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FOR LOVE. Sky Burial, by Xinran, tells of a Chinese woman’s 30-year search of her husband. (Photo/Jane Bown)
From The Asian Reporter, V16, #12 (March 21, 2006), page 20.
A Chinese woman wanders Tibet in search of her husband
Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet
By Dave Johnson
Sky Burial is a heartbreaking love story based on the real-life account of a Chinese woman who roamed Tibet for 30 years in search of her husband, a military doctor missing in action. It is a haunting travelogue across the arid, empty plains, foothills, and icy mountains of a mysterious nation. And it is a finely brushed portrait of two vastly dissimilar cultures struggling with harsh assimilation, spiritual antipathy between an ancient theocracy and a rigid regime, and the day-by-day survival of highland nomads.
Xinran, also the author of The Good Women of China, a work about the lives of Chinese women, has written this remarkable narrative with sparse, quietly breathtaking eloquence.
She begins the tale in 1994 with a call from a listener of her radio talk show devoted to discussing aspects of women’s lives in China. The caller said he had met a strange woman who had recently returned from Tibet and suggested that she would make an interesting interview. He gave Xinran the name of the hotel where she was staying and said her name was Shu Wen. The journalist was intrigued and made the four-hour bus trip from Nanjing to Suzhou to talk with Shu Wen.
When Xinran asked her why she had spent 30 years wandering Tibet, the gray-haired woman, "smelling of old leather, rancid milk, and animal dung," simply replied, "For love."
"For two days, I listened to her," the author recalls. "When I returned to Nanjing my head was reeling. I realized that I had just met one of the most exceptional women I would ever know." Xinran also knew that it was her task to chronicle this woman’s epic adventures in a strange land that eventually became her own.
The tale begins after Shu Wen and her husband Kejun have been married for one hundred days. During those early days, Kejun is posted from Nanjing to Tibet to serve as an army doctor and is reported missing. The army has no specific details and Shu Wen refuses to accept that Kejun died on the battlefield.
Eventually, the army issues a death notice:
This is to certify that Comrade Wang Kejun died in an incident on the east of Tibet on 24 March 1958, aged 29.
The author captures the moment when Shu Wen gets this tragic news: "Wen stood stunned on the steps of the military headquarters, the summer rain of the Yangtze delta monsoon drenching her hair and face.
"Kejun dead? Her husband of less than a hundred days, dead? The sweetness of those first days after their marriage lingered in her heart. She could still feel their warmth. Of those hundred days, they had only spent three weeks together. It was impossible that he was dead."
Despite pleas from family and friends, the distraught but determined wife decides to go to Tibet to find her husband. The means she takes is to join the army and serve as a doctor in that region.
Once in Tibet, fate steps in. Shu Wen is separated from her regiment and the search begins in earnest. Determined to know the truth, this willful, dedicated, and courageous woman begins a trek that will stretch over three decades and take her deep into the fiercely private world of the back-country Tibetans.
She is adopted by a clan of yak herders, rescues a noblewoman named Zhuoma, and befriends a wise and resourceful traveller named Tiananmen who also becomes obsessed with the search for Kejun. Eventually, after long years of becoming one with the world around her, Shu Wen and her two compatriots learn of the circumstances that ensnared Kejun in a deadly misunderstanding.
Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958 and by the late ’80s had become one of China’s most successful journalists. She moved to London in 1997, where she currently writes a column in The Guardian.