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Postmortem Pilgrimage: The Journey to the West as Mortuary Rite

Xuanzang (600/602–664), the celebrated seventh-century Chinese cleric, pilgrim, and scholar, is 
arguably the most famous monk in the two-thousand year history of Chinese Buddhism. His epic 
seventeen-year pilgrimage from China to India, his close relationship with two Chinese emperors 
after his return, his subsequent translation of hundreds of volumes of Sanskrit texts into Chinese, 
and the influence of those translations and commentaries on Buddhist traditions throughout East 
Asia have taken on mythic proportions in the literature, liturgy, theater, and popular culture of China 
and neighboring countries.  
After his death, Xuanzang was apotheosized as a powerful deity in China and came to be revered 
as  both  an  exorcistic  spirit  and  as  a guide for the  souls  of the  dead.  The  historical  evolution  of 
Xuanzang’s posthumous cult is closely related to the development of the famous Journey to the 
West (Xiyou ji), a novel published anonymously in the late sixteenth-century. While the novel and its 
antecedents  have  been  studied  by  numerous  scholars,  the  ritual  roots  of  the  narrative  and  its 
relationship to the deified Xuanzang are not well known.  
This talk draws on recently discovered ritual manuals, liturgies, and ethnographic accounts to explore 
mortuary rites featuring Xuanzang and other figures from the Journey to the West story-cycle. 

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