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The monk's tale
By Brendan Worrell (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-06-03 09:31

The monk's tale

A map showing Monk Ennin's route from Japan to Tang China.

At this time Tang was a very cosmopolitan society. Ennin wrote about Persians near Yangzhou, people from the Kingdom of Champa, modern day Vietnam, in addition to receiving lessons in Sanskrit from Indians in Chang'an or modern day Xi'an.

During the Tang Dynasty, foreigners undertaking long periods of study were customarily given full scholarships. Ennin could not have known then that his experiences would come in use 12 centuries later but he kept an almost daily detailed diary, his record of A Pilgrimage to Tang China in Search of the Law, compiled in four scrolls of 70,000 Chinese characters. This log has survived down the years and become the main focus of Anami's work.

The monk's tale

Early research by Okada Masayuki and his reproduction of the diary in 1926 paved the way for its later translation into English from classical Chinese by the renowned Harvard professor Edwin Reischauer in the 1950s. It was this version that Anami was to come across in the 1960s while studying Buddhist history and she admits she was instantly fascinated "with an almost immediate lure to follow his experience".

Anami cites Ennin's journal as one of the most important travelogues of the ages and compares it to other famed texts such as the Chinese monk Xuanzang's 7th-century Record of the Western Regions and Marco Polo's Description of the World, from 1298. These two were not written by the authors, however. Xuanzang dictated to his disciples once back in China and Marco Polo himself was illiterate.

Anami was able to first begin exploring Ennin's path in the early 1980s when she first lived in China and later in more depth while her husband was based in Beijing working as the-then Japanese Ambassador to China.

In 2007 she finally completed her quest to physically retrace the monk's footsteps, trudging through Jiangsu, Shandong, Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan and Anhui provinces.

She thrilled in visiting world-famous locations like Xi'an and Yangzhou but it was the rural regions, "in between the famous dots", that really grabbed her imagination.