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In the classic 16th-century Chinese epic Journey to the West, the main character Xuanzang makes a pilgrimage with three mythical companions to India to study Buddhist teachings. The real Xuanzang would embark on that quest almost a millennia earlier. His documentation of his travels from China to India paints a vivid picture of 7th century Asia, perhaps more fascinating than the fantastical novel inspired by his life journey. Keep reading to learn about Xuanzang's books, travels, and more.

Xuanzang biography

I would rather die going to the West than live by staying in the East.



  • 602 CE: Xuanzang is born in Luoyang, China.
  • 622 CE: Studying alongside his brother, Xuanzang becomes a Buddhist monk.
  • 629 CE: Xuanzang departs for India to acquire a more profound knowledge of his faith.
  • 630 CE: Xuanzang and his company arrive in India.
  • 637 CE: After seven years of pilgrimage in northern India, Xuanzang arrives in Nalanda Monastery.
  • 645 CE: Xuanzang returns to China, bringing Indian knowledge and culture back to his homeland.

Early Life

Xuanzang was born in 602 CE into a Confucianism-educated family, though he would take great interest in Buddhism by age thirteen. After the collapse of the Sui Dynasty, Xuanzang and his fellow Buddhist brother fled their home in Luoyang, heading south to study Buddhism at the Kong Hui monastery. In 622 CE, at the age of twenty, Xuanzang had become a fully ordained Buddhist monk.


An Asian religious belief system based on suffering informed by Siddhartha Gautama's teachings.

According to legend, Xuanzang had a dream that he must travel to India. The Buddhist monk also reportedly found contradictions in the texts he was studying; discontent with his studies, Xuanzang resolved to travel to India, the ancient birthplace of Buddhism.

The Pilgrimage

In 629 CE, Xuanzang began his seventeen-year-long journey to the West and back. At the time, the ruling Tang Dynasty of China was at war with the eastern Turkic Khaganate, and the emperor Tang Taizong forbade travel outside the country. Without legal permission, Xuanzang left his country and began his travels along the Silk Road.

Xuanzang, Xuanzang Statue, StudySmarter

Fig. 1- Statue of Xuanzang in Xi'an, China.

Xuanzang's scholarly pilgrimage on the Silk Road brought him across the arid Taklamakan desert and through the Tia Shan mountains. He met with kings, nobles, and monks of many lands, including Tokmak, the Great Khan of the Western Turk, and the King of Turfan. Besides weather and bandits, Xuanzang met little trouble from the kingdoms he visited. Often, the foreign kings were so intrigued with Xuanang that they supplied him with servants and cattle to aid him on his quest in exchange for his Buddhist lectures.

Historians dispute the absolute credibility of Xuanzang's personal written accounts. While much of the information is factually correct and historically accurate, there appears to be a certain level of embellishment. In many instances, Xuanzang details kings of foreign lands fawning over his Buddhist intellect, showering the pilgrim monk with gifts and power within their kingdom. Such is the case with the king of Samarkand and the king of Turfan. These kings may have been impressed by Xuanzang's religious zeal, or they may have seen ways to establish political connections with China through Xuanzang. In any case, Xuanzang's journey was aided by foreign rulers far more than it was hindered.

Traveling through Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan and Uzbekistan), Xuanzang and his company reached northern India in 630 CE. For the next seven years, Xuanzang wandered between different cities and Buddhist temples within Northern India for the next seven years. The Chinese monk redacted detailed notes on his findings (even marking the dimensions of statues he found). He finally reached his destination in 637 CE: the ancient university called Nalanda Monastery.

A Resident Scholar at the Nalanda Monastery

At the Nalanda Monastery, Xuanzang spent two years studying alongside thousands of other scholars and debating Hindu Brahmins. Here, Xuanzang was impressed by the dedication and education of his fellow scholars. The Chinese monk acquired excellent knowledge, manuscripts, and artifacts to bring with him on his return to China. Thousands of scholars from foreign nations were invited to debate Xuanzang, and none dared to challenge him.

Xuanzang, Nalanda Monastery, StudySmarterFig. 2- Archeological Site at Nalanda Monastery.

Xuanzang Last Years

Xuanzang returned to China in 645 CE, bringing ideas and experiences from Central Asia. The Chinese emperor pardoned his prior illegal departure. For the rest of his life, Xuanzang continued his studies, literary translations, and writing a complete account of his travels along the Silk Road and into India. His record facilitated the passing of knowledge between western and eastern Asia and promoted the study of Buddhism within his own country. To this day, his account helps us understand the cultural landscape of 7th century Asia.

Xuanzang Travel Map

Below is a map representing the Silk Road. Xuanzang's journey did not go as far as the Middle East; the monk looped into India and returned to China.

Xuanzang, Silk Road, StudySmarter

Fig. 3- Map of the Silk Road.

Xuanzang's first stop was the Gates of Yumen in the far west of China, where guards allowed him to pass through. From there, Xuanzang traveled to Turfan, where the king equipped the Chinese monk with food and aid for his journey. Next, Xuanzang landed in Sogdiana, spending time in the court of Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan. Xuanzang then reached Northern India, where his scholarly journey truly began.

At this point, you may feel overwhelmed by the many different names and exact dates connected with Xuanzang's journey. While names and dates are significant to historians and a full understanding of world history, they are not necessary to memorize for the AP exam! Understanding how Xuanzang contributed to the transfusion and record-keeping of 7th-century Asian culture is most important.

Xuanzang Books

Besides translating many Indian texts into Chinese, Xuanzang wrote a complete account of his travels, translated roughly as Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty. The book is essential in the study of medieval central Asian culture. Xuanzang's influence on merging Chinese and Indian culture was so that the still-popular 16th-century tale Journey to the West was written about his life, with the main character portraying the Chinese monk.

Xuanzang, Painting Journey to the West, StudySmarterFig. 4- Xuanzang depicted in 'Journey to the West' with his monkey companion Sun Wukong.

In modern-day China, India is referred to as "Yin Du," thanks to the information brought by Xuanzang. Before his translations, India was referred to as "Tian Zhu," and before that, "Shen Du" to Chinese-speaking people. This further exemplifies the influence that Xuanzang had on Asian information and culture, even to this day.

Xuanzang - Key takeaways

  • Xuanzang was a 7th-century Chinese explorer who ventured the Silk Road to India to pursue knowledge.
  • Xuanzang's written account of his travels is critical to studying Medieval Asia.
  • Buddhism's prominence arose across Asia due to Xuanzang's influential courtly lectures and general teachings.
  • Xuanzang's journey was important to China and India, facilitating a transference of knowledge between the two lands.


  1. Fig. 2 Nalanda Monastery (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nalanda_ruins_and_archaeological_site.jpg) by Sarah Jamerson (https://www.flickr.com/photos/travelwyse/6511269043/), licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en).

Frequently Asked Questions about Xuanzang

Xuanzang was a 7th-century Chinese monk who traveled to India to study Buddhism.

Xuanzang traveled to India to further his studies of Buddhism. He brought his knowledge and experiences of India and western lands back to China. 

Xuanzang was impressed by the architecture, statues, and Indian scholars at the Nalanda Academy.

Xuanzang obtained knowledge and experience during his journey to and in India. He brought his knowledge and experiences of India and western lands to China. 

Xuanzang is famous for his journey to India in the 7th century. His detailed accounts inspired the Chinese epic Journey to the West.

Final Xuanzang Quiz

Xuanzang Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What religion did Xuanzang study for most of his life? 

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Why did Xuanzang travel to India? 

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To study Buddhism. 

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Why was Xuanzang legally not allowed to leave China as he set off on his quest?

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The emperor locked down the country due to conflict with the Turks. 

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What is Buddhism more concerned with? 

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How was Xuanzang typically treated in the royal courts of foreign kingdoms?

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With friendliness; gifts and aid on his journey.

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In what century did Xuanyang travel to India? 

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7th century

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What significant historical pathway did Xuanyang travel on to reach India?

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The Silk Road 

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How did the Chinese emperor treat Xuanzang upon his return to China?

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He welcomed him and forgave him of his illegal departure. 

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What is the name of the ancient academy in India that Xuanzang spent two years studying at?

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Nalanda Monastery

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Why is Xuanyang's account of his traveling so important?

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It paints a picture of the culture of Medieval Asia. 

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