Ramblings: I had a day off from school/work and it turned into a quite productive day for FBFY lol. I ended up finishing ch.7-8, which I already started last weekend, and went to finish ch.9 later at night. Ch.7 I only translated half and summarized the rest, hence why it’s being combined with ch.8.
If you have read my Translation Approach post, you’d have known that I don’t intend to translate all the chapters in detail (for various reasons). Ch.7 is one such chapter. However, it’s not a hard and fast rule. I’m still open up to opinions and ideas. So please tell me what you think about the summary. As in, does it seem awkward or out of place in ch.7? Anything I should change in the summary in terms of style and such? Do you wish for me to actually attempt the chapter in full instead?
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 goes to Ari, my proofreader.
Chapter 7: The debate
No longer needing to attend lectures also means I don’t have to get up early. Now I just wake up whenever I want, do my hygiene routine, eat breakfast and head out onto the streets. Don’t be mistaken, it’s not a leisure walk but a field research. This two-thousand-year-old town may be small in area and population, but it is still the first ancient town I have set foot in. I might as well do a practice field research!
I set out with my backpack on my shoulders, containing all sorts of things like sketchbook, measuring tape, writing tools, small shovel and so on. My goals are to measure the walls, the thickness of the earth, note down the gate locations and sketch the palace exterior. I am in the midst of my work when a group of men suddenly appear behind me and point spears at my back. I quickly put my hands up in surrender and ask them to not kill me. My measuring tape falls down onto the ground and unrolls into a long line.
I get thrown into the prison designated for Han spies. I am dumbfounded. What kind of spy would walk around so blatantly like me? I try to use all the Kuchan words I’ve learned to explain that I am an acquaintance of the great monk Kumalajiba. That I met their king and queen yesterday, even attended the banquet in the palace. I beg them to find Kumalajiba. But after several hours went by with no one coming to bail me out, I resign to continuing my research in jail.
So when an anxious Kumalajiba shows up later, he is greeted with the sight of a girl immersed in her work despite the surroundings, busily measuring and sketching in her cell.
The sun has begun to set when the two of us exit the prison. He probably had just finished the afternoon mantra before hurrying over here to get me. The mere thought makes me feel guilty. He told the guards that I am his Han teacher, and all of a sudden, everyone appears very respectful towards me. For that brief moment, I became a fox who got to wear a tiger’s cloak [Viet idiom].
Like I predicted, when our evening lesson comes, Kumalajiba immediately asks what I did during the day to end in jail. Having prepared my answer, I reply smoothly, “You remember our talk about aspirations? I told you I want to write a historical record that will get passed down through generations to come. If I want the future generations to know about the glorious past of the Western Regions, I have to collect all the relevant information.” He listens to my rambling for a while, then promises me that he will try to explain to the king, but also tells me to be more careful.
I spend the next few days holed up in my room fixing my sketches and improving my Tocharian. But by the fifth day, I have had enough. I set out onto the streets but this time, heeding his words, I act more prudently. I observe everything carefully and return to my room afterwards to sketch. This is the only way I can conduct my research, unless I want to draw in jail again.
Ten days pass by like that. My sketches have accumulated considerably.
During one evening lesson, I notice that Kumalajiba appears more distracted than usual, seemingly lost in thoughts. When I ask him, he tells me that he has been challenged to a debate tomorrow. This makes him quite anxious. I ask what the topic is about and he says it will be announced on the day. I then ask who his opponent is, and he tells me it is a famous debater who has been unrivalled in the entire Western Regions. The man does not think there is anybody who can defeat him, and said that if such a person exists, he will cut off his own head in offer as an apology.
“Do you want to come [to see the debate]?” the little monk asks hesitantly, probably thinking about how badly I behaved in his first congregation.
I nod quickly, “Of course I want to go!”
Such an interesting contest with such a scary penalty like that, along with an arrogant prick, how could I possibly miss it? I quickly ask, “Do you know where bets are placed? What are the current odds? 5-5 or 4-6?”
But seeing his dark face, I cease my question.
In order to allow him time to mentally prepare for tomorrow, I end our lesson sooner than usual. Noticing his worried expression before leaving, I quickly call him back. Imitating the classic cheering I often see in Korean dramas, I lift up my right hand and shout, “AZA, AZA, FIGHTING!” [original Chinese text wrote like that]
He looks at me strangely. I giggle and shout happily, “That is the words from a peninsula in the north-eastern region. It means: Our little monk will definitely win!”
His mouth curves into a brilliant smile. All the worry in his eyebrows has lifted. Copying me, he also lifts his right hand up. The action is a bit clumsy but full of confidence, and his usual calm is finally restored. This is his first smile tonight. The glow of confidence from that brilliant smile lights up the entire room, basking me in its warmth.
I actually do not sleep in the next day. Instead, I wake up early in the morning and wait at the door.
[T/N: The rest of this chapter is about the debate, which is too philosophical for me to translate. While interesting, it is merely a recount of a factual event that doesn’t further the plot much. I decided to summarize it instead.]
The debate occurs in the main chamber (the same one used for the congregation). The king and queen are in attendance and are the only ones sitting besides the debaters. The chamber soon gets completely packed with people standing.
During these times, debates were a method used by religions to attract followers. In India, the debates often resulted in tragedies. The loser will tend to disappear afterwards. Some even cut their tongues or commit suicide. A lighter penalty would be to shut down their school and study under the winner instead. In contrast, thanks to that one debate, the winner’s reputation will spread far and wide, causing much reverence and attracting numerous followers. The king will treat the winner with respect and make him the grand master. It is thus easy to see how important this debate is for a young monk like Kumalajiba, and why someone usually so calm like him would get so nervous the night before. [This paragraph is straight from the novel.]
As expected, I cannot not understand a single word said in the debate, so I end up observing the audience and the debaters’ expressions instead. I can tell Kumalajiba is doing very well. He grows more passionate as the debate goes on. His body leans forward and his arguments seem to overpower the opponent, a non-Buddhist man in his forties. In contrast, his opponent grows more despondent by each second, no longer acting high and mighty. His voice gets smaller, and then with a pale face, he falls over and admits defeat.
Kumalajiba wins to the cheers of everyone, including the king and queen. The king rewards the little monk with numerous chests. He then sets out onto the streets atop an elephant and gets paraded by lots of flowers and praises. I am in awe myself. Our little monk is only thirteen, yet he was able to defeat someone more than 30 years his senior. I wonder how much more amazing will he become in the future?
Later in the evening, I ask him what the debate topic was. He tells me it was on śūnyatā. He took the emptiness position. [And then goes on to explain the debate to Ai Qing]. Even though his opponent promised to give his head if he loses, Kumalajiba has no use for it and instead forces the man to become his student and a follower of Buddhism.
[Ai Qing then engages in a mock debate with Kumalajiba over what it means to win or lose. She wins (which I think might just be because she blurts out a long argument with no pause in Han, making it hard for him to respond). The next day, Kumalajiba meets the other debater and exchanges a few words in a respectful manner. It is not clear what is said, but the man thanks the little monk profusely and quickly returns to his room, probably to pack up.]
Chapter 8: The great monk
After the debate, Kumalajiba’s fame spread far and wide. Wherever he goes, he’d be surrounded by people giving him flowers and trying to touch his sleeves. Even an insignificant teacher like me also gets swept along in that fame. When I’m on the streets, occasionally there would be someone who gives me scented oil, flowers, meat and so on. The prison guards who previously captured me now greet me with a bow of respect. More importantly, Kumalajiba’s victory in the debate makes it easier for me to conduct my field research. I no longer have to meet wary eyes or fear being thrown into jail.
Another ten days pass by. Using my fingers to count, I estimate there are only ten more days until Kumalajiba ends his Buddhist lectures, after which we can finally go to Kucha. After spending more than a month here in Wensu, there is no place that I haven’t passed by less than three times. I thus look forward to our journey to Kucha.
The British historian named Arnold Joseph Toynbee was once asked where he wanted to be reincarnated in his next life. This was his answer: “I want to be reborn in Kucha, part of Xinjiang, a place where two thousand years ago was the crossroad of numerous cultures and ethnicities.” After reading this answer, I become very curious about everything that is Kucha: Kuchan music, Kizil caves, Subash the lost city, and the most famous figure from Kucha – Jiū mó luó shí [Kumarajiva] ! I wonder what Mr. Toynbee would think if he knows his dream is about to be realized through me?
With such thoughts, I conclude our next lesson in high spirits. I just taught Kumalajiba the Analects. There are other classic texts like the Three Character Classic*, but I neither have the book with me nor remember which era it was from. To be safe and not mess up history, I decided to only teach him the texts that were written before the Han dynasty. The first text is of course the Analects, next is the Classic of Poetry, and after that is the Commentary of Zuo and Strategies of the Warring States. I hope that this [tutoring] will give me enough pocket money to travel to Chang’an.
* not one of the traditional six Confucian classics, but rather “the embodiment of Confucianism suitable for teaching young children.” Source: Wiki
Just as he is about to leave, Kumalajiba turns around and tells me casually, “The Kuchan king will arrive here tomorrow. We have to go greet him. You as well, Ai Qing.”
I am still immersed in my planning when he says it, so it takes a while before I can respond. “Why is he coming here?”
“To meet me and my mother.”
What? A king is travelling all the way to another kingdom to get the mother and son, how unbelievable! I immediately pull him back by the arm.
“Tell me, who exactly are you? The Kuchan king is your father right? You are the crown prince? If not, why would the king travel a thousand miles to come pick you up?”
Kumalajiba pulls back his sleeves from my grasp and shakes his head, “Don’t say that. I am not a prince. Besides, Kucha is only three hundred miles from here, not a thousand miles away. And things like identities and backgrounds-”
I interrupt him, “Are all non-existent! I know you would say that!” The less he says, the more I get curious. He chooses not to answer me, but others might. My Tocharian has improved, no longer limited to simple alphabet like before.
I give him a sly grin and block his exit at the doors, “Let’s review Kuchan language. My mother is _________, my father is _________, my brother is _________”
He lets out a heavy sigh, “Alright, I won’t hide it from you anymore. Might as well tell you myself than let you find the answer from others.” He looks at me with shining eyes and tells me carefully, “I am not a prince. The Kuchan king is my uncle. My mother was a princess, the king’s sister.”
So they are indeed related to the royalty. No wonder they always have such a noble aura around them.
“And your father?”
“He came from Tian Zhu [India] and was supposed to inherit the throne but denounced it to become a monk instead. He then crossed the eastern mountains and came to Kucha. The Kuchan king asked him to become the State Preceptor [Teacher of the State], and had him marry the princess, my mother that is.”
Wait, this story sounds very familiar… I am certain I have heard it somewhere before. A light bulb goes off in my head. I quickly ask him, “You also have a brother right?”
He nods, “Younger than me by three years.”
“Your mother originally did not speak any Sanskrit, but after she was pregnant with you, she suddenly knew how to speak it?”
“That is a rumour. My mother learned Sanskrit from my father.”
“Then, am I correct that at seven, you followed your mother’s footsteps and became a monk, and at nine, you travelled to Kashmir and what else, Gandhara and Ka-something. The word is very difficult to write!” I struggle to remember the place.
“When I turned nine, my mother and I travelled to Kabul, where I studied under xiǎo shèng [Theravada Buddhism].”
“That means you, you, you-” I stutter, unable to go on. I know who he is now! I hit myself on the head. How could I be so stupid and make such a grave mistake!
After the Qin dynasty is the Han dynasty, correct? He had told me the Central Plains is currently ruled by the Qin/Qing, but has always talked to me about Han people, Han language. If the current dynasty is Qin as in Qin Shi Huang*, then why would he call me a Han person? When he said Qin, I had immediately assumed it was the famous Qin dynasty in history. In addition, we are so used to calling ourselves Han that it became a habit, making me forget that the name derived from the Han dynasty*. A student researcher majoring in history like me has made such an unforgivable mistake!
[Here’s a history refresher instead of making you refer to ch.3]. Qin dynasty refers to the first imperial dynasty in China from 221 to 206 BCE. Qin Shi Huang (or Shi Huangdi) was the first emperor and the one who unified China into one state. Han dynasty succeeded the Qin dynasty and lasted from 206 BCE – 220 CE.
Of course, it cannot be the Qing dynasty, because by that time, Kucha would have been buried for over a thousand years. Then is there any other period that is called Qin?
Yes! There are Former Qin founded by Fu Jian and Later Qin founded by Yao Chang*. The adjectives ‘Former’ and ‘Later’ were added on by later generations to distinguish between the two. In their time, they were simply called ‘Qin’. This means I am actually in the Sixteen Kingdoms period*. It also means that I have landed five hundred years later than what the researchers predicted. I’ve been spending the last few weeks with a famous historical figure without even knowing it.
* Former Qin (351-394) and Later Qin (384-417) referred to two states during the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304-439), which was also part of the Jin dynasty (265-420).
That figure is the nephew of a Kuchan king during the Sixteen Kingdoms period, a genius with the IQ of 200, a monk of noble descent that is revered by many, a young man with a godlike appearance, and the person that was voted as the greatest monk of all times by us history students in the dorms.
The Book of Jin* wrote: “One day, Kumarajiva was teaching at Caotang Temple and in attendance were the emperor, court officials and over a thousand monks. All of a sudden, he stepped down, approached Emperor Yao Xing and said: ‘Two children kept dancing on my shoulders, please grant me a woman.’ Yao Xing immediately recruited ten women as offering. Soon after, one of the them gave birth to twin sons.”
*official Chinese historical text covering the history of the Jin dynasty from 265 to 420
My jaw had dropped when I read this part. Such audacity! It’s true that history has recorded numerous monks who got involved in sexual scandals. One example is the monk Bianji—Xuan Zang’s most capable assistant in translating Buddhist texts—who committed adultery with Princess Gaoyang (Emperor Taizong’s favourite daughter) for several years. But that affair happened in secrecy. When the Emperor found out, he ordered Bianji to be executed.
But in the case of Kumarajiva, whether you look at it from the viewpoint of Buddhist ethics or secular morals, to openly ask for that kind of favour in such a sacred setting is appalling. For a monk to completely disregard his precepts [vows] and express his sexuality so publicly, it is unprecedented! When Yao Xing offered him ten women, he even gladly accepted it. Unlike other monks who lived in monasteries, Kumarajiva had his own private residence. He lived with his wife, children and concubines like a secular person [in those times]. And yet, none of these occurrences reduced the people’s respect for him. Later generations continued to praise him and his fame even spread to overseas. Such a monk, isn’t he the greatest one in history?
I once again recall our discussion in the dormitory where six people had unanimously voted Kumarajiva, the famous Buddhist translator monk from the Sixteen Kingdoms period, as the ‘greatest monk in history’.
“You…you…you are Jiū mó luó shí! Jiū mó luó shí? Gosh, you are really Jiū mó luó shí! You are that famous historical figure!” I blabber on incoherently. My head is spinning. My mind is a mess. I’m like a fan who suddenly gets to meet her celebrity idol. This time-travel trip is not bad at all. I now have something to brag about when I return!
A glass of water is placed before me and a damp cloth is put on my forehead. I look up to see his eyes, clear as a lake, filled with worry.
“Your forehead seems hot, maybe you are catching a cold. Tomorrow I will ask someone to boil some medicine for you to drink,” he says.
I see my trembling hands and feet reflected in those bottomless clear eyes. I drink the water and become calmer. I give him an embarrassed smile, “Sorry, I Was overwhelmed.”
He smiles back, “I’ve never seen Ai Qing like that. And you keep calling me Jiū Mó Luó Shí, is that my Han name?”
I nod. Kumalajiba is his Sanskrit name. “Qiū Mò Ruò” is “Jiū Mó Luó”. But how did “Jíbō” become “Shí”? [read T/N at the end]. I don’t know who translated Kumarajiva into Han, but it clearly sounds better than what I’ve been calling him so far. I failed to recognize him because I had the history period wrong. Furthermore, “jíbō” and “shí” are two separate sounds. I thus did not realize I’ve been spending the past days next to a top translator monk in China, one who rivalled with Xuan Zang.
I ask him the meaning of his Sanskrit name. He tells me that ‘Kumara’ is his father’s surname, meaning ‘boy’. ‘Jiva’ is his mother’s name, meaning ‘long life’ (old age). His Han name thus means ‘mature boy’ [advanced in his years]*. Naming a child using the father’s surname and mother’s given name is an old Indian tradition. Sometimes other meanings are added to the child’s name, and that is why old Indian names are very long. No wonder I could not seem to remember the names of monks in Buddhist history books. They are truly long and hard to read.
*ahahaha that explains a lot, prophecy anyone?
I know his father’s name is Kumarayana and his mother’s is Jiva, both of which are familiar to Han people. Western [Regions] and Indian monks often used their given names, different from monks in the Central Plains who used titles.
Kumarajiva places a piece of paper before me and asks, “Can you write out my Han name?”
I carefully write out each character: 鸠 摩 罗 什
He examines it for a while, reads it out loud once, and looks up at me. His expression is bright and happy. “Great! If this is the name Ai Qing gives me, then from now on my Han name will be Jiū Mó Luó Shí !”
I look up in surprise and see a pair of shining eyes smiling at me. My mind becomes a confused mess. There are no records on the person who gave him his Han name. Could that person be me? The name I read in the 21st century is the same one I give him 1650 years prior. Does that mean my time-travelling here and meeting him is inevitable? How is that logical? Am I just an outsider travelling on the edges of history, or am I now unwittingly a participant in this period?
T/N: Well, if you are confused with the names, I apologize. This is what happens when you translate not from the original text but an intermediary language. So apparently in ch.2, when they first met and exchanged names, Ai Qing tried to pronounce his name using Han syllables.
Based on the pronunciation, I manage to find corresponding syllables in the Han language: Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, indeed quite hard to say. I try anyway, “Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, Ku-ma-la-ji-ba…”
At the time I was translating that chapter, I have not yet started cross-referencing with the Chinese ebook. I was relying only on the Viet version. Lương Hiền (the translator) chose to write out as such to fit with his Sanskrit name. In reality, the original text wrote that Ai Qing called him “Qiū Mò Ruò Jíbō”. I did not realize it until now, though I should have.
Alas, I’ve been using Kumalajiba in the past chapters, and you guys are probably used to that name by now too. I myself are used to Kumarajiva so I find it hard to switch to the Chinese name (Ai Qing finds this easier to say but I find it harder to type lol).
So I am deciding to keep using the Sanskrit name instead of the Chinese one. I hope any Chinese purists out there will understand.
Another thing to note, in the next chapter, Ai Qing will call him only “Luó Shí”, corresponding to ‘Rajiva’, which the Viet version used. I have always referred to our little monk as Rajiva so I’m going to use that name as well.
As always, 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. Or any comments at all actually XD