[w:Xinran]'s 2004 book Sky Burial is many things. It is an epic love story, an amazing travelogue through Tibet, an unheard perspective on the China-Tibet situation, and a story of one woman's faith and strength. I read the book in one sitting, the whole time wondering if this incredible story could really be true.
In late-1950s China, Shuwen and Kejun are doctors who are very much in love. They marry, but after only three weeks together Kejun is sent off with the army to Tibet. Within 100 days, Shuwen receives notice that her husband is dead. She can't believe the news and sets off to find him. What follows is a story of breathtaking devotion, spanning over three decades and thousands of miles.
Xinran met Shuwen in 1994. At the time, Xinran was working as a radio presenter, who was well known for talking to ordinary Chinese women. She spent two days with Shuwen, listening to how she joined the Chinese army as a doctor, traveled to Tibet, befriended an extraordinary Tibet woman found on the brink of death, was separated from the army, lived for years with nomadic Tibetans, and eventually discovered what happened to her beloved husband.
Then Shuwen disappeared back into the ocean of humanity. Over the next decade, Xinran researched Shuwen's story and looked for her. Sky Burial is what emerged from Xinran's encounter with Shuwen and the subsequent years Xinran spent trying to confirm and better understand Shuwen's story. Xinran [http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/2004_25_wed_01.shtml|told the BBC] she interviewed lamas, soldiers, generals, and Tibetans and watched 100 hours of media on Tibetan to fill in the gaps of Shuwen's story.
What Xinran so elegantly portrays is Shuwen's transformation from a woman desperately attached to her husband to a woman at peace with herself and the world.
It was time for Wen to leave the Hundred Lakes, snowcapped Anyemaqen, and the other mountains of Qinghai. For years she had wandered in this region. Its grasslands, waters, and sacred mountains filled her soul. Here she had sampled all the joys and sorrows of human life. Here her love for Kejun had grown in intensity. Here she had found her spiritual home. Though her body was leaving, her spirit would remain in the place that held her dead husband. As she prepared for her journey, her heart was like still water; any ripples of longing or sadness had been gently smoothed away by the influence of the spirits. Wen knew that in the months and years to come, at all ties and in all places, she would be like a kite, connected by an invisible thread to Mount Anyemaqen.
As I read Sky Burial, I realized how fiercely one could live, even as a stranger in a strange land, with a devotion to love. And I saw my own life as full of mostly petty preoccupations and distractions. I pondered, what if I lived with such a courageous heart?
According to Buddhist teachings, the good news is like Shuwen and her husband, who turns out to be monumentally heroic, as humans we all have the potential to act from an open and loving place. My story will never be like Shuwen's, but I can hope to emulate her love and be a person who finds peace and happiness through deeply caring for others.
Sky Burial is a timely book. It is about understanding other cultures and bridging misconceptions. And it is a romance of the highest order. With all the strife, violence and complications of our 21st-century world, it is the kind of story we desperately need to hear.