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Retracing the footsteps of history
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Sun Shuyun speaks with charm and passion as she sits among the simple, dark, Zen-styled furniture filling her friend's Beijing apartment.

"Today's China is full of opportunities, and you can easily become distracted by all sorts of ideas," says Sun, who meditates every night.

"When I feel restless, I tell myself it's time to go home."

Her home is a quiet abode in northern London. While studying at Oxford, Sun met professor of development economics Robert Cassen.

Fate brought them together during a trip to the Westminster Cathedral.

Sun's account of English poets' works at the Poet's Corner deeply impressed Cassen. Sun had majored in English literature at Peking University before winning a scholarship to Oxford in 1988.

The woman has spent nearly half of her married life traveling, making documentaries and writing books.

In 2000, after 10 years of working in TV, she felt she needed to pause and reflect before she took on another project that would move herself and her audiences.

She chose the passage from Xi'an to India, retracing the long journey that Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) monk Xuanzang undertook to seek original Buddhist scriptures.

The fruit of her 13-month journey was Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, her first book published by Harper Collins.

Four years later, on the 70th anniversary of the Long March - a significant event that determined the survival of the Chinese Communist Party and modern China's fate - Sun spent another 11 months retracing a famous route and wrote The Long March.

"My 'Long March' was in search of the Red Army veterans," she says. She located about 40 of them, many of whom lived in secluded mountains.

Their stories were astounding. Sun realized the greatest difficulties the Red Army faced weren't natural threats like the snowy mountains and marshlands, or being pursued by better-equipped Kuomintang troops.

Most soldiers were illiterate farmers who joined the Red Army so they wouldn't starve. When they set out in 1934 on what would become the Long March, they didn't know where they were heading or what communism meant.

"What makes the Long March really great is that such an army finished the route," Sun says.

"I simply tried to discover the truths surrounding a great event that we have undervalued."

Sun is grateful that her husband always supports her. "He said love is to be happy for whatever makes the other happy," she says.

"Life is short, so I'd rather spend it on projects I love."

Her next project, she says, will also take at least a year.

But she declines to elaborate, except to say that it will be related to Chinese history and culture, and will be distributed globally by a British publisher.

(China Daily September 23, 2009)

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