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A Study of James Legges Translation of

The Travels of Fa-Hien

[Abstract] This thesis is a critical study of the English translation of The Travels of Fa-Hien by the Scottish
sinologist James Legge. This article is made up of four parts. The first part is a general presentation of The
Travels of Fa-Hien, a translated book unfamiliar to or forgotten by a majority of Chinese scholars, including its
multiple values, main contents and different translations, followed by a brief introduction to James Legge.
Taking specific examples, the second part analyzes the laudable merits of James Legges rendering, namely,
the remarkable long preface, faithful rigorous translation and numerous multifaceted footnotes. Conversely, the
third part manages to demonstrate some inevitable defects in James Legges version, which do not decisively
detract from the brilliance of his translation. The paper continues to ascertain the causes of the defects, such as
different source texts as well as his limited range of Buddhist knowledge, and then offers alternative solutions.
The final part is the conclusion of the whole thesis, which points out the insufficient survey in this subject and
suggests a further and more thorough study.
[Key Words] The Travels of Fa-Hien; James Legge; English translation

1. Introduction
A famous medieval Chinese monk named Fa-Hien compiled a travelogue The Travels of
Fa-Hien, describing his journey through Central Asia, India, and ultimately to Sri Lanka in
search of the Buddhist books from about the years 399 to 414 A.D. Fa-Hien and his companions
visited as many of the Buddhist sacred shrines as they could, especially those associated with the
presence of the Buddha. Consequently, it is not only one of the world's greatest travel books, but
is filled with invaluable accounts of early Buddhism, the geography and history of numerous
countries along the so-called Silk Roads at the turn of the 5th century.
Since the 19th century, The Travels of Fa-Hien has been rendered into a variety of
languages, such as French, English, German, Japanese, Hindi, Nepali and so on. The translation
of this travelogue in the West is as follows: Fa-hien, Foe Koue Ki by French Sinologist M. Abel
Remusat in Paris in 1836, which was difficult to have access to in China; Travels of Fa-hien and
Sung-yun Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India by Samuel Beal in London in 1869, which
was the earliest version rendered into English; The Travels of Fa-hien or Record of the
Buddhistic Kingdoms by Herbert A. Giles in Cambridge in 1877; A Record of Buddhistic
Kingdoms by James Legge in Oxford in 1886, which was considered the best English-language
version available (Wang Bangwei, 2003: 23).

James Legge was a noted Scottish sinologist and the greatest missionary translator (Duan
Huaiqing, 2006: 81). Believing in the necessity of missionaries being able to comprehend the
ideas and culture of the Chinese, he began to translate Chinese classics into English in 1841, a
monumental task admirably executed and completed a few years before his death. His renderings
have long been studied and explored by scholars, yet the research has been limited in his
renderings of Confucian classics.
Although James Legges translation of the Buddhist work, The Travels of Fa-Hien, was the
most frequently used in the western academic circles, so far there has been no systematic study
of it. Only sparse materials have made some comments on this subject, such as Bridging the East
and the West-Studies on the Scottish Sinologist James Legge (1815-1897). The lack of
translational research on this book makes my study difficult but this speaks of the value of my
writing. For the explanations of the meanings of the original text on the basis of which I review
the translation, I mostly refer to Fa-Hien Zhuan Jiao Zhu ( ). For theoretical
support, I mainly refer to Functional Theory in Routledge encyclopedia of translation studies and
theories of hermeneutics in Methodology of Western Translation Studies: since the 1970s.
2. The merits of James Legges translation
James Legges version of The Travels of Fa-Hien featured faithfulness, accuracy and
conciseness. In addition, he made great efforts to put the long preface and multifaceted footnotes
in his version, which established his work as a classic that was highly thought of by the scholars.
2.1 The remarkable long preface
Before the body of the translation, there was a distinct and extensive preface by James
Legge, which was followed by an exhaustive introduction. The preface exposed a preliminary
picture of his translation, his notes and his doubts.
First of all, James Legge showed his interest in The Travels of Fa-Hien as well as the
difficulties that delayed his rendering, such as Sanskrit words and names, the lack of a good and
clear text, etc. He not only told us that his work consisted of three parts, namely, the translation
of Fa-Hiens narrative, copious notes and the Chinese text of his copy from Japan but also listed
the previous versions which he had made reference to, making it possible for enterprising
scholars to carry out a comparative analysis of their translations later.
Furthermore, James Legge revealed two objects in his notes, that is, to explain what in the
text required explanation to English readers and to teach himself as well as others something of

the doctrines of Buddhism. Then he put forward his own doubts in the field of Buddhism which
still required to be carefully handled. He also expressed his deep gratitude to Dr. Rhys Davids for
his kind corrections and to Mr. Nanjio for the betterknown Corean text which was appended to
the translation and notes.
At the end of the preface, James Legge provided the source of the pictures which were used
in his work and added a sketch map of Fa-Hiens travels to make the route clear. As for the
introduction, he concentrated on the life of Fa-Hien, genuineness and integrity of the text of FaHiens narrative and number of the adherents of Buddhism.
Generally speaking, it is the remarkable long preface that facilitates readers in getting an
elementary idea of James Legges version in view of the origin, the process and the
2.2 The faithful rigorous translation
Among the three parts of his work, it was for the translation that James Legge held himself
more especially responsible. Portions of the translation were written out three times while the
whole of it twice. Generally speaking, James Legges translation was faithful and trustworthy, in
other words, functionally equivalent to the original text in both forms and contents (Bassnett,
2004: 32). And literal translation was the most representative method employed in his
translation. This can be seen from the following angles:
2.2.1 On the proper forms
To begin with, James Legge applied circles in the column as signs to separate the chapters
in the appended Chinese text (Yue Feng, 2004: 203). Originally, the Chinese narrative ran on
without any break. It was Klaproth who divided French Sinologist M. Abel Remusats translation
into forty chapters. James Legge considered the division helpful to the readers so he followed it
with few exceptions.
Besides, James Legge employed single characters to distinguish different recensions of FaHiens narrative while he wisely preferred the Corean text. Specifically, S stood for Sung, M for
Ming, J for Japanese, R for right and W for wrong in the subjoined Chinese text. In this way,
James Legge had taken the trouble to give all the various readings, amounting to more than 300
Last but not least, James Legge added some information whenever it was necessary in his
translation to enable readers to understand his version better and the added information was put

in brackets to differentiate. As we know, there are an ocean of differences between Chinese and
English (Zhang Hong, 2002: 439). In ancient Chinese text, omission was one of the most
common grammatical phenomena. Hence, if translators didnt put the omitted parts clearly, their
translation might be totally absent to readers. Here are some examples in James Legges
(1) Chapter V
...the king requests the presence of the Sramans from all quarters (of his kingdom). They
come (as if) in clouds;
The context of this sentence was that the king of Keeh-cha was holding the great
quinquennial assembly and the Sramans were supposed to attend. James Legge added of his
kingdom to limit the place where the Sramans came so that readers would know better the
bound of all quarters. By adding the conjunction as if James Legge made the sentence
more smooth, conveyed the meaning clearly and revealed the metaphor hidden in the source
sentence. If as if were not added here, English-speaking readers would have no idea about how
the Sramans could come in clouds.
(2) Chapter XXIV
...with his head to the north, attained to pari-nirvana (and died).
The core of the original text was the subject of Buddhism, which was new to westerners.
Thus, even if the language of The Travels of Fa-Hien was comparatively simple and
straightforward, there were still inherent difficulties of translating this ancient text into English.
In this sentence, was a typical Buddhist term, to which we could not find an equivalent
in English. James Legge first adopted transliteration, which reflected his faithful respect for alien
culture and then explained the real meaning by adding and died. Obviously, as Buddhism was
unfamiliar to foreign readers, adding here was quite necessary. By this means, James Legge not
only reminded readers of the particular Buddhist term but also created a large space for them to
2.22 On the accurate contents
On the one hand, James Legge employed different ways to translate the same word. In other
words, his rendering of words was determined by the context. Context is the most essential
element in translation, which is more important than any rules (Reiss, 2004: 28). The Travels of
Fa-Hien recorded Buddhist persons, legends and events; so many words in it were of varieties of
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter V, P22.
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter XXIV, P70.

meanings and grammatical functions. It was difficult for people to identify and judge their
meanings and it called for a correct understanding of each word when rendering. As a translator
of the Buddhist scriptures, James Legge sought to be careful and precise, which could be seen
from the examples listed below:
(1) (Chapter XV)
...where Buddhism was very flourishing...
(Chapter XV)
...and come for the sake of our doctrines from such a distance in search of the Law of
As we know, words never remained unchanged in meaning. The first meant Asian
religion based on the teachings of the N Indian philosopher Gautama Siddartha. It conveyed the
message that after Fa-Hien and Tao-ching had crossed the river, there was a country named Petoo, where people believed in Buddhism and the monks studied both the mahayana and
hinayana. However, the second sentence was an exclamation made by the monks in Pe-too when
they saw Fa-Hien and Tao-ching from Tsin pass along to pursue the Buddhist books. Therefore,
James Legge rendered the second into the Law of Buddha, different from the first one.
(2) (Chapter XXIV)
There also are the places where Subhadra, the last (of his converts), attained to Wisdom
(and became an Arhat).
(Chapter XXXIX)
When Maitreya shall be about to attain to perfect Wisdom (and become Buddha)...
In these two sentences, and both referred to attaining to the consummation
of ones being to some extent. Nevertheless, Subhadra was the last convert of the Worldhonored one, so he only became an Arhat in the end. It was Bodhisattva Maitreya who achieved
perfect Wisdom and became Buddha when Buddhas alms-bowl separated into four bowls again.
Undoubtedly, due to his painstaking accuracy, readers would know more about Buddhism. This
example also indicated that although James Legge was a Christian missionary, he had dedicated
himself to studying the subject of Buddhism from diverse sources.
On the other hand, James Legge managed to keep sentence patterns and figures of speech of
the source text in his rendering. Through literal translation, he aimed to preserve the original
style as much as possible so the syntax in his rendering was characterized by faithfulness. Next,
let me take some sentences as examples:

James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter XV, P41.

James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter XV, P42.
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter XXIV, P71.
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter XXXIX, P109.

(1) (Chapter I)
There is not a bird to be seen in the air above, nor an animal on the ground below.
The sentences in Chinese classics are usually short and parallel. In this example, James
Legge precisely presented the terrible image of the desert which Fa-Hien and his companions
had marvelously crossed. Additionally, James Legge maintained the parallel, an effective way of
writing about similar things, making his translation closer to the original text.
(2) (Chapter XXXVIII)
...here as Sudana, there as Sama; now as the king of elephants, and then as a stag or a
This sentence was about different bodily forms in which the Bodhisattva had in the course
of his history appeared. In rendering it into English, James Legge did not violate the figures of
speech. He made use of the conjunction as to keep the simile and parallel. To some degree, he
not only emphasized both the similarity and the differences among similar ideas, but also added a
sense of balance and unity to his translation.
In general, although James Legge employed varieties of translation skills, such as adding,
omission and sometimes even liberal translation, he used literal translation as the most
outstanding technique. And his literal translation didnt mean word-for-word rendering or simple
language transformation in the sense of linguistics. Instead, he tried what Functional Theory
advocated, preserving the source-language content, form, style and function as far as possible
(Baker, 2004: 30). His accuracy in rendering such a Buddhist classic proved satisfactory and far
beyond those foreigners who had tried to do something like this before him. One reason for his
successful rendering was that he directly translated from the original text rather than from
selection or condensation.
2.3 The numerous multifaceted footnotes
Another obvious characteristic of James Legges translation was his effort to write extensive
commentarial footnotes, which mainly fulfilled four kinds of functions.
Firstly, James Legge analyzed several special difficulties in details. For example, he
provided such an explanatory annotation as I am obliged to adopt the reading of in the
Chinese editions, instead of the in the Corean text. The , which immediately
follows the surname Foo (), must be taken as the name of his office, corresponding, as the

James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter I, P12.

James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter XXXVIII, P106.

shows, to that of le maitre dhotellerie in a Roman Catholic abbey. In this way, readers knew
that only one person was spoken of as assisting the travelers and his name was Foo Kung-sun. As
shown in this example, footnotes played an important role in ensuring readers to get an in-depth
understanding of the ambiguous points in the original text.
Secondly, James Legge checked the relevant time and places which were mentioned in The
Travels of Fa-Hien. Since the travelogue was of the remote past, he supplied the cyclical name of
the year, which benefited westerners in identifying the exact periods of the events. Besides, he
examined the definite locations of the countries which Fa-Hien had experienced. His description
even included the weather, physiognomy, customs and special products of those countries. This
was very slow and demanding work. However, it was his informing footnotes that provided
precious data for a research of the history, geography, religion and culture of the India and
Ceylon in the 5th century.
Thirdly, James Legge introduced the basic knowledge of Buddhism, which provided
foreigners with essential backgrounds to know Buddhist works. Thus, Buddhist persons, legends,
events and rites were all involved in his footnotes, which were studies of both high originality
and profound scholarship. With the help of the annotations, his version of The Travels of FaHien could be treated as a more lively material to learn Buddhism than the didactic or
argumentative books.
Fourthly, James Legge offered his alternative opinions on the doubtful points in the original
text. Although he was convinced of the good taste and reliability of all Fa-Hien s statements, he
was cautious in his translation of questionable points. To cite just one example, he once made a
remark as The text of this sentence is perplexing; and all translators, including myself, have
been puzzled by it. Therefore, he brought up his own preference in the footnotes while his
translation mostly followed standard commentaries. On the whole, his footnotes covered textual
research, introduction, interpretation, argument as well as comments.
3. The demerits of James Legges translation
Although James Legge was in good command of both English and Chinese, there were still
errors found occasionally in his translation. This part dealt with his inevitable loss, which could
be roughly classified as two sorts:

James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter II, P15.

James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter V, P23.

On the one hand, we probed into the source text which James Legge employed for his
rendering. There were four recensions of Fa-Hiens narrative, those of the Sung and Ming
dynasties, that of Japan, and that of Corea. James Legge who was relatively aware of the
complicated textual history of the scriptural text itself had discreetly followed the Corean text
but particular problems like the following examples still occurred.
(1) (Chapter III)
There are in this country four great monasteries, not counting the smaller ones.
According to the Corean text, there were only four great monasteries in Yu-Teen, yet instead
of four, the Chinese copies of the text had fourteen (Zhang Yi, 1985: 16). The context of this
sentence was that each monastery had its own day for the procession of images, which began on
the first day of the fourth month, and ended on the fourteenth. In accordance with the context,
the Chinese copies were more correct here. Hence, the sentence could be rendered into There
are in this country fourteen great monasteries, not counting the smaller ones.
(2) ,(Chapter XXXVIII)
...his fellow-travelers, moreover, had been separated from him, some by death, and others
flowing off in different directions;
The context pointed out that it was Fa-Hien together with Hwuy-king, Tao-ching, Hwuyying, and Hwuy-wei who went to India to seek for the Disciplinary Rules. However, in the end,
Hwuy-wei and Tao-ching stayed in Kao-chang and India respectively while both Hwuy-king and
Hwuy-ying died on the way, so only Fa-Hien returned to the land of Han. Hence, according to
Wu Yugui, should be . The sentence could be rendered into ...his
fellow-travelers, moreover, had been separated from him, some by death, and others staying in
Kao-chang and India.
On the other hand, it was unavoidable that errors existed in James Legges version as a
result of the archaic qualities of the Chinese source text and his limited range of Buddhist
knowledge. These errors were caused either by misunderstanding or by inappropriate expression
because of his literal translation. And this could be seen from the examples listed below.
(1) (Chapter VII)
The (place and arrangements) are to be found in the Records of the Nine Interpreters...
As hermeneutics claimed that ones understanding was historical and prejudicial (Li
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter III, P18.
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter XXXVIII, P103.
A famous scholar in Taiwan who had interpreted The Travels of Fa-hien.
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter VII, P27.

Heqing, 2005: 165), there were still some places where Legge misunderstood the scriptural text.
In Han Dynasty, , which also called , was frequently used in the field of
transportation in classical text, meaning very distant (Xue Keqiao, 2007: pars 10). Obviously,
Nine Interpreters James Legge referred to was wrong. The sentence could be revised into The
(place and arrangements) are to be found in very remote areas...
(2) (Chapter VII)
...a hill-like wall of rock, 10000 cubits from the base.
In classical Chinese, numerals often just expressed the meaning of many but not the exact
figures. Similarly, was not an exact height from the bottom to the top but just a parlance
to emphasize the exceeding abruptness of the rock. Thus, James Legges rendering was not only
redundant but also mistaken. The cause of the error was his attempt to translate the text literally.
This sentence could be rendered into ...a hill-like wall of rock, exceptionally steep.
There are other examples. James Legge mistakenly rendered
into The clothes of the common people are coarse, and like those worn in our land of Han...,
which can be revised as The clothes of the common people are generally like those worn in our
land of Han... He also put into ...so that sramans from
the territory of Tsin were all unprepared for their regulations, which can be better translated into
...so that sramans from the territory of Tsin cannot receive their provisions as monks there do.
He mistranslated into Those Sramanas take our
lamps and use them for their own service of Buddha, but we will not stop our service for you ,
which can be revised as Those Sramanas take our lamps and use them for their own service of
Buddha. This case happens again and again. was
translated by James Legge into They made a large carriage-frame, in form like our funeral car,
but without the dragons and fishes, which can be better translated into They made a large
carriage-frame, in form like our funeral car, but without the dragons and fishes painted on it.
Besides the examples mentioned above, there were other similar errors in his version. But due to
the length of this thesis, we cant mention more examples.
4. Conclusion
The Travels of Fa-Hien is one of the principal sources of information today, in which
spiritual seekers will find a deeper understanding of Buddhism and students of Asian history will
discover a glorious travelogue of the ancient culture. However, scholars at home and abroad have
not made sufficient efforts to explore James Legges rendering of The Travels of Fa-Hien.
James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Chapter VII, P26.

Hence, I have in this paper tried to achieve a critical study in terms of its laudable merits and
inevitable demerits. I feel that my attempt is but a beginning of a long-term study. It is hoped that
the present study will prompt later comers to continue in this subject.

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