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Sun Shuyun, An Adventurer, a Writer and a Director

An adventurer, a writer and a director, 40-something female Sun Shuyun has many different roles to play in this society. More specifically, she has recently brought the fascinating history of Xuan Zang, Buddhism and the Silk Road to public attention.  With her accompanying book Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud and a documentary on Chinese women "Half the Sky", Sun's dramatic experiences and bravery deserve a long look.

Sun Shuyun, a child of the 1960s, grew up in a small village in central China.  Like most teenagers of her time, she read, and was fascinated by, the story of the Monkey King.

"When we grew up, we all grew up knowing a great deal about that famous Chinese novel, The Monkey King.  In this novel, the monkey is the hero and the monk is the anti-hero.  The monk is very weak and indecisive, he can't even tell right from wrong, human from demon, making him really quite hopeless."

After all, the Monkey King is fictitious, and far less threatening to authority than reality. For example,  Sun Shuyun was taught at school to recognize Buddhism as a product of superstition and feudalistic, anti-progressive thinking.  Indeed, her whole generation learnt very little about Buddhism, while Sun herself experienced misunderstandings with her grandmother, a devout Buddhist.  Therefore, it was not until Sun went to study at Oxford that she discovered the real identity of monk Xuan Zang, who was previously only known to her because of his role in the Monkey King.

"When we were at university, we learnt about this true-life character Xuan Zang, who went to India, spent many years there and came back with many books which he had been searching for. He later translated them into Chinese, and we're still using some of those books today.  But that's about all we learned, and such information did not provide me with a real flesh and blood person."

Instead, Sun Suyun's opinion towards monk Xuan Zang was changed by a question from one of her Oxford classmates.  This Indian student asked Sun: Who do you think us Indians consider to be the greatest Chinese?  To Sun's great surprise, the answer was none other than monk Xuan Zang. Later, she made a big decision, to take the same path to India as Xuan Zang.  Therefore, in 1999, she made her journey to the west, and created the book Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, a memorandum of an experience both demanding and meaningful.

Sun Suyun's book is a beautifully written account of her personal discovery of Buddhism, which took place as she retraced the steps of monk Xuan Zang.  It also depicts her traveling experiences, as she followed the path of the ancient Silk Road across deserts and mountains. Sun entices us into joining her, by sharing observations on the communities, customs, temples and works of art that she encounters, as well as people whom she meets along the way.

Although an easy read, this journey to India was certainly not an easy venture, and  Sun Shuyun had to tolerate much hardship. However, whatever the circumstances, Sun never took one step back.

"My journey was only a year, and Xuan Zang's was eight years.  During that time, he suffered a great deal. He was lost in the desert for four days without a single drop of water. He ran into so many bandits. In the end, he had to send a small sign ahead and ring a bell, saying we are monks from China. We don't have any treasure. If you want us to tell you some stories about Buddhism, we will be happy to oblige.  Such dangers didn't stop him, but rather spurred him on. His motto was: Until I've fulfilled my purpose, "I would rather go half a step towards India than take one step back " Therefore, I think that my journey wasn't nearly as dangerous as Xuan Zang's."

Throughout her whole expedition, the amonk Xuan Zang was Sun Shuyun's invisible guide. The 7th century monk left a detailed record of his journey, which documented everything from the region's architecture to economics, monetary systems, local holidays and festivals. He drew maps of the kingdoms through which he passed and gives explicit directions to temples and other important, local sites. His work, which Sun often quotes directly, has guided archaeologists and adventurers for nearly fifteen centuries.

Sun Shuyun's book takes the epic title, Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, with a meaning which she now explains.

"It's a Buddhist saying, it means a mind without doubt.  I think that's really the final goal that Xuan Zang was striving for when he was on his journey.  He wanted to remove all doubt from his mind.  And that's also our goal in everyday life, to remove doubt, to remove trouble, to remove anger, sadness and all the negative feelings we have, to strive for peace and tranquillity in our life."

Apart from being a brave adventurer and writer, Sun Shuyun is also a film-maker.  Half the Sky is just one of her successful works, which explores changes in the lives of four generations of women in the Jiang family over the last 50 years. Built around a series of interviews, images of daily life, special family occasions and archive footage, Half the Sky focuses on these women's individual experiences of marriage, children, work, love and self-esteem. Sun talks about her purpose in making such a documentary.

I spend half my time in London and half in China, so I'm really in-between two cultures.  What I have in my mind is to introduce China to the outside world and vice versa.  So, I did history in Oxford, something that I'm interested in, along with archaeology, contemporary China and the extraordinary changes we're going through, things that I wish to record both for people all over the world and for posterity.  As to Half the Sky, I believe that Chinese women have gone through extraordinary changes in just four generations of the 20th century. I therefore decided to make a film on this, and fortunately I have found a family which is just perfect."

Finally, after Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud and Half the Sky, Sun Shuyun went on another great journey, namely the Long March of the Communist Party.  It took her a whole year, and the hardships of every season, to discover the truth of this legendary march.  Moreover, her book on this journey will come out next year, to mark the 70th year since this great historical event.

(CRI.com December 28, 2005)

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