REVIEW: Sky Burial

We’re going 2 for 1 today with reviews of the first two books written by Chinese/English journalist, radio presenter, author and women’s rights advocate Xinran.

I first came across her books shortly after they were published in 2002 (The Good Women of China) and 2004 (Sky Burial) and fell in love with them. During numerous house moves I lost my copies of both but this year have managed to pick up both in charity shops and have read them again.

Let’s start with her second book Sky Burial. The cover says it’s an ‘epic love story of Tibet’ and it is a love story but it’s really not the conventional kind.

As a youngster Xinran had heard overheard strangers telling a story about a soldier who was cut into pieces and fed to vultures in Tibet in a ceremony called Sky Burial. Around three decades later she meets Shu Wen and unravels her life story and the story of the lost soldier.

Shu Wen and her husband Kejun were both doctors. Just months after their wedding in 1963 Kejun was assigned to an army unit heading for Tibet and never returned. Shu Wen waited, went to army offices asking questions and when she discovered nothing useful, she enlisted in the army and went to Tibet herself to find him.

Separated from her unit after an attack, Shu Wen spends years wandering the plateaux and mountains of Tibet, living with nomads and monks and all the time searching for her lost husband.

This is a hauntingly beautiful but tragic story that you’d struggle to believe if you did not know it to be true. It’s a story of loss and loyalty, or hardship and strength but it’s also about friendship and survival and hope.

It’s an incredible story and it is retold magically without sentimentality.

Xinran’s first book, The Good Women of China, is also based on true stories taken from a radio show she presented for about 8 years in China called Words on the Night Breeze. The evening show, broadcast every day, became famous across China for telling the stories of what is was like to be a woman in modern China.

What began as a 10-minute postbag slot developed until Xinran was travelling far and wide across the country interviewing women for this show.

The Good Women of China are stories from her radio show. Some of these stories are heart-breaking – I have never been able to come to terms with the chapter on the mothers who endured earthquakes.

I enjoy Xinran’s journalistic style. She does not add her opinion to these stories, she tells the story in a factual and almost dispassionate way leaving the readers to make their own minds up. An exceptional story sells itself, it needs no embellishment or additions and that is what Xinran presents.

I won’t deny that some of these stories are harrowing but this remains a brilliant book and an insight into the lives of women who were otherwise pretty much hidden from the rest of the world.

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