A far-reaching cultural exchange production from China by the China Performing Arts Agency (CPAA) is making its United States premiere at The Kennedy Center. It is Image China: Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage, a large-scale concert drama complete with a cast of over 100, including 80 musicians from the China National Traditional Orchestra (CNTO), and two dozen performers including a chorus in a multimedia experience. The production includes bright, colorful costumes with its innovative exploration of Chinese traditional music, along with contemporary theatrical elements including projections and lighting.
Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage tells the story through music, song, and movement, of a very real life Chinese Buddhist monk and translator named Xuanzang. He traveled by foot over the ancient Silk Road, long before Marco Polo did. Xuanzang traveled east to west perhaps an astonishing 10,000 miles back and forth over the Silk Road during a nearly 17-year period from 629 to 645. Polo traveled from west to east over the Silk Road in the later 13th century.
“Xuanzang is a great example of cultural exchange in Chinese history. It demonstrates that China has always been open to learning about other cultures from abroad. We hope this thrilling production featuring China’s top traditional orchestra will both enlighten and enchant American audiences,” said Wang Xiuqin, General Manager, CPAA.
Readers may ask themselves, isn’t knowledge of Chinese history and culture necessary to appreciate Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage? “It will not be an issue for American audiences if they don’t know traditional Chinese instruments or Chinese history to enjoy the performance,” said Gao Yunjie, Director, America and Oceania Division, CPAA. The music and theatrical features of Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage will sweep audiences into the performance, noted Gao.
The travels of the real-life Xuanzang played a significant role in opening long-distance political and economic relations and promoting cultural interaction between China and other Asian countries with modern-day names of India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh to name a few. He wrote about his experiences on his personal journey of religious and cultural discovery. He is credited with discovering Buddhist texts that had not yet come to China.
Gao Yunjie indicated that Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage communicates Xuanzang’s dangerous, hardship-filled, slow journey through deserts, high mountains, and marshlands, palaces and legendary cities such as Samarkand and Tashkent, and through the legendary Khyber Pass. When he returned to Xi’an, China, he presented Buddhist scripture and Sanskrit texts to the Emperor of China. His journeys inspired the classic Chinese novel “Xiyouji” (“Journey to the West”).
The CNTO will perform fifteen separate movements/scenes, showcasing the diverse, connected cultures found along the ancient Silk Road. Musical diversity will be seen and heard as the production features a large number of non-Western instruments such as the bamboo flute, xiao, huqin, pipa, suona, ruan, konghou, ghaychak, rubab, dombra, hobez, satar, dap, eagle flute and muqam.
The CNTO’s Jiang Ying is composer, librettist, and director of the production. She has devoted a career to exploring Chinese traditional music with Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage a unique and major form of stage work, “a Chinese concert in drama.” Liu Sha will conduct the China National Traditional Orchestra.
“The greatest innovation of Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage is that the story is enacted through music, both through the musicians and their instruments. They play stage roles in a dramatic sense, thus giving the audience both an auditory and visual experience.” Jiang Ying said. “ The unique features of Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage and the genre it invents within symphonic music lie in the amalgamation of literature, music, acting, stage design and further theatrical elements as a comprehensive and innovative stage art,”
As a major performance event at The Kennedy Center, Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage is a high-level cultural exchange. “Cultural exchange is important. We can learn and understand from one another. Cultural exchange can enhance friendships.” noted Gao Yunjie. “And the evening exposes American audiences to the diversity of China.”
This year 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. That can be reason enough to take an unforgettable journey with Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage with its American premiere at The Kennedy Center.
Note: The performance has an expected running time of two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Composer/Writer/Director Jiang Ying, Conductor Liu Sha, and featured musicians will sign merchandise following all performances in the Grand Foyer outside of the Opera House.