Richard Bernstein, an accomplished journalist and author, was a student of Chinese language and history at Harvard. In 1980, he opened Time magazine’s Beijing bureau, the journal’s first in China since the Communist revolution of 1949. By the late 1990’s, he was a book critic for the New York Times. In his fifties and unmarried, he had been in a romantic relationship with a Chinese classical dancer named Zhongmei Li, but there was no permanent commitment because of Bernstein’s indecisiveness. He states that in the desire to get away from the ordinary and the predictable, he debated whether to construct Shaker furniture or embark on a last adventure before the desire for stability and the onset of middle age restricted his vistas and opportunities. He decided to travel.
Bernstein’s ultimate journey was something he had been considering for some time. In the 600’s c.e., a Chinese Buddhist monk named Hsuan Tsang had traveled from his homeland to India and back again, a trip which took seventeen years and covered 10,000 miles, encountering different peoples and cultures, crossing blistering deserts and traversing frozen mountains. A legend in Communist China as well as in India, Hsuan Tsang is largely unknown in the West. Bernstein compares him to Marco Polo, but where Polo was seeking riches, Hsuan Tsang was searching for enlightenment, for himself and for humanity. Although he is not a Buddhist, but a secular Westerner from a Jewish background, Bernstein also describes himself as a romantic, drawn to the persons of the past whose contributions changed history. Hsuan Tsang did that, helping to transmit Buddhism from India, where it died out, to China and ultimately to Japan, where it still thrives in the twenty-first century.
Still, midlife romantic quests into the past face present-day realities. Bernstein, with Ross H. Munro, had recently written The Coming Conflict with China, a controversial work which was not well received by the Chinese government. Getting permission to even begin his journey presented obstacles, but he was able to obtain a no-questions-asked visa in Hong Kong. He flew to Xian, noted for its terracotta soldiers from the first Chinese emperor’s tomb, where Zhongmei was waiting both to assist him with the bureaucracy and to accompany him on the first part of his pilgrimage.
If Bernstein’s entrance into China was fraught with difficulties, Hsuan Tsang’s exit from the Middle Kingdom had been more so. The seventh century was a contentious era in China, politically in terms of the end of the Sui dynasty and the rise of the T’ang, and religiously in terms of Buddhism, in which there were conflicts over interpretation and understanding occasioned in part by the vast cultural gulf between Buddhism’s native India and Hsuan Tsang’s China. The monk’s motive for his long journey was to study Buddhism at its great university, Nalanda, in northern India, and bring manuscripts back to China. However, the T’ang emperor, Tai Tusung, had forbidden Chinese to travel to the west. Just as Bernstein escaped the possible clutches of the Communist party bureaucracy, Hsuan Tsang managed to escape the emperor’s edict. There were political and military reasons for the emperor’s decision, but Bernstein also notes a sociological cause: The Chinese never developed what he calls an anthropological spirit and had no true interest in, and thus little knowledge of, the world beyond China. Hsuan Tsang was unique.
Bernstein aimed to follow Hsuan Tsang’s route closely, using the monk’s own reports, ancient biographies, and modern writings, recognizing that modern roads, international borders, and political restrictions would necessitate some compromise. The monk traveled by foot, horse, camel, and elephant. In the late twentieth century, thanks to Zhongmei’s fame as a dancer, Bernstein was given a tour of Xian in a luxury automobile. They then left for the west by train, in what passed for a first class compartment, or “soft sleeper.” Western China was the eastern end of the fabulous Silk Road, the other end of which lay in the Mediterranean world, down which passed not only Chinese Buddhist monks but also Marco Polo and his uncles, Mongol raiders and other armies, and merchants of numerous cultures. In 1999, western China was a politically sensitive region because the population is mostly Muslim, and Communist authorities were fearful of any religiously inspired separatist tendencies. Bernstein’s presence in Xinjiang Province was thus potentially fraught with difficulties, and on one occasion a restaurant owner accused him of being an American spy.
In Ultimate Journey, Bernstein discusses Hsuan Tsang’s trek at considerable length, reciting the monk’s difficulties in eluding Chinese authorities, including being shot at by archers, and the dangers he encountered in the deserts through which the Silk...
(The entire section is 1999 words.)