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Xuan Zang, directed by Huo Jianqi

JOHN SHANNON*

Beautiful. Exceptional. Thus, would I describe the film ‘Xuan Zang,’ a Chinese-Indian co-produced film, made in 2016. The film is a Buddhist film about Buddhism and about a Buddhist subject: Xuan Zang, a Tang dynasty Chinese Buddhist monk who, in the 7th century C.E., made a pilgrimage from China overland through Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, around India, and then back to China, on a journey of up to 15,000 miles (accounts differ) over a period of up to 19 years (again accounts differ). He went in search of original Māhayāna sūtras, as he had found discrepancies in the translations available in China. He brought 657 original Sanskrit sūtras back to China, translated them and added much to China’s understanding of Buddhism at that time. He also brought back important Buddhist images and relics, founded the Weishi (or Faxiang) School of Buddhism, a Chinese development of the Indian Yogācāra School and wrote an account of his travels, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. The text of this account was the inspiration for the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.

The film, ‘Xuan Zang’, made in 2016, known as Da Tang Xuan Zang in Chinese, should not be confused with another earlier Chinese film of the same name in English, known as Xuan Zang Da Shi in Chinese. So, to avoid possible confusion, I describe the 2016 film, the subject of this review, as ‘Xuan Zang (2016)’.

‘Xuan Zang (2016)’ was filmed in China, Central Asia and India. It follows the travels of Xuan Zang as he journeyed overland, mostly on foot, from Chang‘an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of Tang China, through deserts, mountains and steppes to Nālandā, in north-eastern India, the site of the great Buddhist university, and then back to Chang’an. The film was directed by Huo Jianqi, and stars Huang Xiaoming as Xuan Zang. The art advisor is the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Photography is by Sun Ming and Nie Yunxing (aerial), and music is by Xiaofeng. Several Chinese Buddhist monks acted as advisors to the film.

The photography is stunning, particularly the scenes in the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts and the Tian Shan mountains, much of it filmed using drones. The original music, an evocative mix of Chinese, Central Asian, Indian and Western music, and Buddhist chanting, adds much to the atmosphere. The sets, re-creations of temples, forts and palaces, are good, but there is, of course, a certain amount of CGI too. The acting is adequate, though Huang Xiaoming (Xuan Zang) does a particularly good job. The dialogue is in Mandarin, but the English subtitles are good. On balance, I consider the film to be excellent. And it includes mention and explanation of several Buddhist teachings too, rare in most recent “Buddhist” films that I have seen. A beautiful, exceptional film.

But before I start the review, let me briefly describe my perspective as a reviewer. Brought up in the UK as a Catholic, I later became interested in Zen Buddhism through reading the works of D.T. Suzuki, and became a student of the late Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn in the mid-1990s. In recent years, I have been influenced by the teachings of the late Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạhn and most recently have started to lean towards Secular Buddhism. I would now describe myself as a Secular Zen Buddhist. Having lived in Hong Kong for almost 55 years, I have inevitably been exposed to Chinese Buddhism, which has influenced me too.

‘Xuan Zang (2016)’ opens with a scene in Mumbai University Library in 2015, when a student asks to look at a book, ’Ancient Geography of India’, an archaeological survey of India written by Andrew Cunningham in Delhi in 1870. The film then flashes back to 1870, with Andrew Cunningham saying how he had read a book from the Tang dynasty, called Journey to the West, written by a monk, Xuan Zang, describing Bodh Gayā and Nālandā. Cunningham continues, saying that the discoveries of his own diggings and the descriptions by Xuan Tang matched perfectly. The scene then flashes further back to the 7th century and we see Xuan Tang for the first time, a monk in a Chang’an monastery. 

An Imperial Decree of 627 announces that, because of famine, Chang’an citizens may leave the city and go wherever there is sufficient food. Xuan Zang tells his abbot that he wants to travel to India to bring back original Sanskrit sūtras to China. The abbot warns him against this, as the journey would be dangerous and take many years, and that monks needed official permission to leave, although ordinary citizens could leave as refugees. Xuan Zang decides to leave anyway and sets off, wearing a large bamboo backpack, on foot, along the Silk Road from Chang’an, heading westwards. In Liangzhou (present-day Wuwei), Xuan Zang witnesses some robbers who are killed in the town. He tends to their dead bodies and is taken in by the authorities for questioning. As he was travelling without permission, the governor tells Xuan Zang that he must return to Chang’an. An arrest warrant with a sketch of him is made and distributed to all towns and watchtowers to the west of Liangzhou ordering his arrest. Xuan Zang remains in Liangzhou for a while, teaching, before setting off secretly for the oasis town at Gua Zhou (present-day Anxi) along the Gansu Corridor on the edge of the Gobi Desert. 

In Gua Zhou, Xuan Zang is identified from the sketch and the governor advises him to return to Chang’an, but then rips up the warrant. Xuan Zang continues his journey westwards and meets up with a merchant camel train in the desert and travels with it for a while. But, as he can’t keep up with its pace, leaves it and continues alone. In a small oasis town, he meets a beautiful young woman with a camel who offers to guide him through the desert for a short distance, as all camel trains had stopped, because of a war. She accompanies him for a while and then the two go their separate ways and Xuan Zang is alone again. 

Xuan Zang then meets up with a young Central Asian man, Vandak in a small oasis town and the latter asks to become Xuan Zang’s disciple, who gives him the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts. Vandak becomes Xuan Zang’s guide, but when he learns that the monk does not have permission to travel from Chang’an, he becomes worried about his own safety. So, he decides to kill Xuan Zang, but, at the last moment, is unable to do so. Vandak asks Xuan Zang to return to Chang’an, but the two part company, with Vandak advising Xuan Zang to buy an old horse which knows the way. Xuan Zang continues his journey westwards and, in an oasis town, meets an old man who gives him an old horse. The old man’s daughter turns out to be the beautiful young woman with the camel that Xuan Zang had met earlier in another oasis town, and she guides him for a short distance, before they separate, asking him, longingly, if he will return. But who is this mysterious woman? Is she Mara, trying to prevent Xuan Zang from going to India?  

Xuan Zang continues on foot, with his old horse, until he reaches the first watchtower on the edge of the Gashun Gobi Desert, between the Gobi and the Taklamakan deserts. At night he comes under fire from arrows fired from the watch tower. Xuan Zang is arrested, but later strikes up a friendship with the watchtower commander, who asks the monk to teach him about Buddhism. When the commander talks of his suffering at being posted to the watchtower and his desire to return to Chang’an, Xuan Zang teaches him about suffering, desire and the Four Noble Truths.

Xuan Zang sets off again, accompanied by his horse and, in the desert, encounters a major sandstorm, when his large goatskin water container is blown away and all the water drains out. But then it starts raining and the monk and his horse are saved. They continue their journey until, exhausted and thirsty, Xuan Zang goes mad, wandering around in circles in the desert, seeing demons, and dreaming of his mother, until he collapses in the sand, believing he is dying. Xuan Zang regains consciousness as his horse wakes him up and lies down on the sand enabling the monk to drape himself over the horse’s back. In this way, they arrive at the Central Asian oasis town of Yiwu (present-day Hami, in Xinjiang, China) where the king tells Xuan Zang that the powerful Central Asian king of Gaochang, an oasis town (near present-day Turpan, in Xinjiang), wants to see him. Xuan Zang doesn’t want to go to Gaochang, as it is out of his way, but when told that if he doesn’t go, then Gaochang would invade Yiwu, he changes his mind.

Xuan Zang arrives in Gaochang, where he is treated as an honoured guest in the palace of the king, who asks if he can become Xuan Zang’s disciple. He later asks him to remain in Gaochang to spread Buddhism in his kingdom, but Xuan Zang wants to continue to India. The king tells the monk that he has two choices: to remain in Gaochang or be forcibly returned to Chang’an. Xuan Zang stops eating and goes into a deep meditative state until the king eventually begs his forgiveness, saying he can continue his journey, giving him men and horses to accompany him, leaving his old horse behind at the palace. Xuan Zang and his party are treated as guests and entertained wherever they go, as they continue their journey. 

They cross over the Great Snow Mountain in the Tian Shan range, where they encounter a fatal avalanche, on into present-day Kyrgyzstan, on the Central Asian Steppes north of the mountains, then through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, finally arriving at Nālandā in 631. 

 At Nālandā, Xuan Zang is welcomed in a ceremony by the abbot of Nālandā Monastery (played by Indian actor Ram Gopal Bajaj). When Xuan Zhang tells the abbot that he has come from China to study Yogācāra, the abbot says he had a dream in which the bodhisattvas Maitreya and Mañjusrī had told him that a monk from Tang China would come and study the Dharma with him. Xuan Zang studies Yogācāra with the monks at Nālandā for five years and then considers returning to China, but wants to see more of India first. He sets out on a study journey around India in 637, including Bodh Gayā, where the Historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, attained Awakening,

In a village, Xuan Zang meets a man wearing a mask, Jayaran, and a young woman, Kumari, selling fruit. He asks Jayaran to be his guide, who tells him that he was orphaned as a child and sold as a slave to a village chief. Six months ago, a fire broke out in his master’s house and Jayaran rescued Kumari, his master’s daughter. Because he, a slave, had touched the daughter, he was evicted, cursed and forced to wear a mask; only a Brahmin could lift the curse, but no Brahmin would take pity on a slave. Kumari is told that, as she has been touched by a slave, she must die on a Brahmin’s funeral pyre in order to be purified. So, she and Jayaran run away together and are living an itinerant life. Xuan Zang asks an old Brahmin to take pity on Jayaram and lift the curse, as he had risked his life to save Kumari. The Brahmin, impressed with Xuan Zang, agrees, saying that Jayaran must first bathe and purify himself in the Ganges River for ten days. Xuan Zang, Jayaran and Kumari board a ferry on the Ganges, with the sūtras and images that he had collected. A storm blows up and the sutras and images are washed overboard. Jayaram jumps into the river and retrieves them, and his mask falls off. The curse has been lifted. 

Back in Nālandā, in 639, the abbot tells the monks that Emperor Harsha, wants four monks from Nālandā to take part in an 18-day theological debate about the respective merits of Hīnayāna and Māhayāna, the outcome of which would affect all of India. The abbot chooses Xuan Zang to be the sole debater, though he and other monks would accompany him. In 642, the party is welcomed by Harsha in his capital at Kannauj, where the debate will be held.  Hīnayāna texts opposing Mahāyāna, and Mahāyāna texts, written by Xuan Zang, would be studied, then debated and a victor would be declared. After 18 days of study, Harsha, announces that there is no need for a debate as the study shows Xuan Zang to be the victor. Major celebrations are held and Xuan Zang is paraded, victorious, on an elephant. The abbot tells him that Buddhism is declining in India, with only Nālandā keeping it alive, but that it is growing in China and Xuan Zang should return there to help it flourish. So, Xuan Zang starts his journey back to China, despite a request from Emperor Harsha to remain.

The Tang Chinese emperor, Taizong issues an edict requiring all Chinese officials to assist Xuan Zang on his journey. And, in 645, Xuan Zang enters Chang’an to a tumultuous welcome, having left it illegally in 627. He had finally brought the original Sanskrit sūtras to China and now started to translate them. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was built in Chang’an in 649 to house them and Xuan Zang passed away in 664. The film ends with Hong Kong singer Faye Wong singing the Heart Sutra, beautifully, in Mandarin. An exceptional film.

*This article was originally published in Buddhistddor en Español on September 1, 2023.

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