Xuanzang, Sun Wukong and a horse before Bodhisattva Guanyin
This wall painting of Xuanzang, Sun Wukong, and a horse before Bodhisattva Guanyin is one of the earliest portraits of the monk Xuanzang (596-664). The scene is depicting an important meeting point from Xuanzang’s travels during the 7th century CE. One night when Xuanzang was going to sleep he saw someone approach him with a knife, perhaps a nightmare. In his fit of terror he prayed to the bodhisattva Guanyin for help, and the crisis passed. (Beal) Guanyin, pictured at right here, is the bodhisattva of infinite compassion. Faxian, a monk active from 350-414 CE, also wrote vividly of his troubled journey and an instance when he had to pray to Guanyin as well. When Faxian was traveling on a “large merchant boat” carrying two hundred people, they experienced a great windy storm that lasted for 13 days. Desperate to save lives when the boat started leaning, cargo was thrown overboard, but Faxian refused to part with Buddhist texts he had collected. He prayed to Guanyin, Buddhist goddess of mercy, for protection, and his prayer was answered. Both Xuanzang and Faxian traveled along Silk Road routes passing through snowy mountains and dry deserts to collect Buddhist scriptures for study and to bring back home.
Pictured at left is Xuanzang, accompanied by his monkey companion Sun Wukong and a white horse. Horses were not just companions of merchants along the Silk Road, but used by everyone for transportation. A bundle of sutras sits atop a lotus flower on the horse’s back, signifying Buddhist wisdom and enlightenment. The wavy, rays of light emanating from the sutras allude to the otherworldly, divine powers of the manuscripts.
Not pictured in this painting is Xuanzang’s Sogdian guide, Shi Pantuo. Shi means his family originally came from Kesh, outside Samarkand. Panuto is a Chinese transcription of Vandak, a common Sogdian name meaning “servant” of a given deity. (Sims-Williams) It was common for people to hire well-traveled guides to help them along the difficult Silk Road routes and the Sogdians would have been prime candidate for this job.
This wall painting is just one of many that has been excavated from caves sites in China. Wall paintings like this would have served anyone traveling along the Silk Road routes wanting to worship or make pilgrimage, including Sogdians. Found near Dunhuang, the Yulin Caves are located halfway between China and Sogdiana. They are also adjacent, only 100 km east, to the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, or Mogao Caves. Cave findings from Dunhuang resulted in a large amount of bilingual and cross-cultural manuscripts. One specific document held in the British Library is written in both Chinese and Sogdian. (Sims-Williams) This scroll is proof that Sogdians did indeed practice Buddhism and were active in this area of Northern China. Records excavated by Aurel Stein are among the only records of Buddhist writings in the Sogdian language. As evident in the Ancient Letters, there were also colonies of Sogdians living in the neighboring oasis towns surrounding the Yulin Caves and Dunhuang Caves.
Bijl, Arnoud and Birgit Boelens. Expedition Silk Road Journey to the West: Treasures from the Hermitage. Amsterdam: Museumshop Hermitage Amsterdam, 2014. (SF)
Sims-Williams, Nicholas. “The Sogdian Fragments of the British Library.” Indo-Iranian Journal 18 (1976): 43-82. (SF)
Walter, Marko Namba. “Sogdians and Buddhism.” Sino-Platonic Papers 174 (2006). (SF)
The State Hermitage Museum
Additional Research Metadata
Wall painting from Cave #3 in Yulin, Anxi (Gansu province), China