Who was the real Tang pilgrim monk, Hsuan Tsang (玄奘)? The man was real and his odyssey was real, but all that we have ever known about him is from the book, Journey to the West (西遊記), a 16th century fantasy novel attributed to Wu Cheng'en and first translated into English by Arthur Waley in 1942 (Monkey: A Folk Tale of China) and much later by Anthony C. Yu in 1977-1983 (The Journey to the West), and numerous movie adaptations of the story, of which the most memorable films emerged from the Shaw Brothers studios of Hong Kong between 1966 and 1968. These movie adaptations, however, gave full rein to the directors' imaginations of magic skills as the protagonists battled spirits and demons all the way to the West.
If you had expected the film to follow in the footsteps of all previous Journey to the West (西遊記) films where the Tang monk is protected against mythological demons by the divine powers of Sun Wukong (孫悟空), Zhu Bajie (豬八戒) and Sha Wujing (沙悟淨), you will be greatly disappointed. Xuan Zang is a slow-moving film and the historical main character, Hsuan Tsang, lived and died in China between 602 AD and 664 AD, except for his 16-year journey to India. That he succeeded against all the odds showed his great perseverance, self-belief and faith.
During his outward journey that began in 629 AD, he was hindered in his travel by a decree from the Tang Emperor Taizong (唐太宗) that forbade travel outside of China. Although he managed to evade capture, there were also other hardships along the way as he had to avoid bandits and cross physical terrains such as the Taklamakan desert (塔克拉瑪幹沙漠) and the Flaming Mountains (Huoyanshan 火焰山) of Turfan (吐魯番). In Turfan, the King refused to let the monk leave and only agreed when he went on a hunger strike. In his travel, he documented a visit to Bamyan in modern-day Afghanistan where he marvelled at the large Buddha statues of Bamiyan, now destroyed by the Talibans in March 2001.
Hsuan Tsang considered that he had arrived in India in 630 AD and he continued travelling and learning about Buddhism in the Indian sub-continent until circa 643 AD when he resolved to go home. The Tang Emperor had learnt of the monk's adventure and he sent a delegation to meet with Hsuan Tsang halfway on his homeward journey. The group arrived back in Chang'an in 645 AD.
Hsuan Tsang was fêted with great honour and he spent the remaining years of his life - he died in 664 AD - in translating the Buddhist texts from Pali to Chinese. Ironically I read that much later, the Chinese translations were re-translated back into Pali to fill a void after the original Pali texts were either lost or destroyed. Hsuan Tsang was also credited for participating in an 18-day religious debate on Buddhism whilst in India. In 646 AD, at the request of the Emperor, he completed his book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記) which is today a primary source of information on medieval Central Asia and India.
Surprisingly, all this known stories were included into Xuan Zang, the film version of Hsuan Tsang's Indian pilgrimage, with very little embellishments. The film producers had followed the story quite closely to the accepted text. Except for one part where the monk's horse saved him from certain death from thirst, there was nothing magical at all about Hsuan Tsang. No Sun Wukong, no pantheon of Chinese deities, no bounding over clouds, no demon or spirit wanting to capture the holy man, no magic fan, no mountains in flame, just a determined pious man walking, walking, walking and overcoming obstacles like soldiers, robbers, the heat of the deserts and the cold of the mountains, to realise his destination and ultimate destiny.