Sun Shuyun’s Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud is a unique piece of non-fiction: it details Sun’s journey across China and India in the footsteps of a seventh-century monk. Xuanzang, the monk in question, is a fascinating historical figure. Xuanzang’s journey was a venture of spiritual discovery; he followed in the footsteps of the Buddha, and as a result of his endeavour has become renowned as a pivotal figure in the history of Buddhism. Ten Thousand Miles is one of those stories that remind me of the true magic of books; it’s even more amazing to consider that Sun Shuyun began her research into Xuanzang’s life with no intention of documenting her journey, and so the insightful and poignant discoveries revealed by her quest may never have been shared.
Xuanzang has been immortalized as the rather hapless monk in Journey to the West. The real Xuanzang, however, was not the bumbling man depicted in Wu Cheng’en’s fiction. This perception is debunked by Xuanzang’s own record of the epic eighteen-year journey, titled The Record of the Western Regions. Thanks to his fastidious descriptions, sites of great historical importance have been unearthed by archaeologists (‘returned from the graveyard of history’, as Sun aptly states). Sun’s writing exemplifies the true extent of his achievements; his name is truly deserving of its immortality and reputation as an epic hero equal to Aeneas. By retracing his steps, Sun allows for a reflective and probing meditation on his significance and vividly awakens the China of this lost age.
The sense of the circularity of history has lingered with me since finishing Ten Thousand Miles. Xuanzang’s quest formed the basis of the 16th-century novel Journey to the West, a story loved since its earliest incarnation and adapted countless times for opera, film and TV. It’s fascinating to consider the ways in which fact gives birth to legend. Xuanzang’s encounter with a red stone mountain under a blazing sun, for example, became the Flaming Mountain portrayed in Journey to the West, which itself gave rise to a new myth, the fearsome Fire Mountain of the Ox King in Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball.
Through reading Sun’s account of her travels I also learned about Chinese literature and culture, such as the definition of Scar Literature, the popularity of Li Bai, and the cultural resonance of jade. Next on my to-find list is Xuanzang’s The Record of the Western Regions, temptingly described by Sun as ‘an encyclopedia of the history and culture of the time; it is the testimony to a lost world.’