Wednesday, November 01, 2006

On reading Xinran's "Sky Burial"


I just finished "Sky Burial", the second book by London-based journalist Xinran, who acquired fame for her account of different Chinese women's lives in "The Good Women of China".

In "Sky Burial" she brings the story of another Chinese woman, Shu Wen, whom she met for a few short days in Nanjing, during which she told Xinran about the amazing twist that brought her to live in Tibet for 30 years.

A native of Suzhou, Shu Wen marries Kejun, an army doctor, who is sent to Tibet in the fifties and goes missing soon thereafter. Having only been married for a hundred days, Shu Wen joins the army herself and sets out on a search for her husband whom she believes might still be alive. What ensues is pretty mindboggling: she saves a Tibetan aristocratic woman named Zhuoma, gets separated from her army unit, is saved by a Tibetan nomad family and continues to live with them for nearly thirty years, in the process of which she sheds most of her Chinese identity and blends in in the Tibetan Buddhist world around her. She never gives up her search for Kejun and in the end she finds the truth revealed.

The book has been described as "Wild Swans crossed with Seven Years in Tibet" (Giles Foden in "The Guardian"). I would rather say it is "Dances with Wolves" in Tibet. Xinran presents us with the oriental version of the noble savage: it's rough land, with a rough culture, where people are struggling to survive in dignity. In that sense, the book transcends the geographical boundaries drawn by man and brings us into a world of universal values that all of us like to connect with.

The question on the authenticity of the story has also been raised several times. Maybe I have to refer to this review which in my opinion makes several valuable points.

"XINRAN's SKY BURIAL exists in that strange place where truth and fiction overlap. Some fiction, perhaps the best fiction, illuminates the truth in way mere fact cannot, while some true stories are so unique and extraordinary as to intersect less with everyday reality than most fiction.

a number of SKY BURIAL's Tibetan protagonists might very well recognize this place of blurred boundaries between what is and what might be, for it is often a place of spirituality and hope. This is just one of ironies in Xinran's account of Shu Wen's tale. The relationship between the Chinese and Tibetans is hardly the black and white affair it usually presented to be (by either side of the issue). Not all Chinese revolutionary martyrs were hypocritical propaganda constructs."


In the end it doesn't really matter whether all is based on factual truth. The fact that the boundaries between reality and fiction are very narrow at some times IS the truth and it is illustrated in this book. The account of all that is told in the book could not have entirely been revealed in the two days time Xinran had the occasion to talk to Shu Wen, so for sure fiction is used in helping to create the image of the reality. Xinran is walking the path Karl May took when he wrote about the West he had never been to, yet May's accounts were well funded in reality.

For those wanting to read the book, let there be no mistaking: it is NOT about the ritual known as sky burial (jhator in Tibetan), where the corpse of a deceased person -during life the vehicle that carries the spirit and soul of the person but merely an empty vessel after death that can be disposed of without much further ado (since the spirit leaves the body at death)- is cut up, crushed and fed to the vultures. It is a last gesture of kindness to the other living beings. Though there is a key scene describing the ritual, I believe Xinran is using this connotation of the sky burial practice as representing the selfless behaviour of Kejun and by extrapolation most of what is going on the book: it is acts of humanity that make people survive in the struggle for life, it is one living being taking care of the other that makes us come through. The title, in my opinion, therefore should not be read in any ethnographic sense or as a reference to a cruel, uncivilized world, but rather as symbolizing the opposite.

Seen from that point of view, it is a remarkable book that deserves everybody's attention. I would like to end with Peter Gordon's final remarks from the above mentionned review:

Xinran has once again written with understanding and compassion about strong women who seem to have stepped out of the pages of a novel. Shu Wen disappeared right after Xinran's copied down her story. Is SKY BURIAL true? The strength of the story is that it doesn't matter.

AddInto

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Crazy Insect, glad to come across your post while googling on Xinran's Sky Burial... I am a Tibetan and it's so lovely to read a lovely writing (assuming you are a Chinese?).

Lao Lu said...

Hello Anonymous,

Thanks for dropping by and good to hear you enjoyed the post on Xinran. I am not Chinese, though I stayed altogether more than 4 years in China and my wife is actually chinese. So if you like, stay hooked, I guess I'll be starting some new posts soon, after an extended break.

BiBi said...

I was overwhelmed by Wen's devotion and determination. Kejun's final letter moved me to tears. The book left me speechless. At times, I forgot that it's a real story. Peter Gordon's final remark is so true that the power of the book is so great that it matters no more whether it is fiction or fact.

Lao Lu said...

Bibi,

I agree: this book is one of the little marvels you very rarely hear about, but once you stumble onto them, it's a magnificent world opening up.

myspace said...

I just wanted to say WOW! goose bumps and e-motions, the design of your web page really got me!!! Check my sites ;) shrek 3 1152902172

484700808@msn.com said...

myspace [url=http://www.phpbb4you.com/forums/?mforum=myspace#4348837]myspace[/url] http://www.phpbb4you.com/forums/?mforum=myspace 1535937515

484700808@msn.com said...

myspace [url=http://www.phpbb4you.com/forums/?mforum=myspace#4348837]myspace[/url] http://www.phpbb4you.com/forums/?mforum=myspace 1535937515

484700808@msn.com said...

myspace [url=http://www.phpbb4you.com/forums/?mforum=myspace#4348837]myspace[/url] http://www.phpbb4you.com/forums/?mforum=myspace 1535937515

Homan said...

Hi there,
I also finished reading 'Sky Burial' today! I had to read it for school as a part of an assignment. I found the book very touching specially when the servent sets himself alight and when Wen reads her beloved's diary.
The book made me think about my spirituallity and beliefs. About what I do and whom I seek refuge to at times of dificulty...
I strongly recommend it.
Great book, very touching and easy to read.
Yours truly
Homan

Andrea said...

WOW I just loved this book. I couldn't put it down and was so dissapointed that it was over when I had finished. I thought it was beautiful the way Wen was just taken in by this Tibetan family - and for all those years! Does Wen ever find her family? Maybe not knowing adds to an already powerful story. Another book you all might enjoy is Last Seen in Lhasa by Claire Scobie.

Anonymous said...

it is sad book i have ever read in my life However shu wen is a courage woman. she is a ordinary woman

Soft Cialis said...

this book is one of the little marvels you very rarely hear about, but once you stumble onto them

viagra for sale said...

Really great post, Thank you for sharing This knowledge.Excellently written article, if only all bloggers offered the same level of content as you, the internet would be a much better place. Please keep it up!

Anonymous said...

SAD AND TOUCHING STORY. XINRAN IS IMPRESSIVE WRITER AND GOOD WOMEN OF CHINA...

TENZIN

Jem said...

Did shu wen make contact with xinran after publication?