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The Illustrated Life of Xuanzang: Poetry, Painting, and Pilgrimage in Medieval Japan

Rachel Saunders [Harvard University]
Ittleson Fellow, 2013–2015  

On the seventh day of the sixth month of 1525, the council of elders at the great Buddhist monastic complex of Kōfukuji decreed that never again should the handscroll known as The Illustrated Life of Xuanzang leave the temple grounds. The record of this event reflects intense anxiety over the safety of this monumental two-hundred-meter-long painting, described as the temple “bloodline.” Loans to Kōfukuji’s subtemples ceased, and the scroll, which contains seventy-six jewel-like paintings and sections of elegantly brushed calligraphic text, remained cloistered at the spiritual heart of the monastery for the next four hundred years. As time passed, its absence generated an auratic narrative of a hermetic handscroll that turned upon the perverse charisma of the invisible object. Unsurprisingly then, its first-ever full exhibition in 2011 at Nara National Museum was greeted with much excitement among art historians. The two weeks I spent poring over every highly pigmented inch was my first opportunity to get beyond previous discursive approaches to the work and to begin to ask exactly how much of this complex object’s efficacy was rooted in the scroll itself, as opposed to rumor and writing about it.


Takashina Takakane, The Illustrated Life of Xuanzang, early fourteenth century, scroll 1, section 4. Fujita Museum, Osaka; reproduced with the kind permission of the Fujita Museum

The scroll relates the biography of the great Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (d. 664) and his epic seventeen-year pilgrimage from China to India. He returned to China with hundreds of Buddhist texts in the original Sanskrit. These he translated into Chinese, thereby changing the course of Buddhist history in East Asia. Cycles of increasingly imaginative stories about Xuanzang circulated throughout the East Asian cultural macrosphere, culminating in the publication of the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji). As a fourteenth-century Japanese iteration of what was originally a Chinese story, the handscroll, now a designated National Treasure, constitutes another species of translation: that of Xuanzang’s life story, as it is preserved within the sacrosanct textual confines of the Buddhist Tripitaka, into a carefully abridged illustrated handscroll, or emaki.

The production of magnificent multifascicle handscrolls illustrating the lives of eminent monks, known as kōsōden emaki, reached its peak during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Illustrated Life of Xuanzang, produced by the famously enigmatic court painter Takashina Takakane (active c. 1309–1330) and remarkable for its bravura depiction of lands alien to the medieval Japanese experience, has long constituted the mysterious jewel in the crown of the genre. Already intellectually quarantined as “very special objects” by virtue of their elite format, illustrated sacred biographies have been further isolated art-historically as an indirect result of their ontological complexity. The rich potential of these extended diachronic portraits to challenge Eurocentric conceptions of iconicity and the autonomy of the artifact has been further limited by a persistent division of scholarly labor between literary scholars, who have dealt with the lexical portions of the scrolls, and art historians, who have focused on the paintings.

My dissertation, completed this year at CASVA, presents a case study for the interrogation of the composition and function of illustrated sacred biography in East Asia. Reading the scroll texts and paintings in concert against a constellation of self-indicated lexical and pictorial sources revealed that the source of the scroll’s efficacy as a numinous object lies in an exquisitely choreographed analogical mode of explicitly intertextual composition. The sophisticated discursive editorial policy that guided its composition produced a self- canonizing object that manipulates the unique expressive plasticity of the picto-textual handscroll format to deliver a locally customized retelling of the life of Xuanzang.

The demands and rewards of the scroll itself governed the choice of close reading as my primary methodological tool, which in turn uncovered a pervasive self-reflexivity in the scroll paintings. Their deep imbrication with the textual portions of the scroll renders the scroll legible as both icon and relic, with the capacity to imaginatively transpose the mundane present and cosmic past. Importantly, these close readings also led to the resolution of a seventy-year-old Japanese scholarly debate over whether the scroll constitutes a unique work or represents a copy of an older, now lost, original. From identification of the scroll’s graphic inscription of narrative and subnarrative, numerous double portraits, and eschatologically driven chronotopic transpositions of ancient Indian sites to contemporary locations in Japan, it became clear that, as much as the scroll depicts “India,” it was also simultaneously intended to depict, and spiritually activate, the very landscape in which it remained sequestered for so many centuries.