#140: THIRTY YEARS IN TIBET. Movies have inured us to marvels: dragons fly in the night sky, babies pick up refrigerators, unlikely loves survive. But truth, we are told, is stranger, and sometimes it is. In 1994, Xinran Xue, then a journalist in Nanjing, received a phone call telling her of a woman living in Suchou: Chinese, but wearing the traditional dress of Tibet. Xinran found the woman, interviewed her at length, and her story, retold in the book Sky Burial (Doubleday, 2005) is subtitled “An Epic Love Story of Tibet.” Though a trim little book of some two hundred pages, epic it truly is.
In post-war China, Shu Wen was unusual in being encouraged by her family to get an education; she entered medical school, where she would meet her future husband, Wang Kejun, who had been orphaned during the Sino-Japanese war. Kejun joined the People’s Army, and the two were completely out of touch for two years in the upheavals of the Communist takeover. Reunited, they completed their studies; Kejun was posted to Tibet. Shortly after, Wen received notice that Kejun had been killed in an “incident” in eastern Tibet. They had been married for one hundred days. This is the first ten pages of the book.
Shu Wen then decided to join the Chinese army and request a posting to Tibet to go in search of her husband. She would remain there for thirty years, cared for by a Tibetan family, eventually resuming her search. The body of the book—any specifics would be unforgivable spoilers—is a story of narrow escapes, nearly fatal injuries, extraordinary (to us) generosity and hospitality, friendship, a pair of side-by-side odysseys in search of lost loves, wildly unlikely reunions and wrenching loss, all in the vastness of the mountains and fields of Tibet, all in the intimate moral ground below politics and nationality. Her time with the Tibetan family is one of the best portraits of Tibetan life I know of—we learn of it as Wen does. When you finally learn the fate of Wen’s husband, it’s a jaw-dropper—a twist any novelist would kill for and a chance to refract the whole dreadful history of China’s continuing intrusion into the culture of Tibet through these few lost people. Xinran’s interview with Shu Wen lasted two days; they never saw each other again; Xinran spent nine years researching and corroborating the story’s details. Sky Burial is like a piece of sculpture rescued from the sea: beautiful and moving and a reminder of how much is lost. Here there be tragedies and, yes, marvels.