Friday, 8 August 2014

Book Review: Sky Burial by Xinran is a vast region in the Himalaya that hardly ever makes the headlines. If it weren’t for the Dalai Lama and the great number of Tibetans living in exile like him, the country might still be little more to us than her name printed on a map. Many true stories have been written about the people from the mysterious and secluded highlands, most of them from the point of view of the exiled or of friendly westerners like the late Austrian alpinist Heinrich Harrer whose Seven Years in Tibet is a classic. However, there always are at least two sides to everything. There are only few books dealing with Tibet from the Chinese perspective available in English translation. One of them is Sky Burial by Xinran which tells the life story of a Chinese woman who travelled with Tibetan nomads for thirty years to know her husband’s tragic fate.

Xinran is the pen name of Xue Xinran (薛欣然) who was born in Beijing, China, in 1958. After having worked as a radio presenter and journalist for Chinese Radio for eight years, she immigrated to the U.K. in 1997. She settled down in London where she began to write her first book about the lives of all the women whom she had talked to on her radio show. The Good Women of China appeared in 2002 and became an international bestseller. In 2004 the writer published the biographical novel Sky Burial which was followed by purely journalistic work, namely What the Chinese Don't Eat (2006), China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation (2008) and Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother (2010). The author’s only fiction work is the novel Miss Chopsticks (2007). Xinran lives in the U.K. where she works as a journalist and adviser for international media.

Sky Burial is the story of a Chinese woman called Shu Wen and it begins in her native town Nanjing in the mid-1950s. At the time Wen is twenty-two years old and a student at medical school where Wang Kejun works as a laboratory assistant. During a dissection class he gives her a piece of advice about how to overcome her fear of dead bodies and they become close friends. Friendship turns into love, but Kejun joins the Chinese army to serve his country, which paid for his medical training, and to attend to the soldiers who are still fighting in Korea. Two years later he returns to Nanjing because his military unit has ordered him to study Tibetan language and medicine for future action. Another two years go by. Wen works as a dermatologist in one of the big hospitals of Nanjing and Kejun who has finished his studies is waiting for his call-up. They get married and pass three ecstatic weeks together. Then Kejun’s unit is sent to Tibet and Wen is transferred to a hospital in Suzhou where her married sister and her parents live. It doesn’t take long and Wen is called to the Suzhou military headquarters where she is informed that 
“Comrade Wang Kejun died in an incident
in the east of Tibet on 24 March 1958, aged 29.” 
She wants to know more about her husband’s fate, but nobody seems to be willing or able to tell her what exactly happened to Kejun, how he died and where he was buried. It even occurs to her that he might still be alive after all and that he has only been separated from his unit. So Wen takes a decision of grave consequence: she joins the army to be sent to Tibet herself and to make inquiries. Already in autumn she is on her way into Tibet with a convoy of soldiers. One night they discover a half-dead Tibetan woman called Zhuoma and it turns out that she speaks Chinese. Zhuoma stays with them and the occasion for her to act as a mediator between Chinese soldiers and Tibetan guerrilla fighters isn’t long in coming. A dozen of Chinese who volunteered to be hostages are killed and the rest of the unit withdraws in the direction of China. Wen, however, decides to rather join Zhuoma and the other Tibetans to continue her search for Kejun. She passes the following thirty years travelling with Tibetan nomads and adapting to their deeply religious culture. In the end she finds the answers to her questions.

The plot of Sky Burial may sound like fiction, but Xinran makes it clear from the beginning that she is telling a true story. After a short introductory note, the author dedicated the entire first chapter to the interview which she led with Shu Wen in a teahouse in the city of Suzhou in 1994. It contains the old woman’s direct-speech look back at life before Tibet interspersed with the interviewer’s explaining remarks and personal impressions of the person opposite. As from Chapter 2 the author switches to third-person narrative to tell the amazing life of Shu Wen in Tibet. Background information concerning Tibet and China, especially her military campaigns in Tibet in 1958, seems to be thoroughly researched. All necessary explanations of Tibetan customs and traditions are skilfully woven into the story without disturbing the flow of the plot. As befits a trained journalist, Xinran’s language is generally clear and unpretentious which makes the biographical novel a pleasure to read. A letter of Xinran addressed to Shu Wen closes the book.

For me it has been a very interesting and exciting experience to read Sky Burial by Xinran. During the past decades I read a few books about Tibet. Most of them were accounts of western travellers like Alexandra David-Néel and Heinrich Harrer, but I also came across some very personal stories of exiled Tibetans who had seen and experienced a lot of violence. For those who would like to get a slightly different view at Chinese presence in Tibet, Sky Burial is an excellent starting point. To cut a long story short: I recommend the book.

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