Sky Burial: An epic love story of Tibet


This is probably one of the most heartbreaking stories I have ever read. It is a remarkable, fascinating read, a love story of Tibet and its people.

Shu Wen was a doctor. So was her husband Kejun. They had been married for just a few months when Kejun is sent to Tibet as a Chinese army doctor. Not long after, Wen is notified of his death. There is no information provided about his death, official or otherwise. She decides to sign up with the army to go to Tibet and find out what happened to him. With the shortage of army doctors in Tibet in the 1950s, the military takes her on.

Traveling with her army unit, Wen saves the life of a Tibetan woman named Zhuoma. The heir of a privileged family, Zhuoma speaks Chinese, having studied in Beijing. She and Wen become friendly (she has lost a loved one too) but become separated from the rest of the company when some Tibetans attack the convoy.

The two women find a nomad family residing in the lowlands who help the injured Wen, and the two women decide to stay with them until summer, to learn how to survive outdoors and for the family to build their supplies to spare them provisions and horses.

The details of the family’s self-sufficient daily life are fascinating. Gela, his brother Ge’er and his son Om were responsible for matters outside the home such as pasturing and butchering their herds, tanning hides, mending their tools and tent. Gela’s wife Saierbao and two daughters did the milking, made butter, cooked, collected water, made rope, and made the dung cakes that were the heat, light and fuel source.

Wen spends 30 years isolated in Tibet. But she never loses sight of her goal and eventually finds out what happened to Kejun and returns to China.

Xinran tells Shu Wen’s story simply. Although she says in the beginning that this is the story of a woman she meets in Suzhou, who tells her this tale over two days and then disappears, it has been classified as a work of fiction, so I’m not quite sure whether to call this fiction or non-fiction. Still whatever genre it fits into, this is a beautiful story, and an unforgettable one that will stay with you long after you finish the book.
Global Women of Color

This is my sixth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).

xinranXuē Xīnrán (薛欣然, pen name Xinran, born in Beijing in 1958) is a British-Chinese journalist, broadcaster and writer. In the late 1980s, she began working for Chinese Radio and went on to become one of China’s most successful journalists. In 1997 she moved to London.

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices.
Sky Burial.
What the Chinese Don’t Eat
Miss Chopsticks
China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation
Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

Xinran nearly lost the manuscript of this book when a mugger grabbed her bag in London.

“In fighting for that bag, I was defending my feelings, and the feelings of Chinese women. The book was the result of so many things which, once lost, could never be found again. When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, and the route is different every time.”

A radio call-in show host, Xinran’s interest in the intimate lives of women in China began when she received a letter from a boy in Nanjing about a kidnapped girl in his village who had been chained around the waist by the old man who bought her. After some wrangling, Xinran managed to get the girl some help and return her to her family. But instead of praise for her help, Xinran only received criticism for “stirring up the people”, and she began to wonder: “Just what was a woman’s life worth in China?” She’s given permission (by the central office no less) to add a women’s feature to her show, to read and discuss the letters she receives.

These stories are so moving, so poignant. Some were rather difficult to read and left me in tears. The story of Jingyi in ‘The Woman Who Waited Forty-Five Years’ is tragic. Xinran’s father tells her of the reunion of two of his former classmates, Jingyi and Gu Da, who had been sweethearts at university and lost touch during the Cultural Revolution, with Jingyi searching for her beloved for 45 years only to find him at the reunion with his wife (it’s not a spoiler, the story is more or less revealed in the second paragraph of this chapter.)

Xinran told The Guardian: “When I interviewed a woman the first thing was to give her space – a warm and friendly feeling – because she needed someone to listen. I discovered that women had no idea how to talk about themselves. In family tradition, in education, in society, even if you asked them, women had never talked about what happened in their own lives. Some kept their old beliefs – that a naked woman is not to be seen – and likewise not her innermost feelings. If they didn’t choose to tell me I never forced them and the number who refused me was always much greater than the number who talked. Some had so much pain in their hearts and in their past that you felt heavy, as though if you touched them you could break them.”

It’s quite appalling to read of the lives of these women, who grew up being tormented for coming from families who have overseas or capitalist associations, for example. Xinran’s own background, as a “daughter of a capitalist household” resulted in her being spit on by other children, of being forbidden to take part in singing and dancing activities at school in order to not ‘pollute’ the revolution (her parents were in prison). Many of these women’s stories deal with abuse and as such, it’s not the easiest of books to read. I was constantly angry about what happened with these women and my heart ached for them. It made me glad for my own happy, carefree childhood in Singapore. And incredibly thankful that my ancestors left the various parts of China that they came from and made their way to that little island in Southeast Asia.

This is such a brave collection of the lives of some of the women in China. Not only were the women brave in telling their stories, but so was Xinran in seeking out these women and bringing their tales to life. While the translation is a little iffy at times, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is an important, unforgettable read.