Intro to the Movie

 

[Karen]

Welcome to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese History and Culture, through historical Chinese dramas and films. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy. 

 

Today, as part of a special Chinese New Year episode, we are going to be discussing the 2016 film. Xuan Zang. X-U-A-N Z-A-N-G. If that’s a little difficult to pronounce, you can think of the x sound as an sh sound. The film stars Huang Xiao Ming and follows the extensive trials and tribulations of the famous Chinese monk, Xuan Zang during the early Tang dynasty in his quest to reach India to study Buddhist texts and bring them back to China. A journey that took him 19 year but his unwavering tenacity for his journey led him to complete his task.

 

This podcast episode is in English with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. In this podcast episode, we will first provide a brief background of the titular character, then introduce the main actor for Xuan Zang, Huang Xiao Ming and finally tell the story of Xuan Zang in the context of the film while providing historical Chinese context. There is also quite a bit of indian culture and history portrayed but as we are not experts there, we’ll only lightly cover those portions of the film.

 

If this is your first time listening to our podcast, welcome and I recommend checking out our website www.chasingdramas.com for more information. Our main goal is to provide more Chinese cultural and historical context to English speaking fans of Chinese historical films and dramas so hopefully, by the end of this episode, you’ll have learned something about Xuan Zang. The film is easily accessible with English subtitles on JubaoTV, spelled J-U-B-A-O TV which you can reach online or on tv from xfinity or cox contour.  If you have any questions or feedback on what we discuss in this episode, please feel free to reach out to us at karenandcathy@chasingdramas.com or else message us on instagram or twitter.

 

[Cathy]

Let’s get started! Who is Xuan Zang? Xuan Zang is one of the most famous individuals in Chinese culture and history not only because of his contribution to buddhism in China, but because he and his journey inspired the the famous novel, The Journey to the West or 西游记. It’s hard to talk about Xuan Zang and not talk about 西游记 or journey to the west。 The novel, written in the 16th century Ming Dynasty by 吴承恩, though that is disputed, is one of the four great classical novels in Chinese literature, the other three being Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Mansion. As with the other novels, Xi You Ji has endured for centuries and is still very much a part of the Chinese cultural identity. Though not every Chinese person has read the original text, they would have consumed some type of variation of the story – whether in a comic or a book or a tv show, an opera, or a retelling. The story of The Journey to the West is embedded into the fabric of Chinese culture and history. One of the most iconic television dramas in China is the 1986 version of the Journey to the West. Even though special effects were rudimentary at the time, the acting was superb and the costume and set design just as good. To this day, it is still considered the best iteration of the Journey to the West on screen. The actor for Sun Wu Kong, 六小龄童, did an absolutely stellar job bringing the monkey king to life that it is still the standard for what people think of when imagining the Monkey King. 

 

On a personal note,, Cathy and I grew up listening to mandarin chinese children’s audiobook versions of this story and also rewatched the 1986 version on DVD growing up. I would like to think that a huge part of our Chinese language and history knowledge started early on through the likes of the Journey of the West. That’s just to give an idea of the cultural impact this story has. 

 

[Karen]

Many of the Journey to the West’s story elements were taken from Xuan Zang’s own account of his travels west and then to India. In the novel, Xuan Zang, or else now as Tang San Zang, also heads west to seek sacred texts to bring back to the Tang dynasty. Along with him on his journey are his disciples, 孙悟空,a powerful monkey born of stone that possesses insane supernatural abilities, 猪八戒, a former general in the heavens but is now a part human part pig creature as punishment for his lust, and 沙僧,another former general in the heavens punished on earth and lived by a river. These three, along with a white horse, were tasked with protecting Xuan Zang on his harrowing journey. In the novel, the group must battle many demons and spirits as well as turmoil within the group before returning back to China. As you can tell, there are many mythical elements to this novel which tied together folk religion, mythology, daism, buddhism among others. 

 

Why did we just spend so much time talking about the Journey to the West? It’s because most people know of the Journey to the West but perhaps not that much about Xuan Zang himself and his real journey. That was indeed true for me so I appreciate that this film was made to reveal the man behind the myth if you will. For those who grew up knowing at least a little about the Journey to the West will see many references to the inspirations of events or places in the novel portrayed in Xuan Zang’s journey in this film and that is pretty much how we took to watching this film. It’s a familiar yet different story and it’s almost as if we were looking for easter eggs in this film that ties to the Journey to the West, even though this man’s journey came first.

 

[Cathy]

With that context, let’s talk about the main actor.

 

The film largely features Huang Xiao Ming as the titular character, 玄奘。

 

Let’s chat about 黄晓明 for a bit. We have followed his career pretty much since the beginning now more than 20 years ago. He played Prince 刘彻 in the series 大汉天子 which came out in 2001. Liu Chethe subsequent Emperor Wu of Han, one of the most well known Emperors in Chinese history and one we’ve talked about within our podcast series. I cannot describe how obsessed we were with that drama, rewatching it multiple times and also listening to the soundtrack on repeat. At that time, recording it on tv onto cassette tape so we could listen to it in the car. This was another one of those dramas that really sparked our interest in Chinese history and ultimately our podcast today. 

 

So from the very beginning, we’ve always had a soft spot for him and watched more of his earlier dramas. Huang Xiao Ming was born in Qingdao in 1984 and attended the Beijing Film Academy where he studied with other famous classmates such as Vicky Zhao. He has had a successful career and is one of THE A-list stars in China right now, winning numerous acting awards for various roles including this one at the 13th ChangChun film festival in China.  We also cannot talk about Huang Xiao Ming without talking about his now ex-wife, Angelababy. This is SUPER hot off the press. As of January 28, 2022, Huang XiaoMing and Angelababy, yes that’s her English name, announced their divorce after 7 years of marriage. They have a son together which I’m assuming they’ll share custody of. It’s a little funny what the public reaction has been. Rumors were swirling for forever that they were getting divorced but now that it’s come to fruition, top trending weibo or the equivalent of Chinese twitter, were like “this is the most unsurprising divorce”. Angelababy is quite well known for her looks on the red carpet and her involvement in the extremely popular Chinese reality show, Running Man and its subsequent iterations, though from an acting perspective, Huang Xiao Ming is the powerhouse of the now de-coupled pair.

 

[Karen]

 

Because I’ve largely seen Huang Xiao Ming in roles as a Prince or Emperor or Martial Arts Master, what have you, it was a little jarring to see him play this monk. His countenance and stature to me took me a little out of the story because I’m so used to thinking of him as this powerful individual. And in general, he likes to give himself the aura of the powerful business man. There’s a saying in China of the 霸道总裁 which people normally attribute to him. He’s also been tagged the term 油腻 which means oil but I don’t think people give him enough acting credit. Through the film you can see his dedication to this role and his desire to do it justice. Many idols and younger actors today would not want to play this role because just from the set itself, you could tell it was a tough and dry environment. The role of Xuan Zang is not a handsome one and not many people would have wanted to film such a tough role. 

 

The rest of the cast features pretty well known actors from China, Hong Kong and even India! They’re mainly cameos though.

 

The film itself began production in 2015 and was released in China on April 29 2016. The film was produced by the China Film Corporation and Eros International. The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at and was filmed on location in Turpan, Changji, Altay、Aksu、Kashgar which are all in the Xinjiang province of China, the 甘肃 province of China、and India. The second half of the movie prominently features India. As we are not experts of Indian culture, we will refrain much from commenting on this.

 

[Cathy]

With that background, we’ll start off with a film recap and then point out interesting things along the way. The movie has many parallels to Journey of the West so we’ll also point those out where we see them.

 

The film opens with a student at the Mumbai University in 2016 requesting a book written by Alexander Cunningham from the librarian.

 

The book the student picks out is the Ancient Geography of India written by Alexander Cunningham with the first half published in 1871. We get a voice over of Alexander Cunningham describing his discoveries of the Mahabodhi temple, the Nalanda. He had come across an ancient text – Journey to the West by the monk Xuan Zang.

 

A small nitpick here – it wouldn’t be the Journey to the West because as we said, that was written centuries later. Xuan Zang DID leave an autobiographical recitation of his travels called the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記). Fellow monks wrote down his words to write this book. So that might be what the movie is referencing.

 

From the discovery of the ancient text, we then move towards Xuan Zang’s story.  Xuan Zang was born at the end of the Sui Dynasty in 602AD in HeNan province. His family name was Chen. In the film, Xuan Zang recounts that his mother told him he was placed in a bucket and floated down a river during a flood when he was a baby and was rescued by a monk. Others say his brother took him to the monastery to study. Regardless, he feels he was destined to become a monk. To note, the story of being placed on a baske t and floated down the river to a monastery and then becoming a monk is the one that is recounted in the Journey to the West. 

 

[Karen]

We see adult Xuan Zang telling us his story of his journey when he set off from Chang An, the Capital of the Tang Dynasty. 

 

Xuan Zang is a devout monk and wishes to head west to India, the source of the original buddhist texts, to study, learn, and bring texts back to China. The year is 627ad and in the early years of the reign of 唐太宗 李世民. He is one of the most famous Chinese emperors in Chinese history. We will touch up on his reign when we talk about The Long Ballad. For now, some major talking points is that he was involved in a coup where he overthrew his brothers to claim the throne. Despite this bloody beginning, he brought the Empire to one of China’s greatest heights under Zhen Guan era. With that background, the Emperor has issued a special decree that allowed people to leave the city to find better fortunes / food due to the recent famines.  There is a throwaway line where the decree says that people of any class can leave. For those who listen to our Story of Ming Lan podcast episodes, you’ll recognize that this is talking about the class you’re born to as part of your personal registration deed.

 

We see Xuang Zang among the crowd heading out of the city as well. He is in simple monk attire and also carrying a rather heavy looking backpack of sorts. This is called a 负笈 is actually a real life adaptation from a painting that showed Xuan Zang’s getup during his travels called 玄奘负笈图 , complete with the dangling oil lamp at top. This pack is normally made of bamboo and can fit quite a bit plus it helps protect you from the rain. This pack is historically used by scholars or students for traveling, particularly when heading into the capital for the imperial entrance exams. One of the more famous depictions of this look is in the Chinese film, 倩女幽魂 or A Chinese Ghost Story. where the main male lead is a young scholar carrying this type of pack and meets a young ghost. 

 

电影《大唐玄奘》中玄奘法师的造型来自著名的《玄奘负笈图》,因为只身远行,玄奘法师的装备不但能遮阳挡雨还有一盏前置照明灯。

 

[Cathy]

Now there is some dispute on which year he actually left – 627 or 629 but we’ll just go ahead with the movie version here. To me, the film is broken out into a few parts. The first revolves around the human made obstacles for his journey but then also the kind people who help him succeed. His master is the first to tell him that perhaps he shouldn’t leave but he ignores this and pushes forward. When he does leave Chang An, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, and present day Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors, he finds his way to 凉州. This is an ancient province in the northwest of china. It is roughly in modern day Gan Su province. The province itself was important as it helped connect the silk road from the Chinese empires to central china. 

 

There, he meets his next obstacle. The governor (played by 徐峥 a very respected director nowadays) questions 玄奘 about his intentions and whether he obtain permission from the Emperor for his journey. 

 

Unfortunately, 玄奘 did not receive any permission. The governor cannot grant him permission to head west and instead orders all officials along the western border to arrest him on sight. Xuan Zang stays in the city at a local monastery to teach for many months. By then the governor has all but forgotten about him, and with the help of another venerable monk, assists Xuan Zang in leaving the city to continue on his pilgrimage. 

 

He is now in 瓜州, which is on the route towards the 玉门关 or the Jade pass. The Jade Pass or Yu Men Guan is one of the most famous passes in Chinese history which we’ll talk about in a bit. A local official, 李昌, played by 罗晋, sees him and brings him in for questioning. He recognizes him as the monk on the wanted posters. Once again, the official tries to persuade 玄奘 into returning east but upon seeing xuan zang’s devotion and some pretty bad CGI cherry blossom flows or is it lotus flowers? I don’t know – the cgi is quite bad, the official agrees to let 玄奘 continue on his journey.  This is a turning point in seeing the aid of strangers and their softheartedness. I would like to think that without the help of some of these individuals, Xuan Zang would not have succeeded.  

 

[Karen]

Something to note is that the official took to helping Xuan Zang partly because he saw what he was eating. Monks normally carry a bowl I believe called an alms bowl, one of the six items a buddhist monk is allowed to carry. It is the tool he uses to request food from strangers on his journey. As we see in the movie, 玄奘 holds this bowl out to a shop owner and is immediately given food. It’s a universal sign as to who this person is and most people are generally very generous in giving to monks. Of course, this would be vegetarian food. I really liked this touch that they added in the film.

 

Leaving the safety of Chinese cities, we follow Xuan Zang out west, we get to see some of the most stunning landscapes in China that oftentimes are not portrayed in other historical dramas focused on the grandeur of palaces and prominent households. Out west are plateaus and forests that are difficult to pass but breathtakingly beautiful. The film does make me feel like I’m going on a tour of hard to travel places in China and beyond. 

 

In order to continue his journey, Xuan Zang finds merchant caravans on his journey and joins them as they head along the silk road out west. As he explains in the film, this is customary for traveling monks.

 

[Cathy]

Shortly after, he makes it to 玉门关 or the Jade Pass was one the road that connected central asia with China on the silk road. It was made famous during the Han dynasty and erected around 110s BCE during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han and an absolutely essential part of Chinese trade with the west. This is a name that continually pops up as the division between the east and the west. The Emperor bestowed the name Jade pass because of all the jade that was traded through the area. There’s not much left of it now, just a lonely gate. 

 

There’s one poem that I really like from the Tang Dynasty describing the Jade Pass. I briefly studied this poem when I was younger. This isn’t mentioned in the movie at all but, for my selfish reasons, I want to share the poem. It’s written by 王之涣 – who lived from 688-742. 

 

黄河远上白云间,

一片孤城万仞山。

羌笛何须怨杨柳,

春风不度玉门关。

 

My translation goes like this – the water from the yellow river meets the white clouds. The lonely jade pass stands resolute on the mountain. Why should we use the Qiang flute to lament the delay of spring? It’s because spring does not come to the Jade Pass

 

[Karen]

From there, Xuan Zang crosses 沙洲 or modern day 敦煌 – a major hub along the silk road during the Sui and Tang dynasties. A number of buddhist caves can be found in 敦煌 with art and murals that can be found on the walls. 

 

And along the way, Xuan Zang and a female companion pass 月牙泉 or the Crescent Lake which is found near 敦煌. Xuan Zang doesn’t enter but there are two monks who watch him pass. The crescent lake was a tourist destination dating back to the Han dynasty over 2000 years ago and paintings depicting the lake can be found dating back to the Tang dynasty between 7th and 10th century AD. I don’t know when the temple portrayed in the film was built but apparently you can travel there now as a tourist! 

 

Along the journey, Xuan Zang gains a disciple Vandak or 石磐陀 who assists his master in crossing the Hulu River. This disciple reminds us of the 3 disciples of Xuan Zang from the Journey to the West. This guy, Vanda k, or his Chinese Name Shi – means stone. I’m immediately making the connection to Xuan Zang’s first and most powerful disciple, the Monkey King who is a monkey turned from stone. In this movie, we see that this disciple fled home to follow Xuan Zang but ultimately could not keep his vows to the Buddhist faith and ultimately leaves. While this does not happen in the Journey to the West, the Monkey King does leave his teacher several times throughout the novel out of anger or disputes but for the story’s sake, returns to protect his teacher. After doing some research, 石磐陀 or Vandak was an actual historical person and did join Xuan Zang on his quest to the west. 

 

On Vandak’s departure, he advises Xuan Zang to find an old horse who knows the path well to help him on his journey.  And this horse readily appears after Xuan Zang randomly runs into the young woman he met earlier at the Crescent Lake. It was quite nice of her to just give him the horse which was ultimately his saving grace. 

 

[Cathy]

After a long trek with his new old horse, Xuan Zang travels to the 1st of 5 watchtowers and is promptly spotted by the guards and brought to the captain. This watchtower looks to be 白虎关 and the location looks similar to photos I’ve seen. These watchtowers are a major obstacle for him and there is another parallel to the Journey to the West. In that novel, the 5 watchtowers are changed to the 5 mountain peaks or 五行山 which represent the hand of the RuLai Buddha. The Monkey King 孙悟空 wreaked havoc and tried to escape the heavens but the used his hands to create five mountain peaks that the Monkey King could not escape. The monkey king was imprisoned under the mountain until he was rescued by his teacher, Xuan Zang. Sound familiar?

 

Back to the watchtower. The captain offers Xuan Zang some food as they discuss Xuan Zang’s journey. A little bug in the scene! We see corn and potatoes being served. Those are new world foods – as in they were only brought to east asia after the discovery of the Americas which of course happened in 1492. China would not have had them in the middle of the 7th century. 

 

The captain and Xuan Zang have a rather deep conversation about dreams for the future. Fortunately, that’s Xuan Zang’s specialty and is able to help the Captain think more positively about his current situation being stuck in this desolate land. The captain then gives xuan zang advice on how to avoid the next 4 watchtowers. Xuan Zang must cross the Taklamakan desert and find the wild horse spring.

 

[Karen]

Now we move onto the second part of the film which is more about individual tenacity.  玄奘 now is trekking through the Taklamakan Desert by himself with just his horse. This portion of the film reflects his dedication to his dream of reaching his destination and the inner strength it takes to stay on course when faced with not just the elements but also inner loneliness. It was a treat to watch  黄晓明“s as he played this dedication but also desperation very well with his sunburnt and tanned skin and extremely chapped lips in the face of the desert heat.

 

The Taklamakan desert is located in XinJiang province in western China and close to its western border. The shifting sand desert is one of the largest in the world and sprawls 130,000 square miles. It is a barren wasteland that travelers sought to avoid. Therefore, it is indeed impressive for 玄奘 to cross it by him with just a horse.  The journey through the desert is perilous to say the very least.. He loses water, he loses his way and his horse ignores him when he urges the horse to continue forward. Not long after, Xuan Zang begins hallucinating. In his hallucinations, he sees a monk on a white horse galloping in a lush field. Just when all seems lost – I personally thought the horse was going to die first, the horse finds the wild horse spring and saves Xuan Zang. Just like his disciple who abandoned him said, he must find an old horse who knows the route to help him cross. Well, Xuan Zang has this magical horse who carries the delirious Xuan Zang to the Wild Horse Spring. Xuan Zang cannot believe his eyes when wakes and immediately jumps into the water in happiness. My only comment there – don’t jump in the water! You need it! 

 

It’s more or less smooth sailing for Xuan Zang at this point as he arrives in the kingdom of 伊吾 which is in Northwest China (Xinjiang 哈密) and is shortly summoned by the king of gao chang as a guest of his kingdom. By looking at a map of his journey, he crossed the desert but ended up farther north than I thought he would. 

 

[Cathy]

This brings us to the third part of the film and his trials. He is tempted with wealth, riches and power to keep him from his journey. 

 

高昌

 

In any case, 高昌 is an ancient city along the silk road and is also in modern day xin jiang. During the 5th to 7th centuries, several han families came to this area and claimed to be king. We see a relatively wealthy kingdom where the King of Gao Chang is a devout follower of Buddhist teachings. This little interlude actually did occur and we know that the real life person is a guy named 麹文 。 Xuan Zang stays for several months to teach the king and other monks with pretty much the entire kingdom listening to his teachings. He is given respect, food, clothing and a great place to rest. The King of Gao Chang requests for Xuan Zang to stay even long, even threatening him to do so. But despite the threats, nothing could stop 玄奘 as he goes on a hunger strike in order to force the King to allow him to leave. While it is in Buddhist teachings that one should not seek wealth and riches, it would have been very easy and comfortable to stay in such a spot where Xuan Zang would have been venerated by all. It does take quite a singular mind to give all of this up to continue on his journey. 

 

The King finally relents and orders a vast caravan to travel with Xuan Zang on his journey west. Overall, this King was pretty good to Xuan Zang. He even sent letters on Xuan Zang’s behalf to kingdoms on his route in order to give him safe passage all the way to his final destination. I read that they became brothers but sadly, they would never see each other again because the Tang dynasty in 640 AD, conquered Gao Chang, turning it into one of the cities under Tang rule.

 

高昌 is situated in modern 新疆 – in the turpan region. This is where the Flaming mountains are located or 火焰山. This mountain is prominently featured in Journey to the West as an impassable mountain and only the wind from the magical 芭蕉扇 or banana fan owned by the Princess Iron Fan can temper the flames. I admit – I loved these episodes in the Journey to the West tv series. In the Journey to the West, there are also plenty of kings and queens who tried anything and everything to keep Xuan Zang within their borders which reminds me a lot of the Gao Chang king.

 

[Karen]

For the next couple of scenes, we see Xuan Zang visiting a myriad of kingdoms on his journey west. We’ll list them out here and briefly talk about each one. 

 

Xuan Zang stops in the kingdom of 阿耆qi2尼 and records say that he stayed at the temple there. 

 

Xuan Zang continues his travels west do the kingdom of 龟兹(qiu1ci2) Kucha where he enjoys the company of the king and other venerable monks. He is treated to a great display of music and dancing. Kucha is located in the Xinjiang province of China, on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. In history, this was an ancient buddhist kingdom. There were records of the kingdom dating all the way back to the 2nd Century BCE when Zhang Qian – a Chinese diplomat and official – traveled west to establish the Silk Road. Due to the kingdom’s strategic location on the silk road, the kingdom remained prosperous over the centuries. Buddhism was introduced before the end of the 1st century. Similar to 高昌 – Kucha was conquered by the Tang Dynasty in 648AD during the Emperor’s campaign against the Western Regions. Xuan Zang did travel to this kingdom and he wrote about the Buddhist culture there.

 

Next, Xuan Zang mentions the kingdom of 跋禄迦 ba2lujia or modern day Aksu – located in the Xinjiang province. It was one of the ancient kingdoms along the silk road 

 

After crossing the desert, Xuan Zang and his caravan pass 凌山 and the Pamir Mountains which is to the west of Xinjiang and borders modern day Tajikistan.

 

From 凌山 – the caravan cross the central asian steppes,  modern dan Kyrgyzstan, afghanistan, pakistan and finally arrive in India. Xuan Zang finally arrives at Nalanda after 4 long years of travel. And this begins, in my view, the 4th part of the film – learning. 

 

[Cathy]

Xuan Zang spends 5 years at the temple studying and spends another 5 years traveling throughout India including the Mahabodhi temple, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. I will give props to the film – the characters apparently are speaking Sanskrit, which is quite surprising. Now, I don’t know if it’s era appropriate – I would love some of our listeners to let us know but at least it is sanskrit as is mentioned in the movie.

 

While learning, he also continues to travel around to further enrich his experiences. During his travels in India, 玄奘 recounts how buddha attained enlightenment amongst the backdrop of the Ellora Caves and the Ajanta Buddhist Caves. One day, 玄奘 encounters a slave and a woman. The woman is the daughter of a villager who owned the slave. The house burned one day. The slave saved the woman but by touching her, he was cursed to wear a mask forever and the woman was cast out. Only a brahmin can lift the curse. After hearing this tale, 玄奘 travels with both of them to find a Brahmin and requests for the Brahmin to lift the curse, which he does. The slave Jayaram must bathe in the ganges for 10 days and then he will be able to remove his mask.  

 

Xuan Zang begins his travels back to Nalanda with his scriptures and the couple. An elephant also travels with them. While traveling up the river, the sky suddenly turns dark and a storm quickly rolls through. Several of the boats crash including the one with the elephant. In I guess the funniest moment of the film, the elephant falls into the river. Don’t worry, I don’t think anything happened to the elephant because the CGI for the elephant is quite obvious. Jayaram jumps into the water to save Xuan Zang’s scriptures. During the rescue, his mask falls off and he is cursed no more. There’s a tranquil shot of the couple on the boat with the elephant walking up the banks so yes, the elephant was fine. 

 

[Karen]

Having returned to Nalanda temple, Xuan Zang is ready to head back to China but the Emperor in India has organized a debate to debate theology. Nalanda will send 4 monks to represent and take part in the debate.  

 

The group traveled to the Kumbha Mela Festival in Kanauj in 642AD. The debate lasted 18 days and was a triumph for everyone involved and the spread in buddhism. Xuan Zang and Nalanda temple won the debate. Xuan Zang finally begins his journey back to the Tang empire. The journey back is very different from the journey to India. The Emperor sends envoys to greet him and protects his caravan the return journey home. The journey home takes him 3 years and he returns in 645AD. That’s a 19 year journey. 

 

Throughout the film we constantly have the horse motif. In the Journey to the West, Xuan Zang has a trusty steed the White Dragon Horse or 白龙马. The White Dragon Horse was actually a dragon prince who serves as Xuan Zang’s steed for his journey. Unlike Xuan Zang’s other disciples who at times either abandoned their teacher or had a crisis of faith, the White Dragon Horse stayed by Xuan Zang’s side throughout his journey. I think the movie is pointing to this connection with the horse references too.

 

After he returns, Xuan Zang spends the next decades translating the scriptures and sutras into chinese. The Emperor himself wrote a preface for one of the sutras translated by Xuan Zang. 

 

The film ends with a biography of Xuan Zang. The movie states that he was born in 600. When he returned, he brought back 150 Śarīras or Buddhist relics and over 657 volumes of religious texts. He spent 19 years translating these texts.

 

Xuan Zang died in 664 AD.

 

[Cathy]

Overall thoughts. 

 

I’m glad I saw the film as I was thoroughly impressed with the dedication the lead, Huang Xiao Ming, put into the role and was absolutely stunned with how beautiful the cinematography was. It’s a gorgeous film to look at. It was a visual treat to compare the locations in the film with the photos online. Several of these places are on my bucket list to travel to. In addition, producers of the film apparently did consult with venerable buddhist monks on history and scriptures to accurately depict history. Karen and I are not buddhists so we cannot comment on the veracity of those scenes. I would say I preferred the first half of the film a little more than the second half primarily because some of the scenes in the second half left me with question marks as to how it tied to the overall theme such as the storyline with the slave. Like yes, I understand that Xuan Zang is extremely kind hearted. Anything else?

 

[Karen]

 

Yes – also maybe Huang Xiao Ming is too buff for this role? You can see his massive biceps in the movie and i”m not QUITE sure if that’s how a buddhist monk was like back in the day. But hey, maybe he was a hottie. Apparently Huang Xiao Ming is a rather devout buddhist and really wanted to play the role.

 

I would say for audiences who grew up watching Journey to the West, several parts tread familiar beats, as they are similar to the story. For me, the scenes in India were very interesting to see because those aren’t really mentioned in Chinese folklore. The journey to the west essentially stops once the group reaches India and becomes enlightened.

 

It was a thoroughly enjoyable watch. I believe that the film stayed pretty true to history – so if you want to spend 2 hours watching the gorgeous landscape and learn about history, this is the movie for you.

 

 

Well, that’s it for this episode! 

 

As always, feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions on what was discussed on our podcast. This film is easily accessible on Jubao TV which is a channel that has a collection of Chinese films and dramas with English subtitles. I personally went to the JUBAO TV website and then moved over to xumo or x-u-m-o which is the streaming platform to watch this film. It’s also available on xfinity and cox contour on TV.

 

Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It is the Year of the Tiger.

 

Catch you all in the next episode!

 

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