30 June 2023

Notes on Xuanzang's Waning Years

The religious history of Xuanzang sees him going from triumph to triumph, hobnobbing with emperors, and generally being successful and loved by all. Xuanzang is the ideal Chinese Buddhist monk, highly educated, adept at Sanskrit and translation, a shrewd political operative, and so on. A typical Buddhist saint in many respects.

I was, therefore, intrigued by a new article by Liu Shufen 劉淑芬, which paints a very different picture of the later years of Xuanzang's life.

"... the conventional wisdom about Xuanzang's later years has been largely misinformed, and needs to be modified in light of more sensitive readings of data in sources like the [Yancong] Biography. (Liu 2022: 259)

This is the latest in a series of articles by her on this topic. Liu brings out nuances that are easily overlooked, such as Gaozong keeping Xuanzang under virtual house arrest (657-658); or Gaozong appointing no less that seven officials to oversee Xuanzang's translation work. Moreover, after Xuanzang died his translation work was abandoned and his team of experts disbanded.

However, these events have to be seen alongside others such as a pregnant Wu Zhao asking Xuanzang to pray for her and her baby after she experienced difficulties in pregnancy. Not only does this seem to have occurred, but Xuanzang was able to temporarily ordain the new prince as a monk (to gain merit).

Liu points out that most commentators ignore the socio-political ructions during the early decades of the Tang dynasty. Liu's article prompts me to look again, particularly at the Yancong Biography. Her reading of the Biography and use of other contemporary sources is novel and draws out points that have long been overlooked, which makes it valuable.

However, Liu is reading the Biography in a relatively naive way, taking the text more or less at face value. By contrast, Jeffrey Kotyk (2019), who cites one of Liu's early contributions, has argued that we would be on safer ground reading the Biography as fiction based upon a true story (now long obscured and largely unrecoverable). Similarly, Max Deeg has shown that Xuanzang's Travelogue of his journey to the west often seems to serve purposes other than geography or history: Xuanzang was trying to exert a Buddhist influence over (a resistant, non-Buddhist) Taizong.

What I'm going to attempt in this essay is a critical reading of Liu (2022), in the light of Kotyk (2019) and some of Max Deeg's articles (2007, 2012, 2016). This is not simply an exercise, since the authorship of the Heart Sutra is an open question and the main suspect is Xuanzang. He certainly had the means and the opportunity. We can only speculate as to his motives, but a more nuanced picture of his later life might help.

The appeal of Xuanzang in the west has been partly due to the novel Journey to the West (Xī yóu jì; 西遊記), published in the 16th century, via Arthur Waley's 1942 abridged translation, Monkey, and the TV show of the same name, which aired throughout the English-speaking world (including New Zealand, where I grew up). It is also partly because Xuanzang's travelogue provided geographical information on ancient India accurate enough that nineteenth century British explorers used it to rediscover a number of lost Buddhist archaeological sites (this topic is explored in Charles Allen's popular history book, The Buddha and the Sahibs).

However, while Xuanzang himself was relatively popular in his lifetime, his translations were not popular either amongst the literati or the commoners. Nattier (1992) observed that where a translation of a text by Kumārajīva existed, a new translation by Xuanzang never replaced it. Xuanzang insisted on translating into Chinese prose that was considered turgid and ugly by the aesthetics of the day, but which modern commentators refer to as "accurate". Philologers praise Xuanzang because his sources are more visible than for any other Chinese translators. A Sanskrit source was, and still is, the most important criterion for authenticity of Buddhist texts in China. By contrast Kumārajīva's translations are still in use in modern Chinese-speaking places.

It is still common to see references to Kumārajīva as an expert in Chinese. For example, Felbur (2019: 2) refers to his "prodigious mastery of the Chinese language". However, this appears to be a pious fiction. During this period of translating T 223 and T 1509 (ca 400-404 CE), Kumārajīva's Chinese was poor enough for his collaborator, Sēngruì 僧睿 (371–438 AD) to record numerous complaints, notably:

“The Dharma Master [i.e. Kumārajīva] has great difficulty with the Chinese language. In regard to translating, the Sanskrit is beautiful, but his translation can hardly be understood.” (Chou 2004: 293).

Kotyk (2021) has also raised doubts about the level of understanding of Sanskrit in China, at any period. It is one thing to learn to read Sanskrit and translate it into another language. It is another thing entirely to compose in Sanskrit or to translate from Chinese to Sanskrit. The latter is particularly difficult because of the difference in grammatical information the writing system. A single verb in Sanskrit can have hundreds of forms which serve to indicate person, number, tense, and mood. In Middle Chinese, a single character representing a verb is used for all conjugations. Information on the person, number, tense, and mood often has to be implied from the context in Chinese, but is always explicit in the morphology of words in Sanskrit.

Liu broadly accepts accounts of Xuanzang's popularity with Emperor Táng Tàizōng 唐太宗 and dates the beginning of Xuanzang's troubles to the accession of his ninth son to the the Throne. However, Liu paints a considerably less flattering portrait of Xuanzang personally, than we find elsewhere. She notes, for example, that Xuanzang was unpopular because his translation methods were seen as suspect:

“To make matters worse, Xuánzàng is said to have possessed a somewhat abrasive personality, particularly when it came to matters regarding translation, which ended up offending quite a few elite monks.” (Liu 2022: 259)

Daoxuan 道宣 (596-667 CE), who also composed a biography of Xuanzang, "is said to have walked out of one translation session presided over by Xuánzàng in 645, and commented that while Xuánzàng’s translations were not of the finest quality, they did reflect his meritorious efforts.” (Liu 2022: 259). It seems that “Xuánzàng was on poor terms with more than a few of the era’s leading Buddhist monks”. (Liu 2022: 260). Buddhist histories often downplay Buddhist internecine conflicts, so this minority report is important in providing balance.

Life After Tàizōng 太宗.

“Xuánzàng’s stature at court changed dramatically following Taizong’s death .” (Liu 2022: 259)

The Táng 唐 Dynasty was founded on the ruins of the short-lived Sui dynasty by the Duke of Tang, aka Lǐ Yuān 李淵, later Emperor Gāozǔ 高祖. He was succeeded his son, Lǐ Shìmín 李世民 who became Emperor Tàizōng 太宗 (4 September 626 – 10 July 649). On the demise of Tàizōng, and after some of the more obvious candidates were eliminated, his ninth son, Lǐ zhì 李治 became Emperor Gāozōng 高宗 on 15 July 649.

Although the Tang is routinely portrayed as a "golden era" of Chinese culture, the early decades are better characterised as a period of simmering tensions and outbreaks of insurrection as the stronger aristocratic clans continued to flex their muscles. One issue for Han Chinese was that the Lǐ 李 clan had Turkic blood. The Turks north of the Great Wall were a considerable factor in this region. It was only with the help of the Blue Turks, for example, that the first Sui Emperor reunified China after some centuries of disunity. Later, the rebel leader An LuShan would capture the capital Chang'an with the help of Turks.

However, not content to fight outbreaks of insurrection, the early Tang emperors carried on the disastrous campaigns against the Korean peninsula initiated by the Sui Emperors (who lost in the most spectacular fashion). They also extended the boundaries of the Empire west into Central Asia and did battle with marauding Tibetans.

Liu notes that even within the Lǐ 李 clan there were tensions. Gaozong was suspicious of officials appointed by Taizong and many of Xuánzàng’s patrons were amongst them. (Liu 2022: 259). The period 657-658 saw the persecution of noted "Taizong loyalists." I don't understand Liu's use of this term "Taizong loyalists" since at this point Taizong is dead. There was definitely factionalism in the court at the time. There were, for example, pro and anti Wu Zhao factions.

Throughout the early Tang there were plots and attempted coups by factions within the court, even within the ruling Li clan.

Under Gaozong, during the period 657-658, Liu argues that Xuanzang was "kept under surveillance" although it might be better termed "house arrest", since he was confined to his monastery or the palace respectively. Liu (2022: 263) notes that during 657, while living in the Imperial Palace at Luoyang, Xuánzàng was ill but was denied medical attention. He snuck out of the palace to consult a physician but was caught and reprimanded.

After having produced a large number of translations under Taizong, Xuanzang's output plummeted under Gaozong. Liu notes, for example, that Xuánzàng did no translation work in 655 (2022: 260). Early in 657, the court moved to Luoyang and Xuánzàng was compelled to go with them, and had only five assistants of his own. During the period 656-657, he completed only one translation and that only one scroll in extent (Liu 2022: 262).

On returning to Chang’an, Xuánzàng was ordered to reside at Ximing monastery but was not given a position or title. No members of his translation team based at Da Ci’en monastery were allowed to accompany him. Gaozong gave him ten "newly ordained" monks instead, but they could not have had the training necessary to do translation work. "In other words," says Liu (2022: 263), "the Ximing monastery was to serve as a place of confinement, and a non-productive one at that.”

From from 658-659, “Xuánzàng was only able to translate three short scriptures, and only when Gaozong gave permission for a short trip back to the Da Ci’en monastery.” (Liu 2022: 263).

On Xianqing 1.1.27 (1 Feb 656), following the debate with Lǚ cái 吕才 (606-665), which Xuanzang won, Gaozong appointed several court officials to supervise Xuanzang's translation project (Liu 2022: 261; see also Li 1995:263-4). These officials are all known to history (via the Old Tang Records and the New Tang Records).

  • Yu Zhining 于志寧 (588–665). Removed from office in 659 for not supporting Wu Zhao becoming Empress Consort.
  • Lai Ji 來濟 (610–662). Also opposed Wu Zhao; demoted and exiled in 657.
  • Xu Jingzong 許敬宗 (592 – 672). Served in Sui Dynasty as well as Gaozu, Taizong, and Gaozong. He supported Wu Zhao's being made EC and also supported her son (Li Hong) becoming Crown Prince.
  • Xue Yuanchao 薛元超 (622–683). A noted literary talent and mid-level official. An ally of Li Yifu. Exiled in 663, forgiven, promoted. Died of natural causes.
  • Li Yifu 李義府 (614–666). Noted poet and politician. A highly favoured ally of Wu Zhao who helped to eliminate her rivals. Exiled 658 after conflict with Du Zhenglun, but restored 659. Exiled again in 663 for corruption. Awarded posthumous honours in 692 by Wu Zetian.
  • Du Zhenglun 杜正倫 (d. ca 658). Served in military under Taizong but exiled in 643. Restored and promoted by Gaozong. Exiled in 658 after conflict with Li Yifu and died soon afterwards.
The decree as presented in Yancong's Biography suggests that these men would read the translations and "should there be any unfitting or improper expression, they should polish and improve them as required." (Li 1995: 264). That is to say, these men were empowered to change Xuanzang's translations as they saw fit. This may have been a contributing factor in the precipitous fall in translation output during this period.

We might euphemistically refer to this as an "editorial board", but "board of censors" might be more apt. I can see no superficial commonality between there men. Some opposed Wu and some supported her. They were all in favour when appointed, but were not always favoured.

A key moment in the history of the Heart Sutra is the letter from Xuanzang to Gaozong dated 26 Dec 656, which mentions the Heart Sutra for the first time, amongst a raft of other gifts for the new prince and his parents:

"I dare to offer a copy of the Prajñā Heart Sutra in gold letters, one scroll and a case."
(輒敢進金字 «般若心經» 一卷并函 T 50; 2053.272b.12).

During a difficult pregnancy, Wu Zhao asked Xuanzang to pray for the safe delivery of the baby. He agreed and suggested as an extra measure that the baby be given the rite of tonsure (technically making it a Buddhist monk). After the safe birth of Lǐ xiǎn 李顯, the rite was administered.

Liu notes that no court officials attended Xuanzang's funeral and five years later, in 669, Gaozong had Xuánzàng exhumed and reinterred at Shǎolíngyuán 少陵原 “in the hills outside Chang’an”. Some 10 km from the palace.

Li’s translation of the Yancong Biography at this point reads: “This was because the original tomb was too near the capital and was visible from the imperial palace, so the emperor was often grieved at the sight of it.” (339). However, Liu suggests “The ostensible reason for this decision was that the emperor wished to mournfully gaze on Xuánzàng’s small white stupa.” Thus Liu’s reading is the exact opposite of Li’s.

Liu argues that the reinterment was a slight. Reburial did occur, for example, when tombs were damaged or newly acquired clan wealth demanded a higher status monument for ancestors. But these don’t apply to Xuánzàng. This aspect of Liu's argument is the most speculative, it involves speculating about the motives of those involved, and thus the weakest part of it.

For example (264-5) She describes the lack of imperial presence at his funeral in Yuhua. And she implies from this that Xuánzàng was marginalised by both Gaozong and the Buddhist establishment. And yet she also notes “When Xuánzàng’s corpse was laid to rest on the 14th day of the 4th lunar month, the monastic and lay Buddhist worshippers of Chang’an commemorated his passing with a lavish funeral precession” (265). However, she overlooks the fact that Biography reports that these were paid for out of public coffers following an imperial edict to this effect (Li 1995: 337-338).

Note also Biography (Li 1995: 338):

Being a person learned in the Way and highly virtuous, the master was deeply adored by the reigning monarch [i.e. Gaozong], who therefore issued decrees repeatedly in favor of him after his death. None of the ancients could be compared with him in this respect.

Critical Reflections

Liu uses a number of sources but relies heavily on the Biography of Xuanzang attributed to Huili and Yancong and completed in 688: i.e. Dà Táng dà Cí’ēnsì sānzàng fǎshī chuán xù «大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳序» (T 2053). She also draws on the Biography by Dàoxuān 道宣 (596–667).

One of the problems that I see with Liu's use of the sources is her uncritical acceptance of the date of translation of the Heart Sutra as 649 CE. This date is tied to the death of Tàizōng 太宗 in the same year and is part of a story that sees Taizong making a death-bed conversion to Buddhism under Xuanzang's guidance. Secular historians agree that this story is apocryphal. Taizong had a life-long antipathy towards Buddhism, even if he liked Xuanzang on a personal level. State support for Buddhism is a separate issue and continued even when emperors like Taizong and Gaozong were antipathetic to the religion.

The source of the 649 date is the Kāiyuán shìjiào lù «開元釋教錄» (T 2154) [hereafter Kaiyuan Catalogue]. This bibliography of Buddhist texts in Chinese translation was compiled 730 CE by Zhìshēng 智昇. No earlier source supports this date. Moreover, in the Yancong Biography Taizong dies on the 26th day of the fifth month of the 23rd year of Zhenguan (ca 10 July 649), but in the ninth month of the previous year (Sept 648) the Biography records the Emperor enquiring about the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā and encouraging Xuanzang to do a new translation. It seems likely that Zhìshēng took that story and replaced the Vajracchedikā with the Heart Sutra.

Keep in mind that the dhāraṇī in the Heart Sutra appears to have been copied from the Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» (T 901), translated by Atikūṭa in 654 CE. This means that the Heart Sutra was likely composed after 654.

Note that the first literary mention of the Heart Sutra also occurs in the Yancong Biography assigned to the 5th day of the 12th month of the 2nd year of Xianqing (26 Dec 656).
Kotyk argues that the Yancong Biography:

"represents a form of Buddhist propaganda from the year 688—a time when Wu Zetian 武則天 (624–705) was the de facto ruler of the Chinese court—produced by Yancong with the aim of advancing the status of the Yogācārabhūmi and the Chinese monks associated with this text at court, while also rewriting some aspects of Emperor Taizong’s life in order to advance the contemporary rise of Buddhism."

Much of the Yancong Biography describes Xuanzang in superlative or miraculous ways consistent with what Joseph Bulbulia has called “charismatic signalling.” The primary purpose of charismatic signalling is to provide a way to “align prosocial motivations” in large religious movements: “Charismatic culture supports cooperative outcomes by aligning powerful emotions, motivations, and intentions among potentially anonymous partners, toward collective goals.” (Bulbulia 2009: 545.)

The sick man story is inserted into a fairly standard Buddhist miracle tale. As outlined by Robert Campany, these involve “a compassionate, salvific, and clear intervention in human affairs by some powerful being, typically the bodhisattva or buddha on whom the sūtra focuses.” (Campany 1991: 30-1)


I think Liu's observations of apparent hostility by Gaozong towards Xuanzang are important and I plan to begin incorporating them into my spiel on the Heart Sutra. That said, I am not entirely convinced by Liu's methods. I detect a tendency towards naïve acceptance of the Yancong Biography as a reliable historical source. My sense is that Liu is on the right track, but could be more explicit about how she interprets sources and why she thinks these observations are reliable.

I plan to write an academic essay (or perhaps two) in response to Liu. I would like to think more about her observations in the light of many articles by Max Deeg on the use of the Xiyu ji (Record of the Western Regions) which is attributed to Xuanzang. I would also like give some thought to the role of Wu Zhou/Wu Zetian in this story. After all, the Heart Sutra was composed in the same timeframe as the appointment of Wu Zhao to the position of Empress Consort.

I would also like to consider hermeneutic principles, the formal heuristics developed for obtaining reliable historical information from normative religious texts. These are seldom openly discussed in a Buddhist Studies context and I think making them more explicit would enhance Liu's contribution. 

For example, Liu tacitly makes use of the hermeneutic principle of embarrassment. As she says, an event like the appointment of a board of censors to police Xuanzang's translations (which coincided with his house arrest and a precipitous drop in his output of translations) is deeply unflattering to him. Since the Yancong Biography is more of a hagiography, with a relentless positivity about Xuanzang, this imposition by Gaozong on Xuanzang, makes the story more plausible than it otherwise might be.

However, this must be balanced by other hermeneutic principles, such as the principle of corroboration. As Kotyk notes, the crossover between Daoxuan's more prosaic account of Xuanzang, and Yancong's  superlative account, is the region we look to for reliable information. Liu repeatedly notes that details she relies on are only found in the Yancong Biography. She seems to say that this makes the work more important, but the lack of corroboration should have suggested the opposite, i.e. that the unique details in Yancong are less reliable than those which are corroborated by Daoxuan.

And with a more nuanced view of Xuanzang, I believe we will need to revise the history of the Heart Sutra to incorporate Liu's observations.  


Jayarava's Raves is one of the longest running Buddhist blogs, having started in Nov 2005. At my peak I published one essay a week for five or six years running. My output has dropped but I haven't given up on blogging. Rather, I am more focused on publishing my observations and discoveries about the Heart Sutra in academic journals. I still enjoy writing essays and still write every day (this is the 604th essay I've written for this blog).


Primary Sources

Dà Táng dà Cí’ēnsì sānzàng fǎshī chuán xù 《大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳序》A biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty (T 2053). Translated into English by Li (1995).

Secondary Sources

Attwood, J. (2019). "Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele." Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32, 1–30. https://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/article/xuanzangs-relationship-to-the-heart-sutra-in-light-of-the-fangshan-stele/

Bulbulia, J. (2009) “Charismatic Signalling.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 3(4) : 518-551.

Campany, Robert F. (1991). “Notes in the Devotional Uses and Symbolic Functions of Sūtra Texts as Depicted in Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tales and Hagiographies.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14(1): 28-72.

Chou, P. (2004). ‘The Problem of the Authorship of the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa: A Re-examination.’ Historical Inquiry 34: 281-327.

Deeg, M. 2007. "Has Xuanzang really been in Mathura? Interpretation Sinica or Interpretation Occidentalia - How to critically read the records of the Chinese pilgrims." In Essays on East Asian Religion and Culture: Festschrift in Honour of Nishiwaki Tsuneki on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, edited by Christian Wittern and Shi Lishan, 35–73. Kyōto: Editorial Committee.

Deeg, M. 2012. "Show Me the Land Where the Buddha Dwelled... Xuanzang’s Record of the Western Regions (Xiyu Ji 西域記): A Misunderstood Text?" China Report 48 (1-2): 89–113.

Deeg, M. 2016. "The political position of Xuanzang: the didactic creation of an Indian dynasty in the Xiyu ji." In “The Middle Kingdom and the Dharma Wheel: Aspects of the Relationship between the Buddhist Saṃgha and the State in Chinese History,” Vol. 1. Sinica Leidensia, 133: 94–139.

Eisenberg, Andrew. (2012) "Emperor Gaozong, the Rise of Wu Zetian, and factional politics in the Early Tang." Tang Studies 30, 45-69.

Felbur, Rafal. (2019) "Kumarajiva “Great Man” and Cultural Event". In A Companion to World Literature. Edited by Ken Seigneurie, 1-13. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Jorgensen, John. (2002). "Representing Wŏnch'ŭk: Meditations on Medieval East Asian Biographies." In Religion and Biography in China and Tibet, edited by Benjamin Penny. Routledge.

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). ‘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. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10556P01

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2021). “The Study of Sanskrit in Medieval East Asia: China and Japan”. Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 4.2 : 240–273; https://dx.doi.org/10.15239/hijbs.04.02.04

Li, Rongxi. (1995). A Biography of the Tripiṭaka of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Liu, Shufen. (2022). “The Waning Years of the Eminent Monk Xuanzang and his Deification in China and Japan.” In Chinese Buddhism and the Scholarship of Erik Zürcher. Edited by Jonathan A. Silk and Stefano Zacchetti, 255–289. Leiden: Brill. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004522152_010

Nattier, Jan. (2003). A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path according to The Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Wriggins, Sally Hovey. (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. Cambridge,MA: Westview Press.

Related Posts with Thumbnails