Fa-Hien - Encyclopedia

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FA-HIEN (fl. A.D. 399-4 1 4), Chinese Buddhist monk, pilgrimtraveller, and writer, author of one of the earliest and most valuable Chinese accounts of India. He started from Changgan or Si-gan-fu, then the capital of the Tsin empire, and passing the Great Wall, crossed the " River of Sand "or Gobi Desert beyond, that home of " evil demons and hot winds," which he vividly describes, - where the only way-marks were the bones of the dead, where no bird appeared in the air above, no animal on the ground below. Arriving at Khotan, the traveller witnessed a great Buddhist festival; here, as in Yarkand, Afghanistan and other parts thoroughly Islamized before the close of the middle ages, Fa-Hien shows us Buddhism still prevailing. India was reached by a perilous descent of " ten thousand cubits " from the " wall-like hills " of the Hindu Kush into the Indus valley (about A.D. 402); and the pilgrim passed the next ten years in the " central " Buddhist realm, - making journeys to Peshawur and Afghanistan (especially the Kabul region) on one side, and to the Ganges valley on another. His especial concern was the exploration of the scenes of Buddha's life, the copying of Buddhist texts, and converse with the Buddhist monks and sages whom the Brahmin reaction had not yet driven out. Thus we find him at Buddha's birthplace on the Kohana, north-west of Benares; in Patna and on the Vulture Peak near Patna; at the Jetvana monastery in Oudh; as well as at Muttra on the Jumna, at Kanauj, and at Tamluk near the mouth of the Hugli. But now the narrative, which in its earlier portions was primarily historical and geographical, becomes mystical and theological; miraclestories and meditations upon Buddhist moralities and sacred memories almost entirely replace matters of fact. From the Ganges delta Fa-Hien sailed with a merchant ship, in fourteen days, to Ceylon, where he transcribed all the sacred books, as yet unknown in China, which he could find; witnessed the festival of the exhibition of Buddha's tooth; and remarked the trade of Arab merchants to the island, two centuries before Mahomet. He returned by sea to the mouth of the Yangtse-Kiang, changing vessels at Java, and narrowly escaping shipwreck or the fate of Jonah.

Fa-Hien's work is valuable evidence to the strength, and in many places to the dominance, of Buddhism in central Asia and in India at the time of the collapse of the Roman empire in western Europe. His tone throughout is that of the devout, learned, sensible, rarely hysterical pilgrim-traveller. His record is careful and accurate, and most of his positions can be identified; his devotion is so strong that it leads him to depreciate China as a " border-land," India the home of Buddha being the true " middle kingdom " of his creed.

See James Legge, Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, being an account by the Chinese Monk Fd-hien of his travels in India and Ceylon; translated and edited, with map, &c. (Oxford, 1886); S. Beal, Travels of Fah-Hian and SungYun, Buddhist pilgrims from China to India, 400 and 518 A.D., translated, with map, &c. (1869); C. R. Beazley, Dawn of Modern Geography, vol. i. (1897), pp. 478-485.

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