Searching for Xuanzang

When Romila Thapar was a young PhD student in London in 1957, a surprising offer dropped in her lap: how would she like to be a research assistant on a trip to China to study Buddhist cave art? Although Thapar had no particular expertise on China, she had helped the art historian Anil de Silva with some research on historical Buddhist images, which was apparently enough to recommend her. The interruption in her dissertation research was initially daunting to Thapar, but her friends and advisors naturally told her that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she should just go. The diary that she kept on the resulting journey was recently published, more than 60 years later, as Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China, 1957.

An accomplished historian, Thapar maintains a professional, elevated tone in the framing material she wrote for the new book. The diary itself is something quite different and more charming: the record of a youthful mind filled with enthusiasm and curiosity at encountering a new culture. The young Thapar is excited by the opportunity to learn about China first-hand and throw off the prejudices she had absorbed in the colonial education system: “As a child I imbibed the ridiculous stories about the Chinese that were fostered in India, no doubt by the Raj. It was the land where the sly, slit-eyed Mongoloid-featured people lived, the land of mystery and strangeness, typifying the unknown, where people were said to disappear, kidnapped by suspicious-looking others.”

You can already sense a bit of the later intellectual commitment to dismantling misguided colonial scholarship and erecting an edifice of knowledge on more solid foundations; the nice review by Aditya Bahl in the New Left Review has more on how the book connects to Thapar’s later career.

The guiding spirit of her journey, however, is the great Buddhist monk, traveler and translator Xuanzang, famed for his accomplishments in bringing Buddhist scriptures from India to China. She circles back to him several times over the course of the diary, but her reflections on standing in Xuanzang’s tomb outside Xi’an are worth quoting at length:

It felt uncanny being there, and I had a distinct sensation of what may be called the sweep of past centuries as I stood alone on the balcony of the upper room looking out at the main monastery and down the hill. This was in a sense the moment that crystallized my journey to China. How incredible must have been Xuan Zang’s journey across Central Asia and India–a sixteen-year venture in the seventh century AD, and all in search of what he knew of as the true Buddhism–the Buddhism of India, which for the Chinese was the location of the western heaven. He was such an extraordinary person, and judging by his description of the journey, a man with incredible perception of place and person.

Yet no one in India, not a single person, thought of recording the conversations that many must have had with him not only on Buddhism, but specifically on Buddhism in China or even the contemporary philosophies that emanated from China. I have often wondered about what accounts for this lack of curiousity among pre-modern Indians who remained uninterested in commenting on the world beyond their immediate own, yet it was a world that they visited and worked in, either as Indian traders or as teachers of religion in Central Asia or in Southeast Asia. … It is such a stunning contrast to the Chinese avidly wanting to know about the wider world and writing about it.

It’s clear that Thapar feels a kind of obligation, or aspiration, to make up for India’s historical indifference to Xuanzang: her own journey is a chance to demonstrate that Indians can avidly want to know about the wider world as well. Her enthusiastic curiosity about everything in China is perfectly honest, but also guided by a broader ideal of the two great Asian nations restoring and amplifying their past historical links. What makes her diary more than an episodic collection of the impressions of a tourist–and there is plenty here about trains, hotels and restaurants–is its tragic arc as this earnest hope of intellectual connection is repeatedly denied.

At the time of her visit, July to October 1957, China was in the throes of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, one of the early examples of the waves of Communist persecution of real and imagined internal enemies that would grip the country for the next couple of decades. Thapar gets her first inklings that something is going on behind the scenes soon after her arrival in Beijing. Many of the scholars whose names she had been given by her professors in London turn out to be mysteriously unavailable to meet with her.

Those that do attend the various government-organized dinners and functions mainly confine themselves to small talk rather than topics of professional interest. “They seemed quite content to go on sipping green tea and talking about nothing in particular.” Thapar mentions in passing that one of the only Chinese professors to talk openly with her about history was Ji Xianlin, a scholar of Sanskrit and other ancient Indian languages; in the 1990s Ji would become more widely known for his memoir of persecution during the Cultural Revolution, The Cowshed.

Still, most of her initial impressions are positive. Thapar notices some of the same things people still notice about China: the food is amazing, and there is always construction happening. She generally feels great sympathy for the Chinese people, a sense amplified by the familiarity of the physical environment. In Lanzhou, she remarks: “There were many moments when I was strongly reminded of the old North-West Frontier Province, the areas across the upper Indus, especially the parts around Peshawar and the Afghan border where I had spent my childhood–the same bleak grey hills, the dusty roads, the mud houses and the walled structures on low hilltops.” Overall, her feeling was that China and India were in the same situation and going through much the same process of national development: “The initial shock was that China is so much like India–it is very much an Asian country.”

But as she leaves Beijing and heads through the provinces, on the way to the Buddhist sites of Maijinshan and Dunhuang that are the object of her friend’s research, the mysterious gaps and silences continue to worry her. “Despite my making several requests that we meet with some archaeologists and historians of ancient China to discuss their methods of historical analysis, my requests were ignored,” she complains, more than once. The scholars she does meet avoid substantive discussion, even on technical issues, or resort to repeating general slogans. “I find a tendency towards oversimplification. They say it is necessary in the early stages of socialist reconstruction, but I feel scared that once it comes it will stay. This is what happened in Russia.” Yet despite her worries, she is reluctant to criticize too strongly: “Sometimes I wonder if the fault doesn’t lie with me? Perhaps I fail to understand the problems of China.”

The weeks working on the Buddhist sites pass quickly and blissfully in the diary, and all too soon Thapar is on her way back to Beijing in preparation for final departure. On her second visit the evasions of her hosts are even more obvious: “I have repeatedly been requesting meetings with young people, university students and researchers, and young intellectuals, and all I have got by way of reply is a polite smile. It makes me so frustrated and even angry.” Talking to other foreigners in Beijing she begins to figure out the reason: “The Chinese are not lacking in courtesy. Clearly there were other reasons. One had heard about the ‘rectification campaigns’ that were currently going on in many offices…perhaps this made them reluctant to meet foreigners lest some of the issues inadvertently get talked about.”

In Beijing, she is caught up in a whirl of glamorous diplomatic receptions for foreign guests, hears a lecture by Joan Robinson, even shakes hands with both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. But finally, a friendly, Chinese-speaking foreigner clues her in to the political reality by translating a newspaper article about one of the professors she had tried and failed to meet, who turns out to have been targeted as a rightist. “He was charged with not accepting the interpretation of history as authorized by the government; and he is said to have remarked that a hundred flowers were not blooming in the field of historical thought in China today, as is claimed, but only five, and that these were not sufficient since they all said much the same thing.” This crushing of dissent in history–her own discipline–is shocking and dispiriting.

Despite her best efforts to exemplify what she thinks of as the Chinese virtues of Xuanzang–open inquiry and cross-cultural exploration–she can find no one in Mao’s China who feels free to do the same in response. “I am interested in the experience of others because I believe that one learns from comparative studies,” the young Thapar writes, rather forlornly.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.