(c) 2005-2007 Oliver Bonten
Like for so many good books I read recently, I read a review of it in a newsmagazine during my long vacation in Southeast Asia.
As a tourist in Singapore long ago, I visited Haw Par Villa with its display of scenes from Chinese Buddhist legends, and I took a note to read up on those legends later, particularly one named "The Journey to the West". This was the story of a Chinese monk who, accompanied by the monkey god Sun Wu Kong (probably the same figure as the indian Hanuman) and some other mythical creatures, travelled to India to retrieve Buddhist scripture in the original.
The story is based on the real journey of the real monk Xuanzang from the early Tang dynasty. Like me, the Chinese know mostly only the fairytale and have no idea that there is some real history behind. But in India, and in countries along the Silk Road, Xuanzang is remembered and revered as a historic figure, because his report for the emperor, forgotten in China, is one of the most important sources for historic knowledge of the places in that time.
Sun Shuyun grew up during the cultural revolution and like so many Chinese knew only the story of the Journey to the West, but nothing of the real history behind it. But at university in England, she learned of the historical Xuanzang and his travel report.
Years later, she decided to take some time off and to follow Xuanzang's journey, from the Tang capital Xian across the Silk Road to India and the places he visited in India. Parts of Xuanzang's route are now in former Soviet Republics and in Afghanistan, and either inaccessible or too dangerous to visit. So Sun could not completely retrace all his steps. The Bamiyan Buddha figures had just been build when Xuanzang travelled along, and shortly after Sun Shuyun decided to skip over Afghanistan, they were destroyed.
With this journey, Sun tries to learn about Buddhism as well as about the famous Chinese monk, but she remains a disbeliever to the end. Nevertheless, the reader learns a lot about Buddhist philosophy and history. For example, the world had largely been ignorant of the Buddhist history of many countries along the Silk Road, which are now Muslim, until the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha figures, which has created awareness of the Buddhist past and reawakened interest in it. For Sun, this is an example of rebirth: from the destruction of the past, a new interest in Buddhism along the Silk Road is born.
The reader also learns a lot of Chinese history, the situation of islamic minorities in Western China, of the achievements of old China and of the spirit of the Tang dynasty, probably the cultural summit of imperial China.
And for me, it was interesting to read a report from another person who had taken half a year off for travelling.
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