Arts & Culture

On the road in the fifth century: Visions of heaven, hell

5 min read

During the fifth century, travelers began to depart China more frequently than ever before, venturing outward from medieval cities to explore lands in Central and South Asia. A range of individuals eagerly took to the road, writing extensively about their journeys and returning home with elaborate accounts.

Xiaofei Tian, professor of Chinese literature, studies travelogues of this era, known as the early medieval period, to evaluate how voyagers articulated concepts of the “foreign.” Their writing, she argues, was part of a broader cultural transformation that encouraged people to embrace foreign influences.

“The intellectual and cultural landscape of China changed dramatically in the early medieval era,” says Tian. “The influx of influences from India, the rise of Buddhism, and the increasing penchant for travel abroad combined to reshape and open up Chinese life.”

Tian has studied prose travel accounts, poetry, dynastic histories, and anecdotal collections in her efforts to engage with the mindset of fifth century travelers. She has found that merchants, Buddhist clergy, and diplomats traveled the most extensively. Merchants departed in search of commercial profit; the clergy went to preach and convert, to seek enlightenment, or to visit religious sites; and the diplomats traveled to strengthen relationships with neighboring rulers.

Women also traveled extensively, Tian notes, and not necessarily as dependents of their fathers or husbands. Buddhist nuns in particular enjoyed great mobility.

As these travelers grappled with foreign landscapes and unfamiliar sights, says Tian, they mediated their experience in writing through specific rhetorical strategies, images, and tropes. According to Tian, their efforts were the first attempt in Chinese culture to develop schemata for writing about seeing the world.

“I was curious to explore how you can articulate the experience of seeing something you have never seen before, in a country with an entirely different language,” Tian says. “What strategies do you use if you want to talk about something foreign?”

A popular technique, Tian says, was to envision the foreign world as either “heaven” or “hell.” This was particularly evident in poetry.

“The travelers would describe the land in terms of the Buddhist conception of heaven — a pure, blissful place,” says Tian. “Or, they would describe it as an elaborate hell, with levels and sections not unlike Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ But there was never a middle ground.”

Tian argues that the heaven/hell schema enabled later travelers to “domesticate the foreign.” Similarly, the practice of writing about a voyage in several genres helped travelers “represent, familiarize, and tame” the foreign world.

“Instead of just writing a prose narrative or a personal diary or a poem, many later travelers chose to do all three,” she says. “When you choose multiple genres to represent the same topic, different needs are satisfied and the subject material becomes even more knowable.”

In addition to her work on the medieval era, Tian also studies late imperial China. When it comes to travel literature, she says, one can find strong links between the early medieval period and the 19th century. In her latest book project, titled “Visionary Journeys,” Tian seeks to bring together both eras to explore how travel sparked cultural transformation.

“In the 19th century, the Chinese elite went beyond Asia for the first time to explore Europe and America,” she says. “These places were exotic in every sense of the word, and the travelers’ writings parallel the sense of discovery that was evident in literature from the fifth and sixth centuries.”

The heaven/hell trope, for example, was repeatedly used by travelers as they explored the cities of Europe.

“London, with its industrial fog, was often described as a demonic place,” says Tian. “Paris, on the other hand, was more often cast in paradisial terms.”

Though 19th century travelers had a broader vocabulary than their 5th and 6th century counterparts, they still struggled to describe what they encountered on the road.

“Often, there was no appropriate vocabulary to talk about something really novel, no existing words to describe foreign things,” says Tian.

In that case, travelers modified words from their own language — often with unusual effect.

When they came across nudes in paintings from the European artistic tradition, for example, some travelers referred to them as chun-gong — the Chinese word for erotic paintings. Initially surprised to find art of that nature hanging on display in public, the travelers came to realize that the paintings were actually different from chun-gong and acknowledged as much in their writing.

“The effort to come up with a way to express a foreign concept demonstrates the clash of two different cultural systems,” Tian says.

According to Tian, historians should not underestimate the scope of the changes that took place in the medieval period and the 19th century, as travelers crossed significant physical, linguistic, and cultural barriers.

“No other period in Chinese history before the modern era engaged in so much translation and absorbed so much of foreign culture or cultures as in these two periods and caused such a complete cultural transformation,” she says.