Saturday, 24 September 2016

Xuan Zhang 2016

Xuan Zhang 2016 is not your usual “Journey to the West” movie. You won’t find flying monkeys there. Instead, you’ll find a realistic journey of an amazing Tang monk across the treacherous deserts, who spoke fluent Hindi when he was already in India and addressed the Indian monks/gurus as “Acharya” in such a respectful way. Copied to my Jianghu blog because it relates to Li Shimin (Tang Dynasty) and it gave me a thought about LOCH 2017.

I found Xuan Zhang when I was on board Singapore Airlines from Hong Kong to Singapore (part of my lag from Washington DC to Jakarta). The good thing about flying with SIA is that you’d be guaranteed to have a wide array of Asian movies to watch. This journey was not an exception. I was weighing between Xuan Zhang and another Asian movie, and in the end, boy I’m glad that I watched Xuan Zhang.

The Chinese-Indian movie was directed by Huo Jianqi, produced by Wong Kar-wai (that name I know!) and starring Huang Xiaoming as the titular character. Never seen HXM in action before, but I was very impressed with his performance as Xuan Zhang that he’s one of my favourite Mainland actors now. HXM made me thought that he was actually channelling Xuan Zhang in the movie; his serene face and wisdom were so palpable, I wondered if he actually set aside time to meditate every day before filming. Actually, I would be glad to just sit next to him, listening to him chanting the sutras...


Xuan Zhang was a 7th Century Tang Dynasty monk who traveled from Chang’an to Nalanda University and other sites in India with the main mission to collect original manuscripts of Buddha’s teachings and translate it into Chinese (did they speak Mandarin back then in Tang, or another dialect?). Xuan Zhang was in turn inspired by Faxian, another epic 4th CE monk who traveled from China to India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Java (accidental due to storm) from 399-412. For Xuan Zhang, it was a 17 years of journey across more than a hundred countries (must be small kingdoms then) over... 28,000 km or so.

Huang Xiaoming's silhouette as Xuan Zhang (2016)

In short, it was epic. And he did it alone, only with his walking stick, to return back to Tang with “over 600 Mahayana and Hinayana texts, seven statues of the Buddha and more than a hundred sarira relics” (Strong, 2007).

As I said: epic. And he translated and oversaw the translation of the entire text, which made up like about 75 volumes of the whole sacred texts. He also translated the Heart Sutra, hence the Heart Sutra that I’ve often listened to (Alan Tam’s rendition is my favourite) was because of his work.

No wonder Emperor Taizong of Tang thought highly of Xuan Zhang, though his edict almost got the amazing monk killed during his crossing because Tang was at war with the Gokturks at that time. The venerated monk’s return to Tang was actually received in glory more than that experienced by movie stars these days, unlike his departure.

There are so many things I love about this movie, but among those are the fact that Xuan Zhang spoke Hindi when he was in India. The real XZ did study Sanskrit anyway in year 626, that was about 3-4 years before he left Chang-an... hence perhaps XZ should have spoken Sanskrit in the movie. But who would understand full Sanskrit these days in India? By the same token, although I doubt that the Tang people spoke modern Mandarin, but those are the closest languages that the movie could use without reducing the originality. I like and respect that.

The Xuan Zhang Memorial Hall in Nalanda University, Bihar India (Wiki)

I appreciate it that this Xuan Zhang had a break down or two during his crossing the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts. Crossing the desserts with minimum equipment and dangerously minimum water like that was crazy, but he made it. Thanks to his horse and the Universe. I actually cried when he made it into the Horse River or something or other...

I also like it that the movie opened in India with a Hindi-speaking young researcher reading a book by Alexander Cunningham, a very prominent 19th CE Indologist, who in turn quoted Xuan Zhang extensively. The opening scene promised me a multicultural (at least bicultural) approach of the movie, and I was glad for that decision. Hat off, in fact.

There are two other things that made this movie special for me. First, Xuan Zhang did his adventures (629-645) during the reign of Emperor Taizong (626-649) whose personal name was Li Shimin. Yes, Li Shimin or Li Sai Man, the main character in the Foundation 1984 that was played excellently by Michael Miu. That alone made Xuan Zhang 2016 special for me. Second, Kent Tong (who played as Li Sai Man’s third brother in the Foundation 1984) was actually performed in Xuan Zhang 2016 as Moksha Gupta. I’m not sure who Moksha Gupta was, for I didn’t recall any oriental-looking guy speaking Hindi other than Xuan Zhang. My current take is that Moksha Gupta was Xuan Zhang’s teacher in Tang.

Is Kent Tong the old monk on the right side?

That’s one of the reasons I want to watch Xuan Zhang again, but alas, finding the movie in English subtitle has been a challenge.

Xuan Zhang's travel route 629-645 CE

One thing I don’t understand. Based on the map of Xuan Zhang’s travel, he could have actually cut across the Mainland to Nalanda via southwestern direction rather than going through the northern dessert. Why did he not do that? I assume it’s because those days not many knew that geographically Nalanda was sort of directly southwest of Chang’an. Or was that because he did want to visit the northern region first?

I suppose I might have to buy/download Xuan Zhang’s travel diary to find out... should be interesting...

Oh, one more thing. Xuan Zhang speaking Hindi and reading Sanskrit in this movie has given me a thought. One of the most important plots in the Legend of Condor Heroes is an unknown passage from the Nine Yin Manual. The passage was later disclosed as Sanskrit, hence no one in the Song/Jin era knew what it was. It was one of Southern Emperor's disciples who later translated the Sanskrit part of the Nine Yin Manual for Huang Rong and Guo Jing, which made our heroes understood that they had actually been trying to utter some Sanskrit words.

Thus I think, the funny unintelligible Nine Yin lines that HR and GJ often heard should have been uttered in Sanskrit. I do understand the difficulty of Chinese speakers (particularly in the past) to pronounce Sanskrit words, which resulted in many Sanskrit and Pali words being re-spoken and re-written the way the Chinese would be able to pronounce them. That might have been the case in the LOCH fiction. However, once HR and GJ understood the origin of those lines, the pronunciation of those lines should switch to Sanskrit, IMO. Thus I hope the upcoming LOCH 2017 will have this line clearly uttered in Sanskrit, not a gobbledygook, in the end.

If that makes sense to you LOCH readers/watchers...


Linda Fern said...

Thank you so much for that post, Icha. I now realize how ignorant we common people are here about all of Asia. Now I really wish I knew more. However at my advanced age, it seems impossible. I admire your command of the English language to tell us about all of the Eastern World. I keep learning even if it is small bits. So keep up the good work.
Yrs aff'ly,
Linda the Librarian

Icha said...

Thank you so much, Linda, for visiting and leaving your comments. I understand that understanding another culture can be quite a challenge, thus thank you for that.

take care and blessings always,