“In the Forest of the Blind: The Eurasian Journey of Faxian’s Record of Buddhist Kingdoms” by Matthew W King

“The Return of Fa Hsien” from Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations “The Return of Fa Hsien” from Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations

As the title suggests, this book is about traveling. However, the primary traveler isn’t human but a book, although of course humans are involved as transportation. In the fifth century. a Buddhist monk and translator named Faxian (c. 357-422) set out from China at the age of about sixty-two to travel to India. In his thirteen or so years of wandering he visited many centres of Buddhist learning as he went, collecting manuscripts so he could obtain “the true doctrine” from its source in India, after which he would return to China with what he assumed would be “authentic” versions of the ancient texts. He was especially interested in the eastern part of India, which was where the Buddha had spent most of his life. Faxian wrote an account of his travels entitled The Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Foguogi in Chinese), and what happened to this seminal book is the subject of Matthew King’s study. The book itself was “discovered” in the Bibliothèque Royale by Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788-1832), a young scholar who was an expert on oriental art. It had apparently been mis-catalogued and misnamed by a fake Sinologist (!) and placed in the library’s collection of Qing Dynasty materials, where it lay undiscovered until found by Abel-Rémusat. In May 1830, he revealed his new discovery to a packed audience at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris.

King traces the extensive wanderings of Faxian’s book as it made its way from China to France, but what’s equally fascinating is what happened after it had been the subject of Abel-Rémusat’s revelation. He had begun to prepare a detailed explication of it, but this was left unfinished at his untimely death and had to be completed by Julius von Klaproth (1783-1835), a German linguist and ethnographer (his father was the discoverer of uranium), and Ernest Clerc de Landresse (1800-1862), a French orientalist and future librarian of the Institut de France, finally appearing in 1836 as Relations des royaumes Bouddhiques. “Exuberant reviews appeared in newspapers and journals,” King tells us, but “within a decade of its publication, however, Abel-Rémusat was already being forgotten for his field-building work.” However, although his methods were widely imitated, “his pioneering insights were eclipsed and then muted by his successors, many of them his students.” Thanks to Klaproth and Landresse, the scholarly tempest inspired by the publication as it became known to orientalists would move across Europe as far as Siberia, thence to East Asia and finally to Northern India, where it was read by exiled Tibetan scholars in monasteries. But the plot thickens: as Janet Gyatso’s note on the back cover tells us, King has provided readers with “an expert English translation of the Tibetan translation of the Mongolian translation of the French translation of the original Chinese memoir,” which he tells us was “read line by line against the Mongolian, French and Chinese.”


In the Forest of the Blind: The Eurasian Journey of Faxian’s Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, Matthew W King (Columbia University Press, March 2022)
In the Forest of the Blind: The Eurasian Journey of Faxian’s Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, Matthew W King (Columbia University Press, March 2022)

King begins the next leg of the journey with Dorji Banzarov (1822-1855), a pioneering Buryat scholar and philologist working in Siberia, who had translated Faxian’s book from French to Mongolian. Banzarov, whose work languished in obscurity, was eventually followed years after his death at a tragically young age (eerily like Abel-Rémusat) by Zava Damdin Lubsangdamdin (1867-1937), an eminent Mongolian Buddhist monk, who translated it from Mongolian to Tibetan, and finally King’s own English version from the Tibetan. Incidentally, King has also published a study of Lubsangdamdin, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire (2019). It seemed as if Europe was restoring to Asia an important part of its literary heritage through its own voices. At the same time, King says he is not writing “to correct the record” on Abel-Rémusat; rather he wants to understand “the silences and shadows of his writing to see how his science, and ‘Buddhist Asia’ was unmade in Eurasianist exchange.” King’s book “rejects the linear vision of field history and looks instead for global histories of field erasure in the humanities,” thus moving Faxian’s Record far beyond its Eurocentric interpretations and into those of Asia. He suggests, as he told an interviewer at Scripps College, that the various translations made by Asian scholars from about 1840-60 effectively “undid the Orientalist scaffolding of Abel-Rémusat’s study,” with each translation coming from its own cultural context.

The circulation of the book covered, in addition to French and English, three different intellectual standpoints, those of Tibet, Mongolia and China; it “reimagined Faxian’s ancient walking … as an extension of Qing world historical order, an emergent nationalism and the Tibetan refugee experience,” as King puts it. Thus Faxian’s book was “reimagined” by each regional translator. Banzarov’s version, for example, was rendered in “the language of the scriptures, as befitted the subject matter,” and he was “remarkably filial to Abel-Rémusat’s translation.” At the same time, it was “without any introduction, annotation or clarification,” and Banzarov didn’t bother to include the footnotes, although it’s likely he was familiar with them. What he did do was apply the “old Mongolian naming conventions” used in South, Inner and Central Asian works to transliterate persons and places. The result was that “new worlds emerged in Mongolian and Tibetan translation,” thus transforming the time and place of Faxian’s travels, which expanded as Lubsangdamdin “extended the trading of silence and speech,” basing his Tibetan translation on Banzarov’s Mongolian, itself described by King as an “emergent Mongolian nationalist historiography.”

Banzarov’s work, when it finally resurfaced in 1917 decades after his death, gave Lubsangdamdin the chance to bring Faxian’s journey into Tibet’s own literary and conceptual world. Also, as King notes. Lubsangdamdin’s version was “an extension of Qing precedents,” namely “leveraging textual hermeneutical practices,” which essentially involves interpreting an interpretation. In this case Banzarov’s translation was read by Lubsangdamdin as a “travelling biography” of Faxian, that is, the record of how Faxian became liberated by finding the “true” texts, and at the same time provided a narrative which described the holy sites of India as he had seen them. He calls Faxian a “great being who travelled to the land of Noble Ones,” Banzarov becomes “a religious adept translator,” and Abel-Rémusat merely “a European foreigner,” but this shows that he had done his homework on the various versions of the text. His objective, King tells us, was “to ‘clarify’ (Tib. bsal) and ‘order’ (Tib. bkod) this vast story of Eurasian exchange and connection in ways quite apart from the Chinese, the French, or the Mongolian.”


Following his discussion of these two translators, King returns to Abel-Rémusat and his editors, Klaproth and Landresse. The two editors saw their colleague’s work as a major advance in the scientific study of the East, “the marker of an epochal transition in the practice of Orientalist scholarship,” and this they sought to exploit in the name of scholarly orientalism. As King has it, “Faxian’s ancient witnessing was made into objects of philosophy, geography, and history.” This transformation is discussed by King, as he shows how Abel-Rémusat’s text enabled scholars such as Klaproth and Landresse to establish a concept for Faxian’s book “in the sovereign territory of Europe and its sciences.” They were able to recast Faxian as an optimist, even a kind of idealist, someone who was “recognizable … to their humanistic ideals across the chasm of centuries.” He was almost a modern orientalist (King suggests he’s transmogrified into a “pseudo-practitioner” created by Abel-Rémusat), a man who could have been their colleague; Abel-Rémusat saw him also as a comparative collector of Buddhist art (there is a discussion of a statue of Maitreya, for example), and a scholar who studied and critically compared texts like he himself  did.

There were many other aspects of Faxian’s journey which interested European scholars, besides his personality, such as his reasons for his walking westward from Chang’an to India in the first place and why the city of Khotan was so important in his travelogue. Could his journey be compared to that made by the Chinese scholar Xuanzang (602-664), quoted in King’s translation of Faxian’s book, who also journeyed to India in search of Buddhist texts (627-45) and wrote the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions? And, of course, what could be said about the time and date of Buddha’s life and death? These questions and their interpretations by both European and Asian scholars are thoroughly examined by King in the light of his thesis that “models from world history and transcultural studies … obscure more than they reveal,” because they tend to avoid the complexities presented by looking at the humanities from a global perspective. King writes what he calls “circulatory” history, an approach which he calls “rhizomatic”, meaning that one can approach something from various entry and exit-points in a non-hierarchical way, “interpreting the centerless but connected presence of each author through the lens of Faxian’s Record.” This is what King calls “anti-field history”; things are constantly on the move, and there’s no “centre” from which everything comes or goes back to; thus we can get away from “rigid geographic, national, imperial and intellectual boundaries.”

King’s book, with its extensive footnotes and scholarly apparatus, may be rather hard going at times for non-specialists, even though it’s written in an interesting and accessible style and is presented engagingly as a travelogue. However, he is, after all, writing a new kind of history, the main object of which is to free intellectual history from its Eurocentric tendencies and make it more fluid and dynamic, less eager to make “them” into another version of “us.” If I have understood it correctly, this is an attractive and promising approach, one which serves a powerfully “de-orientalizing” purpose and maps out new interpretative frameworks, thus acting as a possible template for future scholars. The questions King asks demand complex answers, but raising them in the first place is what makes this book unique. It’s a very significant contribution to Buddhist Studies, and shines a whole new light on how we look at texts such as Faxian’s. Let him have the last word:


though I left with a healthy body,
I did not know whether I would return healthy or alive.
In those unknown places, I decided the Dharma was more valuable
than my body or my life.
I am a courageous son of China, who decided that,
whatever the reasons that led me to travel,
no matter what, I would achieve my goals.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.