07 February 2020

Texts and Historiography: The Case of Xuanzang

Following hot on the heels of my recent article about the historiography of Xuanzang, comes a new article by my longtime online friend, Dr Jeffrey Kotyk. His main subject these days is astrology in ancient China, but his latest article is on Chinese historiography - the writing of history.
Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2020). ‘Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳’. T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544. https://brill.com/view/journals/tpao/105/5-6/article-p513_1.xml
My intention here is to discuss his article rather than reviewing it. Kotyk is a knowledgeable Sinologist who has frequently assisted me with insights into Chinese Buddhism and language. Over the last couple of years we have often corresponded about the Heart Sutra and more recently on Xuanzang's association with it; although we come at from different angles, we are largely in agreement about the main points. I will outline the main points and draw out the threads that most clearly relate to my work, interspersing some of my own observations.


In particular, as his title suggests, Kotyk studied the contrasting pictures of Xuanzang (602-664 CE) painted by different sources. The principle sources for Xuanzang's life are the biography by Yancong published in 688 and Xuanzang's own account of his travels to the West (629-645 CE) published soon after his return. Another important source is Daoxuan's biography, initially composed between 646 and 649 and surviving in two recensions, one of which was revised by Daoxuan and another by an unknown hand after Xuanzang's death. In addition there are a number of state histories, compiled by state historians who were educated in the Confucian classics.  These were official histories focussed on the activities of the Emperor and were not without their own biases, but their biases were very different from the biases of Buddhists. Comparing the various versions of history allows Kotyk to pick out the most plausible elements of each.

The stories that most people are familiar with come largely from the Yancong biography. Kotyk critiques the attribution of this work, concluding that Yancong is the principle author and that although Huili is named as having initiated the project some aspects of this account are doubtful. The popular stories of Xuanzang's life can be described as based on a true story but in many ways they reflect religious sympathies in the decades after Xuanzang died, when Wu Zetian was the de facto ruler of China. After the death of her husband, Gaozong, she went on to become emperor in her own right. Yancong's biography was published in 688, just two years before Wu Zetian took the throne and became the first and only female Emperor. Buddhists were taking part in court factionalism on the side of Wu Zetian. 

Kotyk and I both reference work by Max Deeg that suggests that the Travelogue is similarly affected by politics and in particular by Xuanzang's (probably futile) efforts to win Emperor Taizong over to Buddhism. The close personal relationship between Emperor Taizong and Xuanzang is a feature of the religious biographies precisely because it raises the perceived status of both Xuanzang and of Buddhism more generally. Buddhism "the foreign religion" was popular, but continued to vie with Confucianism and Daoism for imperial sponsorship and suffered periodic purges (especially when the wealth of Buddhists became a drag on the economy of China).

Jeffrey is critical of the idea that if we just strip all the obviously fictional material out of hagiographies we will arrive at something like history. This is a theme in John Kieschnick's book The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Kotyk quotes Kieschnick as observing that “scholars have concentrated on winnowing out such fabulous elements in an attempt to uncover a factual core.” He further notes that this process “is crucial if we are to understand what a given monk really said and did at a particular place and time.” However, in his conclusion, Kotyk also notes that Kieschnick warns that “attempts to strip stories of legendary materials meet with only limited success.” 

Kotyk shows that in the case of Xuanzang stripped back stories do not lead to an accurate picture of Xuanzang's life. This is an important observation in the broader context of Buddhist historiography, because the method is very popular, especially with respect to the early Buddhist texts. Many historians have attempted to strip out the more fabulous and fantastical elements of the Buddha's biography, for example, and declared that what they leave behind is something like objective history. Where we do have external confirmation we know this method to be unreliable. 

In the well documented case of Xuanzang, we happen to have multiple sources from multiple (competing) view points. Xuanzang's actual story has been adapted, within a few decades of his death, for religious and/or political purposes. And this in a literate culture with a penchant for carving words in stone. What this case shows is that, even if we take out the myths, what remains can still be fictional, or merely based on a true story. Without the benefit of records from other communities with other values, we cannot rely on a single body of literature produced by a religious community as historical documents.

This is not an entirely new observation. The unreliability of, for example, the Pāli texts has been repeatedly commented on. But this does not stop certain scholars from using this method and proclaiming what they discover as a result to be evidence of the historical Buddha. Kotyk notes that the same happens with respect to Xuanzang; i.e., the religious accounts are given much more credence than they deserve in academia. It is almost as though scholars of Buddhism become blind to the rhetorical uses to which texts can be put. Somehow it is assumed that Buddhists are far removed from such mundane affairs as politics. 

Let me assure the reader that Buddhists are no better than ordinary people. If any indication of this were needed, just start counting up all the "enlightened masters" who have had to step down in disgrace over their sex, alcohol, or bullying. The list is long and just as long in traditional settings, though there such disgraces are more likely to be covered up. Buddhists are human beings. Our communities are political. We vie amongst ourselves for influence and power. Where we rely on external patronage we participate in external politics, sometimes exerting undue influence. In states where Buddhism has flourished, the ruling classes have often found this influence unwelcome or oppressive and taken steps to neutralise it. 

The story of Xuanzang was clearly adapted to serve the purposes of his successors. This happened in a literate culture with a feeling for history, with official state historians who deliberately recorded events for posterity, within living memory of a genuinely historical character, and with more than one record being kept. Just imagine what could happen in an intensely religious oral culture, with no feeling for history, no historians, no historical figure, and no parallel community making observations and records.

I have observed in the past that Buddhists are apt to misrepresent other Buddhists' beliefs in order to create strawman arguments that can easily be knocked down. The polemical literature is full of this kind of thing. Buddhists in antiquity were not concerned with history or objectivity. Buddhist accounts are too often biased and politically motivated, so exploring the full range of sources helps to balance this out to some extent. I've already mentioned that much is popularly made of Xuanzang's close relationship with Emperor Taizong. Non-Buddhist sources paint a very different picture of the emperor as someone who had an intense dislike of Buddhism that grew over time. He was nevertheless obliged, as Emperor, to support Buddhist activities and projects as a political expedient. It's possible that he warmed to Xuanzang personally, or was just interested in his knowledge of China's aggressively expanding western borders. But it's very unlikely that he was sympathetic to Xuanzang's mission, or that he made a deathbed conversion. Also, notably, the last years of Taizong's reign were rife with factionalism that his son Emperor Gaozong inherited. Wu Zetian played a decisive role in suppressing this factionalism.

In the last part of the article, Kotyk formally proposes the idea that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra (I've been talking about this for a while, but the idea came from our email correspondence). This is based on the earliest dated literary mention of the Heart Sutra, tying it to an event in 656 CE when Wu Zetian's oldest son became crown prince. In my own article about Xuanzang, finished before Kotyk proposed this new idea, I pointed out that this is two years after Atikūṭa translated the Dhāranīsamucaya, the likely source of the dhāraṇī added to the end of the Heart Sutra, and thus close to the date before which the Heart Sutra as we know it could not exist. Sometimes the best we can do is point out that a narrative does not conflict with the established facts.

Alongside work by Max Deeg (whom we both cite), this article and my own recent article raise some serious questions about academic historiography of Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. Far too much reliance has been placed on unreliable sources. This is not a problem for religious hagiographies and inspirational stories. These need not be based on historical facts any more than a novel must. Sherlock Holmes is no less an inspiration for detectives everywhere because he is fictional. Religious stories serve religious purposes: inspiriting the faithful, reinforcing orthodoxy, maintaining a sense of group identity, and so on. Imperial histories also have their biases. Imperiums are always seeking to justify the imposition of their rule over local rulers. Official histories become a vehicle for this self-justification by showing, for example, how the emperor brought stability and prosperity to the realm. That said, the imperial histories also record the failures of emperors - around that time several disastrous campaigns against Goguryeo led to Chinese troops being repeatedly repelled and, on occasion, to their being massacred. Tang Emperor's support for religious activities have to be seen in this light. Such support was typically a political expedient, but is used by Buddhists to imply that their activities were not merely state sanctioned, but that the Emperors were themselves Buddhists. Taizong was not a Buddhist and neither was his son Gaozong. But Wu Zetian was. Ironically, Buddhist historical accounts, especially as they relate to the Heart Sutra, tend to completely overlook Wu Zetian and her role in China at the time. And yet it now seems very likely that Xuanzang composed the Heart Sutra as a gift for Wu Zetian. 

At least in some quarters, academic historians aspire to more objective accounts that connect the known facts in a plausible narrative that adds as little as possible to connect the dots. But Kotyk also notes that historiography has become infected with the relativism of postmodernism. This says that there is no such thing as objectivity, no such thing as historiography. It's all just "narrative", and any narrative is as good as any other. Neither Kotyk nor I believe that relativism is warranted or justified. One can acknowledge the subjectivity inherent in historiography and the different possible readings of events without opening the door to relativism. To adopt relativism is to abandon reason.

A religious history full or magic and miracles cannot be true in the same way as a history that merely describes mundane events in a plausible way. However, this straightforward fact does not mean that we cannot hold sophisticated views of history or that we cannot acknowledge that different values systems exist (and especially existed in the time period we study). It is vitally important, in my view, that we understand the mores and social practices of mid-7th Century China when attempting to understand the Heart Sutra. Despite striving for objectivity we need not argue that hagiography is invalid and serves no purpose. Hagiography does serve a purpose and is valuable in its own context. The difference is the breadth of the context. Hagiography is aimed at, and really only appeals to, believers, whereas history aims to communicate to a broader audience. Objectivity includes being objective about the purpose of stories in the lives of human beings. The popularity of fictional characters is also an epistemically objective fact.* They serve a purpose. And they definitely have value. In acknowledging this we need not throw the baby out with the bath water and deny the value of objective historiography (even "objective" is an aspiration rather than something fully achieved). Relativism seems like a naive, even puerile, approach to complexity.
* I make use of John Searle's distinction of four kinds of fact in his account of social reality: ontologically objective, ontologically subjective, epistemically objective, and epistemically subjective. See my 2016 series of essays on Social Reality and more recently: The Heart Sutra and Social Reality.
It can be difficult to hold two different values systems. As scholars, Kotyk and I aspire to write objective historical accounts of the life of Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra. We are part of a community of people who are constantly refining our understanding of both the process and the outcome (and with this article, Kotyk makes an important contribution to both). This requires that we pursue our ideas vigorously, but be prepared to change direction at any time as new facts or new interpretations of the facts emerge that are more plausible. We aim for truth and acknowledge that at best we achieve increasing plausibility amidst competing systems of values. To paraphrase something Richard Feynman said about intelligent people: we know that in the long run we are probably wrong, but we hope to be wrong in an interesting way. There is no need to abandon reason and give up on the ideal of objective truth. Historiography is complex and fraught with difficulties. While relativism does simplify things greatly and lightens the load on intellectuals, absolving them from the task of evaluating their sources, it does so at an unacceptably high cost.

The religieux has an entirely different relationship to these stories. These stories are constantly retold and elaborated in such a way as to highlight the virtues prized by storyteller and audience. The protagonist becomes someone who exemplifies the values of the community. Repeating the story rehearses and reinforces community values and a sense of belonging. And the story typically evolves along with the values of the community, although the story itself may help to regulate such changes. The hero of religious stories usually exemplifies conservative positions within the community.

Kotyk's discussion of the source texts really requires a good knowledge of Chinese history and language. But his broader points are easily comprehensible to a serious reader. The revised histories that we propose for Xuanzang and the Heart Sutra may not appeal to religieux. They may feel that we go too far in eliminating the mythic and symbolic accounts. We might counter that such elements largely only make sense in light of the politics of the early Tang Dynasty and the internecine struggles that led to the first and only female emperor. Ironically, Xuanzang is remembered as a translator despite the fact that his translations were never popular. In the popular imagination Xuanzang is a famous pilgrim - the monk named Tripiṭaka from the TV show Monkey

Different communities tell different stories about this historical figure, Xuanzang. His role varies depending on what counts as a virtue in a particular milieu. Those of us involved in trying to create an objective historical account may feel that what we do transcends all values systems. This would be naive. One of the things that history teaches us is that communities tell stories that reflect their values and concerns. Powerful forces in politics and religion (and religious politics) try to bend stories to fit their preferred narrative. We need not capitulate to a lobotomising relativism in which all views are equally valid, but we do need to be aware of the different values that drive people to tell stories. How much we pander to other people's belief systems is open to question. I think people like Richard Dawkins did huge damage in this area, by being rude and angry about people not sharing his (reductive neoliberal) worldview. I don't share it either, because I think it is more objective to acknowledge the existence and reality of structures and systems. 

Those of us with an interest in objective history have a job to do in communicating our values or in other words in communicating the value of our work to those who do not yet see it. An article like Kotyk's or mine is an internal document. By scholars for scholars. We presume that scholars who read the journals we publish in broadly share our values. This assumption itself is probably naive in Buddhism Studies since a huge proportion of our peers are either Buddhists or enthusiasts (the emic/etic distinction frequently breaks down in religious studies because there are very few neutral observers). Not to mention the problem of relativism amongst scholars (or other ideological commitments which I haven't touched on). Communicating about a complex issue to a complex audience, half of whom remain unconvinced about the validity of the project, is difficult. Sometimes the rejections are hostile and brutal and come from unexpected quarters. 

Still, I think Kotyk has amply made the case for using the full range of historical sources for writing history available to us. By privileging the normative religious sources, and not putting them into a broader historical perspective, historians have been remiss and have produced partial accounts. The standard accounts of Xuanzang should at the very least note the discrepancy between sources like Yancong's and Daoxuan's biographies, and the state histories. We can no longer ignore the central role of Wu Zetian in this period. We should not portray Buddhists as above or beyond the political fray. Unfortunately, things have gotten away from us and the partial (and partially false) accounts of history are now widespread and repeated. The popular history has a lot of momentum and it will be difficult to turn things around.


Further Reading

Attwood, Jayarava. (2019). 'Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.' Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32: 1–30.

Kieschnick, John. (1997). The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. University of Hawaii Press.
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