The Daily Start
Published: Sunday October 12, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
BY ROUWEN LIN
A monk’s lifetime quest for knowledge is immortalised in a musical.
Who hasn’t heard of Journey To The West, one of the four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature? Inspiring numerous books, movies and drama series, this story relates the adventures of Buddhist monk Xuan Zang on his pilgrimage from China to the “Western Regions” (India) to obtain sacred scriptures.
Accompanied by three disciples, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy, and a dragon prince, who goes under the guise of a white steed, they battle demons and monsters along the way, overcoming all odds in the quest for knowledge.
This 16th century novel, for all its fantastical elements and embellishments, was based on historical events nine centuries prior – though no less impressive in its own right.
Xuan Zang was a Tang Dynasty monk who, plagued by the discrepancies in the Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures, left his homeland and travelled west overland to India in search of the originals. In defiance of the emperor’s ban on travel, he left Chang’an in 629 and headed for India where he spent the next decade and beyond visiting important pilgrimage sites and studying at the ancient centre of learning, the university of Nalanda.
When he returned to China with hundreds of scriptures and relics in his possession, almost 20 years had passed. Xuan Zang declined all appointments offered by the emperor and instead retired to a monastery and dedicated the rest of his life to the translation of these Buddhist texts.
This story of one man’s determination in his search for knowledge, and his perilous journey across scorching deserts and rugged mountains, will be immortalised in Han Production’s Xuan Zang: Journey To The West – The Musical at Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, starting Oct 29. Ticket details here.
“This musical has been a long time coming, I have been thinking about doing this for many years now,” says producer and director Yang Wei Han, who will take on the title role of Xuan Zang. “I have been researching this man for the last five or six years, and the more I discovered about him, the more respect I developed for him.”
He even made a trip to India two years ago to visit Nalanda, to sightsee and soak up the ambiance, to be in the place that Xuan Zang was a long time ago.
“This year, finally, I decided that the timing is right to stage this musical – a big-scale production with a great cast and really amazing visual effects and illusions.”
Yang played Prince Siddhartha and Buddha in Siddhartha The Musical and King Songtsen Gampo in The Jewel Of Tibet. He also produced, directed and performed in Yao Lee The Legendary Rose, The Musical (2012) and Tribute To Yao Min, Chronicle Of Splendour II, The Concert (2013).
Yang, who is also the scriptwriter, set designer, music composer and lyricist, video mapping designer and animator for Xuan Zang: Journey To The West, is not exaggerating about the spectacular visuals. Magician Leow Fee Loong, who was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Malaysia award at the 2010 Merlin Awards, has come onboard as the illusion design director.
Having pictured the entire show in his head for years, Yang shares during an interview in Kuala Lumpur that the writing process was relatively easy.
“When the time came for me to pick up my pencil to write, the process was very smooth,” he says of Xuan Zang: Journey To The West.
The musical, with choreography by Leng Poh Gee and music direction and arrangement by Tay Cher Siang, follows the monk’s journey from the Far East through Central Asia to South Asia, and back again.
This journey was recorded in detail in the classic Chinese text Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (which in turn inspired the Ming Dynasty novel Journey To The West). It describes the geography, climate, language, transportation, politics, economics, religion, culture and customs of the lands Xuan Zang visited – and in modern times has served as an important reference for archaologists and historians.
“Xuan Zang is a scholar, a traveller, a script translator and many, many other things. Because there are so many things about him and his journey that I wanted to include, I initially ended up with a three-hour show, which is too long. You can imagine how many songs I had to throw out the window to bring it down to a two-hour production,” Yang relates.
He also shares that it was only when he finished the script that he realised that the characters were all male. A testosterone-fuelled musical didn’t quite appeal to him, so he added a princess into the picture.
“Without a female character, the yin yang was not balanced. And I really didn’t want the musical to be like the action movie 300 – all men, men, men and fighting and then everyone dies,” he laughs.
“So I added a princess who falls in love with Xuan Zang even though they do not exchange a single word. This softens the musical somewhat, and I think this element of love is something that the audience likes.”
Yang calls the musical a historically accurate representation of what transpired all those years ago.
“As the scriptwriter for this production, the most important thing to me is to remain as true to the tale as possible,” he says, pointing out that it is no easy feat condensing almost two decades’ worth of trials and tribulations into two hours of showtime.
“The end result is compact, yet detailed. The musical features over 50 characters, played by 13 actors – and almost all of us have to shave our heads for this production.” The production also has 12 dancers.
Yang says that it might be an entertaining show with song and dance, but more importantly, it is one with lots of heart and with substance.
“Xuan Zang went through trials and tribulations for one very simple, and noble, reason: he was searching for knowledge. He never backed down and he faced every obstacle with courage. With this musical, I want the audience to bring back something meaningful with them.”
This musical will be performed in English and Chinese, with surtitled translation in Chinese and English, respectively. English lyrics and script translation by Liau Siau-Suan.
Xuan Zang: Journey To The West – The Musical will run at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur from Oct 29 to Nov 9. Call 03-9222 8811 for more information.