Ramblings: I had expected a few readers, but the Stats page told me I got over 900 views and 400 visitors just a day after the blog went online. o.0 Words fail me. All I can do is give each and every one of you a big virtual hug. You guys give me much encouragement to keep going. Thank you and thank you! ❤
This chapter is more than twice as long as the previous ones. As you can tell from the chapter title, Ai Qing finally figures out where and when she has time travelled to. But to arrive at this conclusion, a lot of history and Chinese names are involved. As such, this chapter is not as exciting as others. This is a usual occurrence for many chapters in this novel (how do you think they reach a 100 in number??)
This may bore some readers but you have to remember, Xiao Chun (the author) began to write this novel because she wanted readers to learn about Kumarajiva, his contributions in history, and ancient Chinese/Buddhist history as a whole. She realized a pure non-fiction would not capture any interest, so she decided to weave it into a love story, given the rise of romance novels today.
I have already told you all as much in other posts how heavy this novel is, so if you are here, I’m assuming you are open to these chapters as well right? XD
Jokes aside, if you have read my Translation Approach, you will know that I can’t and won’t be translating these kinds of chapters all the time for many reasons. So don’t be frightened. It’s just that this early in the novel, you need some historical context in order to understand the settings and the main characters.
So bear with me guys!
If it makes you feel any better, I banged my head on the table many times as I translated this chapter. Thank god for the invention of Google, and says what you will academics, Wikipedia is gold okay?
P.S. Due to the information overload, I tried hard but could not make my translation as smooth as in previous chapters. Forgive me.
T/N: Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are also words I added for clearer meaning.
Credits of this chapter also go to Ari and Yumna, my new proofreader and beta-reader, respectively.
Chapter 3: I know where I am
The next morning, we pack up and begin the journey. I have regained my energy. Given that I ate their food and slept in their tent, I ought to contribute somehow! Sadly, I don’t understand what they say so when they pack the tents, I end up hindering instead of helping them. But they are all very kind and do not scold me at all. Besides, even if they do scold me, I would not have understood a single word.
Even though I am a stranger who came from the sky, they set aside a camel for me to use. But the Han outfit, with its long puffy sleeves and its skirt reaching down my feet, makes it hard to climb onto the camel’s back. I look at my useless clothing and with a helpless look, I stick out my tongue at the little* monk.
*little as in age, referring to Kumalajiba (as he is known to her at the time)
He smiles kindly and turns back to talk to a middle-aged woman. Soon after, I receive an outfit similar to theirs. I change into those clothes, which I find a little too big, a given since they are so tall. The tunic reaches my knees; the right sleeve is fitted at the arm but open at the shoulder. Underneath are pantaloons and knee-high boots. Haha, this is somehow rather fashionable! Which Han woman would dare to wear clothes that bare the shoulders? But the important thing is that with these clothes, climbing up and down the camel is not so difficult anymore. Because early morning in the desert is still freezing cold, the little monk kindly gives me a shawl.
I mentally count, there are around sixty people in the caravan, but including me, there are only five women. Except for the little monk, everyone else [the men] is dressed like a solider and wears an ancient warrior’s long sword on his side. And judging from their expression, all the attention is focused on the monastic mother and son.
I ponder the information. Before, I have only seen the monk and nun with servants, never with an army like this. The more I observe the two, the more I notice how their mannerisms show that they are not ordinary people. Compared to others, the little monk’s Han [language skill] is the best, even better than his beautiful mother’s, so I decide to stay by his side to get a bearing on things. Even though communication is still difficult, I am able to grasp quite of a bit of information.
I ask the monk if he knows the current emperor of the Central Plains. He thinks for a long while and replies with something that sounds similar to Qin/Qing*. Must be the Qin dynasty* then! It can’t be the Qing dynasty*. The researchers have confirmed that the time machine can only bring us back to two thousand years ago.
*As the pinyin shows, the two sound very similar in Chinese. Qin dynasty here refers to the first imperial dynasty of China, from 221 to 206 BCE. The Qing dynasty is the last imperial dynasty, ruling from 1644 to 1912 CE.
I then ask the monk where he learned the Han language. He gestures for a long time before I can somewhat put it together—in Kuchi he had two Han teachers. The monk confides further, a bit embarrassed, that he only learned Han for a few months but five years have gone by with no practice, so he cannot engage in conversation very well.
I am taken aback. The monk is not yet sixteen, which means he began learning Han when he was only ten or eleven years old. He hasn’t used it for five years, yet he can still communicate this well, his memory is quite impressive. When I was in university, I chose to study German as a foreign language. Afterwards I did not touch it for a few years, and now I can only remember one phrase: Ich liebe dich (I love you). If I am asked to speak with a German, it would be no different than a duck that hears thunder*.
*’a duck that hears thunder’ is a Vietnamese idiom, the original text in Chinese says ‘chicken and duck talk’, both mean the same thing—people in a dialogue who do not understand each other
Because I landed in the middle of a desert, I can only guess that this place belongs to either the Western Regions* or Mongolia. I try asking about the Silk Road, but the monk doesn’t understand. I explain to him that silk and tea get transported from the Central Plains to Abbasid Caliphate (now part of Arabia), Persia (now Iran), and Roman Empire (now Italy) on this road. He finally nods in understanding and tells me that Kuchi is located on this road. Hope lights up in me.
* Western Regions or Xiyu, a historical name specified in the Chinese chronicles between the 3rd century BCE to the 8th century CE that referred to the regions west of Yumen Pass, most often Central Asia
I rack my brain to recall all the places related to the Silk Road: Yanqi, Shanshan, Shule (now part of Kashgar, Xinjiang), Loulan, Khotan (now part of Hotan, Xinjiang), Gaochang (now part of Turpan), Wusun (now part of Ili, Xinjiang), Dunhuang… In that list there are a few places that after pondering, the monk repeats with similar pronunciation, others are uncertain. When I mention Kucha, I abruptly stop. Kuchi, Kucha (Qiu Ci, now part of Kuqa county, Xinjiang), these two sound very similar, can it possibly be that ancient kingdom, the wealthiest and most powerful one in the Western Regions?
I look at the monk and repeat the name Kucha. The monk pauses for a moment before he nods and points to himself. My God, I finally know where I am. I have time travelled to the Western Regions, the Western Regions in the Qin dynasty!
That means these Kucha people that I came across are actually Tocharians. Historical records wrote that the ancestors of Kucha people came from the Da [Great] Yuezhi tribe, also known as Tocharians. Elongated face, high nose, deep-set eyes, thin lips, white skin, are all typical features of the first Caucasians. Tocharian tribes stopped their nomadic lifestyle around 1,000 BCE and began to settle at Kucha, Yanqi and Turpan. I have visited many museums when I travelled to Xinjiang, and I found the mummies there very interesting. The mummies were preserved fully intact for more than 3,000 years, and their skulls still clearly show features characteristic of Caucasians, a prime example being the Loulan Beauty. But perhaps because Kucha is located at the heart of the Silk Road, a place of gathering and mixing between various ethnic groups, the Kucha people have rounder faces than modern Caucasians.
My excitement, which was on a rise, soon plummets. There are few records on the Western Regions during the Qin dynasty, and they only come from “Traditions of Western Regions”, part of the Book of Han. The history of the Western Regions in the Han [people’s] memory began with the Emperor Wu of Han’s reign: Zhang Qian journeyed to the Western Regions, formed an alliance with the Wusun people, made camps and farmed, and battled with the Xiongnu for hundreds of years.
However, to have travelled to the Qin dynasty is not such a bad thing. I need to get to Chang’an [the capital] soon, so that I can witness firsthand the upheavals at the end of the Qin dynasty, and meet the famous legends in history. I keep repeating that wish to the little monk. He contemplates for a moment before nodding, and promises to make arrangements. But then he further adds that the journey is long, takes about a year to arrive, and it is currently a time of war and chaos, with many dangers.
Goodness, has war already begun? Then I cannot be delayed any further. I happily tell him it does not matter [that there is war]. He gives me a puzzled look. I don’t know how to explain to him why a girl like me is so interested in wars, so I give him a weak grin in reply.
Our conversation continues to almost noon. Since autumn at midday is still burning hot, I have to cover my head with the shawl. The little monk pulls down his cloak, exposing his right shoulder, and under the sunlight, his honeycomb skin glows vibrantly, the picture of a youth in his prime. This style of robes, leaving the right shoulder bare, is common amongst the monastic in India and the Western Regions. Later, when Buddhism spread to the Central Plains, the robes evolved, like the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”*. These robes make sense, considering India’s hot climate and how the Western Regions are located along the desert area, with huge difference in temperature from day to night. Thus, conservative clothing for early morning and night and shoulder-bared clothing for midday are very suitable for the conditions here.
*Ai Qing used different words but I used this idiom instead since it’s more recognizable by English readers.
The monk’s face suddenly reddens and his eyes leave me to look elsewhere. I realize with a start that I have been staring at him intently for a long while. How embarrassing! I have only seen this type of clothing in pictures, so when I see them being worn by a real person, my eyes get lost in a trance and just stare, manners totally forgotten. Since I cannot use my research as an excuse to explain my behavior, I can only grin weakly like a fool.
We stop to rest at a small poplar forest. The servants quickly set up the tents and gather dry branches to build a fire for cooking. After a bellyful of hot noodle bowls and Western Regions’ bread, I start to feel sleepy.
After their meal, the mother-son pair immediately retires to their tent and begins to chant their Buddhist mantra. Their scripture is placed on a pillow. Curious, I approach them, and once again I find myself in surprise.
The scripture is written on cloth and the writing is quite strange. They seem to be characters consisting of lots of strokes resembling figure eights, written both horizontally and vertically. Even though I cannot read it, I am not unfamiliar with the language. It is probably the lost Tocharian script from long ago. This is the oldest Indo-European language known to this date, a derivative of the Brahmi script from India, which is still not completely deciphered even in this day.
I draw closer and in a tremble, I lift the scripture from the little monk’s lap, my voice choked, “My God, this is the Tocharian script. It’s the Tocharian script!” If I can bring home these scriptures, they would be invaluable as research material!
The beautiful nun furrows her brow. The little monk, a little startled, looks at me in surprise, “You know the writing? This is Kucha writing, not Tocharian.”
[Lương Hiền’s T/N] “Tocharian” was a term coined by German scholars Sieg and Müller in 1908, which they divided into Tocharian A and Tocharian B. Chinese researchers use Tocharian A for Yanqi language, and Tocharian B to mean the language of the Kucha people.
Ah, that’s right, “Tocharian” is a German coinage. These Kucha people certainly wouldn’t know Tocharian refers to their language. But people from the 21st century are used to that name. I smile shyly but my eyes are still glued to those funny figure eights. A feeling of euphoria arises in me as I absorb the fact that I am actually looking at real Tocharian script.
As a historian, to be able to hear and see an extinct language like this is such an immeasurable honor. How many linguists have spent their entire lives trying to decipher ancient writing systems by looking for clues on past relics? In the 18th century, Champillion successfully deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphics, a first, which helped unveil the mystery that hung over history for thousands of years. His name went down as a legacy. Even today, scholars are still unable to decipher the Tocharian script fully, so if I can learn to read it…
I grab the little monk’s sleeves and plead, “Please, teach me Tocharian—I mean Kucha language!”
He is momentarily stunned, then he asks me, “You know Han* writing?”
*as in classical Chinese
“Of course,” I reply.
The little monk turns to the nun and talks for a long while. The nun looks up at me for a moment and says a few more words to her son. The two engage in a long conversation, which makes me anxious. Just as I am about to fear there will be a refusal, the little monk turns to me with a sly look in his light gray eyes.
“I can teach you, but you teach me Han language.”
I sigh in relief. So he wants it to be a give and take, that’s fine!
I reply, “Sure,” and after a moment of hesitation, I add, “Even though I am not well-versed in Buddhist texts, I can teach you the Han script, explain the Analects, the Classic of Poetry, Commentary of Zuo, and Strategies of the Warring States.”
I study history, not Buddhism. I have researched on the latter a bit, but to go in depth over the specifics of Buddhism like Tripiṭaka* —sutras, abhidarma and vinaya—is beyond me. I am a little regretful now. Have I known that I was going to time travel to this place and accompany these monk and nun like this, I would have done more homework on Buddhism.
*Sanskrit for Three Baskets, refers to 3 categories of text in the Buddhist canon
“Don’t understand Buddhist texts, no problem, teach what you know is fine.” The little monk seems very happy. I find the warm smile hidden in his brow quite beautiful.
I suddenly recall, the Buddhist texts that are handed down in the Central Plains are all translated from Sanskrit and from a couple of languages of the Western Regions. This little monk is from Kucha, there is no need for him to learn Buddhist scripture in Han. Instead, it makes more sense for Han monks to learn Buddhist scriptures from him!
That day, I discover something else equally interesting: after their midday meal, the mother-son pair doesn’t eat anything else. People in ancient history only ate two meals a day; the monastic life was even stricter. When I ask the little monk about it, he replies in broken Han that according to the precepts, he can consume food between morning to noon, but from afternoon to the next morning, he is not allowed to eat anything.
This rule originates from a story as follows: A disciple of Gautama Buddha* went out to beg for food on a late afternoon, when the sky was already beginning to darken. A pregnant woman mistook the monk for a ghost and in her fright, she miscarried the baby. Since then, Gautama Buddha set out this rule. The only exceptions are people who are sick or those who do heavy labor—they are allowed to eat in the evening to maintain health.
*Siddartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, or simply the Buddha, also the same one named in this novel’s title.
I nod my head. During the times of Gautama Buddha, the monks spent most of their time meditating, which didn’t use up much energy, so not eating in the evening was fine. But when Buddhism was introduced to the Central Plains, Han monks still ate in the evening. It was because in the Central Plains, even monks had to farm, so they took the initiative to change the rule. This shows the flexibility of Buddhism. Perhaps because of that, even though thousands of years have gone by, Buddhism still grows strong.
As I observe them eat and drink, I notice something else. The female servants use an item that resembles a mesh bag to filter the water first before giving it to the mother-son pair. At first, I thought maybe they fear the water in the desert is impure and smelly so they filter it before drinking. But when I see that my water is not filtered, I wonder about it.
The little monk once again tries hard to explain it to me. Before drinking, monks and nuns must filter the water to avoid swallowing the micro organisms that may be present. If not, they might accidentally violate the precept of no-killings. Because of that, one of the rules of the monastic life requires a mesh bag to be carried on person at all times, or else they are not allowed to leave their residence for more than 20 miles.
His explanation makes me recall the story of Xuan Zhang* travelling alone in a desolate desert, and despite nearly dying from thirst, he still poured out all the water from his leather skin. It was because he tenaciously followed the rule—no drinking water that has not been filtered.
*a Chinese Buddhist monk famous for his seventeen-year journey from Chang’an to India
During the night, I sit next to the campfire outside the tent and studiously write down everything I have heard and seen the past days. High above, millions of stars glow brightly against the dark blue sky.
I recall the days I spent travelling in Xinjiang in the 21st century, where I also craned up to look at the starry sky in the middle of the quiet night, and asked myself if perhaps the ancient people in history are also looking at the same sky. The sky I am looking at now, is it also the same sky I will be looking at two thousand years later? I get lost in the thoughts. The me today and the me two thousand years later, are we both looking at the same sky? If so, how did I come to exist?
If any reader knows Chinese or is well-versed in Chinese history/Buddhism, feel free to comment on any inaccuracies or suggest a better substitute name/word/phrase. Comments on grammar and spelling mistakes are also appreciated.