Ramblings: [imagine that I’m prostrating as you read this] I can only begin by offering a sincere apology to all of you loyal readers, old and new alike, for my disappearance over the last few weeks. Life has been throwing lemons at me, and hit me square in the face every time. In my last post, I said I was recovering from a cold and exam season was coming up. That was all true. But then I also discovered that I have bacterial infection in my stomach shortly after (probably caught it when I visit Viet Nam over the summer), so then a week-long treatment began. And of course assignments must still be handed in, exams must still be taken. Everything pretty much just finishes last week. I am completely recovered (I think, doctor said to check back in 2 weeks), and finally found the time and mood today to translate. So here I am.
Does this mean my posting schedule will be back on track? It should, but I’ve learned enough to not make promises I can’t keep. But I do promise to try, so that means a chapter or so each week again.
I was eager to post this new chapter up so I did not send to Ari to proofread. There are probably many spelling and grammar errors, please excuse them (unless they are major, then by all means, tell me in the comments). Until next time, then.
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.
Chapter 10: Leaving for Kucha
We finally set off to Kucha. The farewell party is quite lively with Wensu citizens arriving from all directions onto the streets. Even the Wensu king also goes to see us off. He travels with us on horseback for about ten miles.
It is really different to travel with a king, unlike when I was with only Rajiva and his mother. This time we get special treatment befitting of royals. Every day, Rajiva still comes to my tent for our lesson after his afternoon mantra. Now that I have the actual book, my lessons are more complete and in depth. Whenever possible, I try to use specific historical events to explain the complex philosophy of the ancients. This earns me much admiration from Rajiva.
One time, King Bai Chun (of Kucha) comes by the tent to test my teaching. He speaks Han fluently. I am lecturing on the Anelects, Book 9: Zi Han*. He chooses one quote from that book to test me on, which is: “Master said: I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty.”
Zi Han means Master Shunned, as in subjects that Confucius seldom spoke of. The quote’s translation I got from this source, but the word “beauty” is a euphemism, the meaning is closer to “sexual appeal” or “lust” in my opinion.
This is an easy quote to explain. I think about it for a moment, then reply: “Confucius lamented that people values beauty more than virtue. But since everyone wants beauty, lust is thus the basic nature of humans. There is a natural pull between people and beauty, indescribable but also very strong. Gao Zi once said: ‘The needs to eat/drink and have sex are basic human nature.’ But virtue is not. Those who value virtue do not do so out of a human need like sex. People are always like that, past or present.”
I pause. Ban Chun does not say anything in reply, but I also feel his gaze is not very warm. Ah, why I did speak so honestly like a child and tell him lust is basic human nature? Why did I not remember that no matter when, kings always like to shout mottos and value appearances?
I hasten to add: “But 色 [first character of the word “beauty” above, meaning “color”] does not refer exclusively to sex, but to all that is beautiful. And 德 [virtue] is one of those beautiful things. Those who value both virtue and beauty are called junzi [superior person/ ideal man]. The reason for Confucius’ lament was because after years wandering place to place, passing by almost every state, he still could not find a home, simply because he had not met a ruler who loves virtue as he loves beauty. But had he lived to this day, and met a great ruler such as your majesty, certainly he will not utter those laments any longer!”
The expression on Ban Chun’s face remains unchanged. I panic, wondering if my “kissing up” is that ineffective. The old proverb “Building relations with a king is like playing with a tiger” is really correct! This man is only a king of a small country in the Western Regions. If he is Qin Shi Huang [first emperor] or Emperor Wu of Han, how scarier would it be? If I displease them even in the slightest, I can easily lose my head. A cold shiver rolls down my back. I can only peek at the king. Ban Chun does not even pay attention to me. He speaks a few words with Rajiva in Tocharian before stepping out.
The next day, he talks about me in front of Rajiva and his mother: “This girl is too young and has a frivolous attitude, not befitting for a teacher.”
I almost lose it out of anger. Does he assume that I do not understand Tocharian, or does he not care whether I understand or not? It must be that silly smile I have. I have barked up the wrong tree yesterday by choosing him as an object for flattery. I do not know which words had offended him.
He then says that after upon arrival in Kucha, he will find another teacher for Rajiva, and further adds that there are many great Han teachers in Kucha. Rajiva thanks him but declines the offer politely, praising me as the greatest teacher he has ever met, and that I am knowledgeable, meticulous and patient. Ha, he did not let me down. Ban Chun then turns to persuade Jiva, but the beautiful nun replies that she respects her son’s wishes.
Jiva is indeed a great mother! No wonder Rajiva always looks up to her with respect. Ban Chun of course is not happy about this, so I smartly keep my head lowered, as if I did not hear anything.
We continue on our journey through Bai Cheng. Our eyes are no longer filled with scenes of the desolate desert. In its place is a ravine between mountains with no vegetation in sight. Under the sunlight, the scenery before me is as epic as the Grand Canyon in Colorado, U.S. We begin to approach the mountain range known as Tian Shan.* Rajiva tells me that after we cross this valley, and another twenty miles of desert, we will reach the border of Kucha.
*They are one of the longest mountain ranges in Central Asia and stretch some 2,800 kilometres (1,700 mi) eastward from Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
A small river appears in the middle of this dangerous valley. Where there is water there is oasis. On both sides [of the river] are steep cliffs. This is the hub of the Silk Road. A few farms and inns can be spotted along the way. Rajiva tells me that is the Muzat River, and the mountain’s name is Karadag. I find these names very familiar. There are tens of miles from here to Kucha, so what is so familiar about this place? I take another look at the mountains, the river flowing around it, the green oasis and the cliffs on both sides. Suddenly a place comes to mind: Kizil Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.
“Rajiva, the Kizil Caves are in this place, correct? Could you please show me the way?”
I am incredibly excited. The Kizil Caves complex is located in the westernmost region, and the first to be built in China. The site’s value lies in its murals; their beauty rivals that of the murals from Dunhuang [referring to those found in Mogao Caves in Gansu province]. Factoring in time, these murals actually came into existence before the Dunhuang murals by more than two centuries. The art style is heavily influenced by Hinayana, characteristic of Kucha, and serves as a wonderful source of information about the kingdom. Unfortunately, later on, a group of Uyghurs who followed Islam have caused significant damage to the artwork. In addition, in early 20th century, a German scientist interested in the East, A. Von Le Coq had also came by and took numerous valuable murals*. If I can see with my own eyes these murals, completely whole during this era, and copy them down, oh how invaluable that would be!
* I’m not sure about the fact about Uyghurs, but the one about the German is incomplete. von Le Coq actually led a German expedition team with Albert Grünwedel to explore the Kizil Caves, the first serious study of the complex. While the latter was primarily interested in copying the murals, von Le Coq chose to remove many of the murals. Most of the fragments removed are now in Museum of Asian Art in Berlin. Other explorers removed some fragments of murals and may now be found in museums in Russia, Japan, Korea and United States.
“What Kizil Caves are you referring to?”
Rajiva seems to not understand. Maybe it is because Kizil is Uyghur language and at this time, it has yet gotten the name Kizil Caves of Thousand Buddhas.
“It’s a Buddhist cave temple cut along cliffs, and inside there are numerous paintings and caves extending thousand of miles [not U.S. miles, real length approx. 3km].”
Bright-eyed, I excitedly describe to him, but Rajiva still does not seem to understand. He takes another look around and pauses in front of the mountain opposite.
“Ai Qing, there is no cave here like the one you described.”
What? Can it be Kizil Caves have not yet been built? Historical records show that construction began around the 3rd or 4th century AD until the 8th and 9th century, when it slowed and eventually stopped. So that means it would have started around this time, no?
“Ai Qing,” Rajiva suddenly narrows his gaze, “How do you know a temple like that will be built here?”
My forehead begins to sweat. That’s right, how would I know such a thing? The earliest Thousand Buddhas caves, which have not yet been built here.
I give him a weak laugh to gain time, then point a finger toward the path full of twists ahead.
“I thought to myself, this is a path the traders must definitely cross on Silk Road, which is full of dangers and treacheries, such as bad weather and roaming bandits. There is a constant threat of becoming empty-handed, or losing their lives, along the way. That is why they need Buddhism to sustain their spirit, to wish upon them luck and safe travel. If a temple is built here, those traders will definitely stop by and ask the Buddha to bless them. Moreover, this place is quiet and peaceful, quite fitting for a monastic life.”
Rajiva’s face is smiling and his eyes shine brighter each passing second. I sigh in relief. Ji Xian Li* once said that merchants and Buddhism have an interdependent relationship. Major donations made to temples are generally from merchants [or businessmen in today’s time]. This is the reason why Buddhist temples and monasteries were often built along the Silk Road. And it was through this road that Buddhism spread into the Central Plains. Therefore, the explanation I gave Rajiva makes perfect sense.
* a Chinese professor in Asian Studies on many topics, one of which was Buddhism, voted as the Great National Teacher. He was still alive when Xiao Chun wrote FBFY, but has passed away in 2009, aged 98.
I observe the surrounding mountains and shake my head. “As for why rock-cut caves, it’s because this place is a valley with not many trees. In order to construct a temple made of wood, one must transport materials from somewhere else, a costly endeavour. Moreover, buildings made of wood are hard to maintain. Thus, building the temples on the sides of the mountains is the best option.”
Rajiva nods in agreement, “The cave temples you described are very similar to temple architecture in India and Kabul. There, they build temples on the sides of the mountains because all the major routes are through mountains.”
He ponders for a moment, then turns around and asks me, “But why do you call this temple “Kizil”?”
I gape at him, still more questions? Why is this kid so smart!
“Kizil, Kizil…” I mutter the name under my breath, trying to think, “It’s a dialect. In my hometown, Kizil means ‘cave’.” How fortunate, I manage to invent a good explanation because he is a foreigner [as in not Han].
He looks at me for a long while, and just when I am about to crumble under my own lies, he suddenly smiles and nods, “What Ai Qing said is very rational.”
He pauses to think for a bit, then continues with his questioning, “Then according to you, how should this cave temple be designed to reflect the grandness of Buddhism?”
“That…” I have set myself up, so I might as well see it to the end, lest the modern Kizil Caves change its design. I hesitate for a long while, but finally decide to express all my thoughts.
[T/N: She then goes to describe the architecture, which is too long and descriptive and confusing for me to translate. Refer to the end of chapter for further reading links and photos.]
“Ai Qing, you must have been to India and Kabul, right?”
It is true that I once travelled to India. However, the political situation in Kabul [capital of Afghanistan] at the time was quite complicated, so I did not have to chance to visit the place. In early history, Kabul was a famous ancient city located at the crossroads of South and Central Asia, the capital of the Kushan Empire founded by Kanishka the Great, and the place where the Buddhist art style Gandhara [classical Greek met Buddhism] originated from. Kabul is also a place I have always wished to visit.
But the problem here is how do I continue with my lies? It is clear that the architecture I just described does not exist in the Central Plains or even in the Western Regions. But if I say that I have been to those places [India and Kabul], I will be found out immediately. His father is Indian, and Rajiva himself has lived in Kabul for a few years.
“Um ah I…by chance I once met an Indian monk, and he told me-”
He interrupts me mid-sentence, “Since when does Ai Qing understand Sanskrit?” Under his keen eyes I have nowhere to hide.
It is as people say, lying once is easy but to maintain that lie, you have to invent many more lies and in the end you still get found out.
“Ai Qing, you do not know how to lie at all!”
“I…” so I am exposed in the end. How could I be so fearless earlier, telling one lie after another without any thoughts?
“Who are you exactly?”
Another difficult question, my head is dizzy from its force. “I…”
I forgot that this brat once defeated the greatest debater in Western Regions. If he continues to question me, it will be very hard to keep my secrets!
“All right, don’t worry.” Seeing my red face, he laughs, “If you don’t want to say, I will not force you to. I will persuade the king to build this cave temple when we arrive in Kucha, and call it Kizil Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. And of course it will be built according to the description you gave me.”
He looks at me with shining eyes, shakes his head and smiles, “Ai Qing, do you know that your expression earlier was very silly? Regardless of where you come from, you are still the most wonderful woman Rajiva has ever met.”
My cheeks feel less hot, but my mouth still cannot close. Unbelievable, the Kizil Caves of a Thousand Buddhas was built just like that! I hit my mouth lightly in self-punishment, silently promising not to speak carelessly anymore in the future. How can I possibly bear the crime of changing history?
I turn back and realize my self-punishment action was caught by Rajiva, how unlucky! He does not say anything but his eyes look as if they are trying to work out a puzzle. From then on, I tell myself to not blabber so much.
At last, we arrive in Kucha. The welcoming party that greets us is even grander than the one in Wensu. From far away, one can already hear the celebratory music. There are tents running for hundred of miles from the gate. Before each tent is a senior-level monk, who press their hands together as we approach. Rajiva and Jiva immediately dismount and return the formal greeting. I only have eyes for the Buddha statues inside the tents. I wish there is a method for preserving them until modern times!
Leading the welcoming party is a middle-aged woman, stout and healthy, dressed in an elegant robe sewn with glittery cloth. Must be the queen! The group of women and children who are dressed similarly behind her must be the concubines, princes and princesses. After them must be the court officials, around a hundred in total, who are bowing toward their king. The atmosphere is quite serious. In just a few minutes, I have already been able to see the entire royal family and court of Kucha. I wish I have a camera to capture this scene.
The queen embraces Jiva and Rajiva with brimming tears. Both Rajiva and his mother are also red-eyed. It has been four long years of missed moments. I notice a person in that royal family standing behind the queen, whose appearance is unlike any other Kuchan.
The person is a middle-aged man with dark honeycomb skin. His stature is tall and thin, his back straight and his face contour narrow. His deep-set eyes are at the center of a rugged face, the pupils a light grey, giving off an intelligent and kind expression. He does not let his hair grow to shoulder-length like Kuchans, but cut it short like the style in modern times, although hints of grey have started to show. Even though he is wearing a Kuchan outfit, I can still easily see that he is from India. At his age, to use the word “handsome” to describe him would be demeaning. It cannot capture the aura that exudes from him, an elegant aura that makes him stand out amongst a hundred, that compels others to notice, and once they have noticed, they cannot pull their eyes away.
He brings a long a boy around ten years old with a round face and skin as white as other Kuchans. The lines on his face are exactly like Rajiva, but much more adorable! He even shares the same grey eyes, which are busy looking everywhere. Once they spot me, he appears surprised, and then keeps staring at me. I smile at the boy and secretly make funny faces. Startled, he turns his face away.
No doubt about it, that Indian man must be Kumarayana, who once gave up the throne to become a monk, who crossed the Pashmir mountains in the east [of India] and arrived in Kucha, where the king made him the state preceptor. He is the man who became husband to the princess Jiva and is the father of Kumarajiva. The little boy whose face is similar to Rajiva must be his younger brother. I cannot remember what his name is. Hui Jiao in “Monk Stories” only wrote one name, meaning that in the development of history, the boy only exists because he is Kumarajiva’s brother.
The queen has stopped crying. She brings Rajiva and his mother over to Kumarayana. Jiva clapped her hand together in Buddhist greeting toward the man who was her husband [after she joined monastic, earthly relations cease]. Longing is clearly evident in Kumarayana’s deep eyes. He must also want to hug her, but in the end he only looks at her silently for a few seconds, and returns the formal greeting. The naughty little boy has no care and just dives for his mother’s arms, crying out loudly. Jiva hugs the boy back, tears brimming in her eyes. Rajiva prostrates himself before his father [in reverence], but Kumarayana quickly helps him up. Both of them seem very emotional and begin to talk softly in Sanskrit.
The welcoming ceremony has lasted for more than an hour. Kumarayana asks the king for permission to bring his wife and children home [to their residence]. Jiva does not decline [she does not live there], probably because she also misses her family. And so I go along with Rajiva’s family to their residence.
I have already found out from Rajiva his brother’s name, which is Pusyseda*. It is a Sanskrit name, yet another name hard to pronounce.
*That is the spelling the Viet translator used. I have searched high and low but was unable to confirm if that is really his Sanskrit name. The Chinese text uses Chinese obviously, but in keeping with the rest of family, I choose to use the Sanskrit version.
T/N: Phew, that was long. This was why I found it so hard to start translating this chapter since it was so intimidating.
I originally wasn’t going to translate that conversation Ai Qing had with the Kuchan king over virtue vs. beauty. The general meaning of the quote makes sense in English, but the wording and all is very Chinese, and that translates fine in Viet, but sounds awkward and at most crude in English. However, after weeks of not looking at this chapter, I come back working with a fresher mind. The whole conversation seems insignificant and weird, but actually makes sense in the larger theme of the novel, which discusses and perhaps critiques Buddhist view on earthly desires (sexual relations being foremost). You will get my point later on.
It was the same with Kizil Caves, I wasn’t going to translate it either. Well, okay, I thought I was going to translate maybe 1/3 of this chapter and look where I am. You all probably realize by now that I am fond of history and all that jazz related to it. Kizil Caves complex, as Ai Qing said, is quite a monumental site. Its significance in Chinese history and in Buddhism is no joke. From an architectural and artistic perspective, the site is such a wonder to behold. Moreover, that part of the novel shows that Ai Qing’s presence in the past is not just as a mere passerby. Her appropriation of translation words were not as a big deal as this. And last but not least, the only visual depiction of Kumarajiva comes in the form of a statue located at the entrance to Kizil Caves (photos here and here), which Ai Qing will mention later on.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Kizil Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, here are the resources I found in my research:
- China Travel Guide: link
- University of Washington: link
- Closer study of the artworks in the caves: link