Hsuan Tsang (Xuanzang) (Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim)


Hsuan Tsang (Wade-Giles) or Xuanzang (Pinyin), whose roles include travelling monk, ambassador, and translator, stands as a prominent figure in Chinese and Indian religious history. Being ordained a monk in the Buddhist faith, Hsuan Tsang devoted much of his time and energy to learning Buddhist doctrines and understanding Buddhist scripture. He eventually became dissatisfied with the translations of the Buddhist texts he was studying and set out on a pilgrimage to India to find a more accurate understanding of the Buddhist principles he was studying (Sen 2006:29). Along the way, he met with rulers and other influential characters in India, Nepal, and Bengal. He was also able to bring back many Buddhist texts still in their Sanskrit form and devoted the rest of his life to translating them. Through his efforts during his travels, Hsuan Tsang was able to begin diplomatic relationships between China and India and made Buddhist ideals and principles better understood to the people of China and India.

Hsuan Tsang was born in Ho-nan province around the year 600 CE. Born as the youngest of four brothers, Hsuan Tsang accompanied his older brother Chang-tsi, who was a Buddhist monk, to a Pure Land Buddhist temple where he was ordained a monk at the age of thirteen (Beal xviii). After the Sui Dynasty collapsed, Hsuan Tsang and his brother fled to Chengdu where he was later ordained as a Bhikshu or priest at age of twenty and continued his studies of Buddhist ideals and teachings. During the following years he sought out foreigners and diligently learned other languages including Tokharian and Sanskrit (Wriggins 9). Because of the knowledge he had attained of the Sanskrit language, he developed doubts about the accuracy of the translations of Buddhist texts. He discovered that the texts contained translation errors which caused them to portray different meanings than intended (Sen, 2006:29). Because he was unable to determine which texts had been translated correctly, Hsuan Tsang set out to travel to India in order to obtain original documents so as to make Buddhist principles more clearly understood.

Hsuan Tsang, along with other monks, petitioned Emperor Taizong in order to legally leave China. They did not receive an answer from the Emperor but were advised to remain in China (Wriggins 11). Not receiving formal authorization from the Emperor to leave China meant they would face severe punishment which included death. Determined to begin his pilgrimage, Hsuan Tsang, in the year 627 CE, set off on his journey to India (Sen 2006:28-29).

Because of his determination to undertake this pilgrimage, Hsuan Tsang ignored the Emperors edicts for him to return to Chang An. Due to his fear of being kept from leaving China, he illegally began his journey at night by travelling across the Hu-Lu River and sneaking past five watchtowers in order to avoid being detected (Beal xix). Hsuan Tsang then continued north along the Silk Road visiting many Buddhist sites and even teaching in several communities. While travelling, he recorded his encounters with stories of Buddhist legends and miracles linked with each site and wrote in his book Da Tang Xiyu ji (Records of the Western Regions) the treacheries of long distance travel (Sen 2006:29). In one instance, he recalled a time when he was taken captive by bandits while he was sailing on the Ganga River. The bandits were followers of Durga (the goddess of victory of good over evil) and decided to offer Hsuan Tsang as a sacrifice to their goddess (Gifford 74). Hsuan Tsang, being bound and facing death, asked for an opportunity to meditate and prepare for death (Gifford 74). He became so absorbed in the meditation that he forgot about the bandits and his impending death and was only awakened when the bandits became afraid of a severe storm which arose (Gifford 75). The bandits learned that Hsuan Tsang was a revered monk from China and decided to let him go. They repented and even converted to Buddhism after taking the five tenets from Hsuan Tsang (Gifford 75). In his adventures, he crossed dangerous rivers and three of the highest mountain ranges in Asia (Wriggins 3). He travelled the North Silk Road for many years until he entered India.

While on the Silk Road and in India, Hsuan Tsang consulted with many prominent figures which include a Buddhist monk named Prajnakara, the Great Khan of West Turkey, the king of Turpan and King Harsa of India (Wriggins 3). Sen suggests that meeting with the rulers of these different areas may have put Hsuan Tsang in favor with Emperor Taizong and would help in bringing to his attention the Buddhist religion and other countries in South Asia (Sen 2003:17).

Hsuan Tsang eventually entered India in 633 CE where he lived for many years in order to immerse himself in Buddhism. Because of his interest in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, he stationed himself at Nalanda monastery and spent his time there perfecting his Sanskrit, reading and studying Buddhist scripture and translating several Chinese texts into Sanskrit (Mei 59). He also visited all the sacred sites related to the life of the Buddha and even debated philosophical points with Buddhist and Brahmanic scholars (Ganguly 19).

Another important aspect of Hsuan Tsang’s visit to India was to establish diplomacy between China and India. In one meeting in the capital city of Kanauj with King Harsavardhana, Hsuan Tsang made known to him the pleasant state of China and the type of ruler Emperor Taizong was. The result of this meeting was an establishment of diplomacy between Kanauj and the Tang Court (Sen 2006:30). After learning many things pertaining to Sanskrit, Buddhism and collecting as many Sanskrit language Buddhist texts as he could, Hsuan Tsang returned home and reached the Tang capital in the year 645 CE (Sen: 2003:36). He traveled back to China along the South Silk Road, continuing to gather Buddhist texts and knowledge.

Upon his return to China, he was greeted as a hero, who brought home with him several treasures and relics which included several statues of the Buddha and a myriad of Buddhist texts. Having been a positive influence on the leaders of the countries he visited, he continued to play a role in promoting both Buddhism and diplomacy between India and China. In 645 CE, after hearing the effects that Hsuan Tsang had on foreign rulers and the journey he endured, Emperor Taizong granted an audience with him. Emperor Taizong questioned him thoroughly on foreign leaders, climate, products and customs (Wriggins 5). When Hsuan Tsang declined an offer from the Emperor to accompany him on a military campaign to the east, Hsuan Tsang was asked to write a detailed account of his journey, which is known as Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Sen 2003:36). This account was then studied so as to gain a further understanding of China’s neighbors.

After fulfilling the Emperors wishes, Hsuan Tsang devoted himself to translating the Buddhist texts he had brought back with him from his journey to India. Not only did he translate the texts, but he was also able to develop new practices of translation (Mei 54). He did not use group translation but rather translated the texts by first carefully analyzing the original meaning of passages then interpreting them into paragraphs or chapters of the original manuscripts (Mei 56). In cases where he deemed that Sanskrit terms could not be translated into Chinese, he used transliteration or the practice of converting one script to another. This ensured that the translation of the texts stayed true to the meaning the original authors had intended.

When Hsuan Tsang had finished his work of translating the Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, his efforts amounted to seventy five sets comprising 1,335 volumes, equaling 130,000,000 words, which amounts to more than half of the entire library of Buddhist literature translated during the Tang dynasty (Mei 54).    Some of Hsuan Tsang’s writings and translated works include the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, the Yogacaryabhumisastra, the Dasapadarthasastra, the Cheng Weishi Lun and the Mahavibhasa (Chung 150). Because of this massive undertaking, and due to his outstanding accuracy, Hsuan Tsang is considered one of the three best translators in ancient China (Sen 2006:29).

After studying as a monk in his youth, travelling for seventeen years and 25,000 kilometers on his journey to India, and undertaking his monumental work of translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese, he died at the age of 65 in 664 CE at the Ya Hua Temple north of Chang An (Mei 59). His translations are still read and studied today and Hsuan Tsang is still regarded as one of the most important figures in Chinese religious history.


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Ganguly, Swati (1992) Treatise in Thirty Verses on Mere-Consciousness. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Gifford, Julie A. (2011) Buddhist Practice and Visual Culture. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Mei, Cheng (2003) “Xuan Zang’s Translation Practice.” Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 11, no. 1: 54-62.

Naquin, Susan and Yü, Chün-Fang (1992) Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Sen, Tansen (2003) Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: the Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400. United States: University of Hawaii Press.

Sen, Tansen (2006) “The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing: Sources for Cross-Cultural Encounters Between Ancient China and Ancient India.” Education About Asia, 11, no. 3: 24-33.

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

Yen-Yi, Liu, Buzzola, Alberto, Shinhui, Yap, Shinozaki, Fran, Petterson, Jasmine and Casipit, David (2006) Dust in the Wind: Retracing Dharma Master Xuanzang’s Western Pilgrimage. Taipei: Rhythms Monthly.



Buddhism in China

Cheng Weishi Lun


Emperor Taizong


Great Tang Records of the Western Regions

Journey to the West

King Harsavardhana


Mahayana Buddhism




Silk Road

Sino-Indian Relations

Tang Dynasty


Yi Jing










Article written by: Jared Wescott (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.