New York: Doubleday, 2005
224 pp.; $18.95 (cloth)
What is Tibet? Several books in recent years have questioned the Western understanding of this troubled land, its people and traditions. Yet from the thousands of dedicated practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, to the millions of casual movie-goers who watched Brad Pitt portray Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer, so many of us believe we know something of this strange, faraway land, and many care deeply about the future of this place we’ve never seen.
In her latest book, Sky Burial, the writer Xinran gives us a rare taste of what Tibet may have looked like to the Chinese who began to arrive in the 1950s. A Chinese journalist born in Beijing but living in England since 1997, Xinran is best known for her 2002 book, The Good Women of China, a nonfiction recollection of the many stories Chinese women told her about their lives while she worked at a radio station in eastern China. In Sky Burial, Xinran shifts her focus to the depth and power of romantic love, and the possibility of friendship and understanding across radically different cultures.
The story of Sky Burial begins in 1958 in Nanjing, when the young and recently married Shu Wen is told that her husband has died while serving with the People’sLiberation Army in Tibet. Unwilling to accept that her beloved is truly gone, and unable to pry any further details out of the military, she decides to enlist herself in the army, travel with them to Tibet, and find out the truth.
This summary takes us to about page 13; the rest of the book concerns Shu Wen’s thirty-year odyssey in Tibet, where she is quickly separated from her unit and adopted by a Tibetan family. Her quest for her husband is put on hold for decades as she struggles to overcome the everyday hardships of nomadic life in the Himalayas and slowly learns the rudiments of Tibetan language, culture, and religion, including the powerful funeral rites that give the book its title. Written in a sparse, almost minimalist style, Sky Burial is devoid of the lyrical prose that Tibet seems to inspire in some Western writers. Yet even Xinran’s clipped sentences often communicate a sense of desolate beauty, as in the scene of another woman mourning her lost lover: “The blue heavens watched in silence as she wept; several vultures soared over her head, echoing her cries with their own.”
The politics of the book are difficult to pin down, perhaps intentionally so. To be sure, Xinran is giving us the Chinese perspective, as in one woman’s description of the difficulties faced by Tibetan farmers before Communism:
There are no modern farming techniques. The farmers behave as their ancestors did hundreds or even thousands of years ago, as do the nomads. . . . They are obliged to give away much of their crops as offerings to the monasteries. This is a very heavy burden for people who have so little, but they must honor the lamas who protect them.
Many of us in the West like to think of Tibet before Chinese occupation as a sort of Buddhist paradise. In recounting the difficult life many Tibetans led in the first half of the twentieth century—including frank accounts of preventable deaths caused by inadequate medical care and lesser-known social practices like polyandry and the vestiges of feudalism—Xinran provides an interesting counterpoint to the romantic vision of pre-Chinese Tibet as a literal Shangri-la. But at times the narrator seems too quick to defend the idealism of her Chinese characters. Toward the end, Shu Wen’s husband is quoted at length as he explains, “Neither I nor the other Chinese have come here to harm you. All we wanted to do was bring Chinese knowledge to you, to improve your lives.” There is nothing improbable about a young Chinese student believing that Communism could liberate the Tibetan people; many in the West certainly clung to similar delusions about that particular faith. But Xinran goes too far in seeming to suggest that all the invaders had such noble intentions.
Among many questions raised by Sky Burial is what to call it. It bears the subtitle “A Novel” and contains the usual disclaimer about “any resemblance to actual persons” being “entirely coincidental.” But at the same time the author asserts that the story is literally true, having been recounted to her by Shu Wen herself in 1994. The implication, then, is that we are to take at face value Xinran’s own explanation that she simply “wrote Shu Wen’s story” and “tried to relive her journey from 1950s China to Tibet—to see what she saw, to feel what she felt, to think what she thought.” In doing this, and thus giving us both a powerful love story and an unusual glimpse of the Chinese invasion through the eyes of one woman on the other side, Xinran has done us all a valuable service. But a more balanced and probing approach would have been more enlightening still.
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