a contemplative adventure
[note: I’ve been reading the English original]
The story: in the late 1990s, UK-based Chinese writer Sun Shuyun returns to China, driven by stories told to her by her grandmother, a devout Buddhist. She sets out on a journey to the west of the country, to Central Asia and to India, planning to retrace the journey of a certain Xuanzang (603-664).
Sun Shuyun retracing Xuanzang’s steps
Xuanzang was a Buddhist monk from the Tang Dynasty who went on a journey from China to India and back, retrieving Buddhist sutras and translating them into Chinese. Today, more than a thousand years later, he has become one of the most revered figures in Chinese history, though generally not in the form of his historical persona, but as the hero of a novel from the Ming-Dynasty called A Journey To The West.
Sun Shuyun visits many of the sites that Xuanzang has presumably been to (in Xi’an, Dunhuang, Turpan, Kyrgyzstan, India, etc.), and she provides us with an account that is quite layered. It’s informative when she is talking about the history and the culture of the places that she visits. It’s personal when she is talking about her own journey. And it’s contemplative when she is musing about some of the larger questions in life: religious beliefs vs rationalism, traditions vs progress, the individual vs society, etc.
I found this book highly enjoyable. Sun writes in a calm, unhurried style. She is not trying to tell an adventure story, but a journey through history, through space, and through an edifice of ideas. Most importantly, she doesn’t sound pretentious or esoterical about it. She has some questions, and she is trying to find the answers to them.
who might want to read this
Sun’s feat of traveling along parts of the Silk Roads is okayish. Her storytelling and her writing style are both good, but the real strength of this book lies in the historical and cultural insights she provides.
If you’re interested in Buddhism or in China, this is quite a gem.
Also read: Ji Xianlin, for some more insights into the ancient cultures of Western China.