieth-century admirer Stein. Apart from the opportunity to visit historic sites in the region, the seminar offered daily lectures by experts on the history and art of the caves. We had unprecedented access to most of the really important caves, where we spent the afternoons examining the murals and sculpture and thus had a chance to experience visually the significant changes reflecting important patterns of cultural borrowing and synthesis over centuries. Perhaps the most important lesson from this summer and the other brief experiences I have enjoyed in the western regions of China is how much we who approach Central Asia from a Western perspective must learn if we are to venture to teach the region intelligently. To the degree that Central Asia has become a part of programs such as this one, the subject tends to be defined by modern conceptual and political borders reflecting a "Russian," "Soviet," or "post-Soviet" emphasis. In fact modern borders have little bearing on the historic patterns of cultural and economic interaction along the "Silk Road." The visually stunning art we immersed ourselves in at the Mogao caves reflects interactions over a territory extending from Iran to southeast China and from Mongolia to India.

Dan Waugh, Associate Professor at the Jackson School, has travelled down the Silk Road and spent extensive periods of time in countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China.

Suggested resources:

Aurel Stein, On Ancient Central Asian Tracks (Chicago/London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974). Paperback containing a good overview of Stein’s explorations, from his American lecture tour.

Roderick Whitfield, Dunhuang, Caves of the Singing Sands: Buddhist Art from the Silk Road, 2 v. (London: Textile and Art Publications, 1995). Probably the best overview of the art of the caves, by a leading expert; illustrated with superb photographs.

Sally Hovey Wriggins, Xuanzang. A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road (Boulder: Westview, 1996). Nicely illustrated and well written account aimed at a non-specialist reader; in paperback. —The Web site for the Silk Road Foundation, with information on Dunhuang and various useful links. —The Web site for the International Dunhuang Project.