Book Review of ‘Sky Burial’ by Xinran Xue
What? Killed, just because he had killed a vulture?
“One of our soldiers paid with his life for the death of a vulture?”
Xinran Xue starts her novel with the words Sky Burial. The protagonist, a young female doctor named Shu Wen, was separated from her husband, also a physician, in the 1950s in China. The husband, Kejun, was drafted into the military three weeks after his wedding, and deployed in Tibet.
Barely three months later, Shu Wen received a notification from the military in Suzhou: Your husband is dead. The young widow is speechless and unable to assimilate the news. Galvanizing her will, she joins the military unit her husband was in, as a physician.
Her goal is to search for him in Tibet. Without clearly realizing the magnitude of her decision, it becomes the starting point for a more than thirty year journey through Tibet.
The novel is based on a true story about Shu Wen, which Xinran Xue, radio journalist and author, had recorded in a 1994 interview in Suzhou. Pivoting on Shu Wen’s search for her “missing” husband, the reader comes to understand the social and political circumstances of 1950s China.
This includes, among other things, the so called “liberation”, or occupation, of Tibet between 1950 and 1951, as well as the lives of the Tibetan nomads in the seemingly endless vastness of the Tibetan highlands.
After arriving in Tibet, Shu Wen lived with a nomad family for more than 30 years. Without understanding a word of Tibetan at first, she gradually learned their language, and experienced their daily hardships and social practices, which were often very different from those of the Chinese.
She experienced their deep, all encompassing religiosity, which for one who’d grown up steeped in communist doctrine, was something completely new.
Xinran is one of the modern Chinese authors living abroad, who after the “opening-up” of the 1980s was able to test new literary styles. She knows how to win the hearts of readers with short, concise, and clear language.
About the Author
Xinran Xue was born 1958 in Beijing. When she was a child she was put in a reeducation camp during the Cultural Revolution from 1964 – 1968. Her parents—both military officers—were sentenced as so-called “reactionaries.” They disappeared for ten years in different labor camps.
After her education, Xinran worked as a radio journalist and was a moderator during the years 1989 to 1997 for the highly popular radio program “Qin Feng Ye Hua”—“Words in the evening breeze.”
In this program, the audience, especially Chinese women, for the first time since the “opening-up”, were able to have a chance to talk about their personal lives.
Xinran Xue immigrated to Great Britain in 1997. There, based on her radio program, her first book “Hidden Voices. Chinese women tell their fate” came into being. It was translated into 27 languages. In the meantime, she regularly writes for The Guardian and supports women and orphan children. She now lives in England with her husband and son.