Excerpt of Sky Burial by Xue Xinran
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Her inscrutable eyes looked past me at the world outside the window--the crowded
street, the noisy traffic, the regimented lines of modern tower blocks. What
could she see there that held such interest? I tried to draw her attention back.
"How long were you in Tibet?"
"More than thirty years," she said softly.
"Thirty years! But why did you go there? For what?"
"For love," she answered simply, again looking far beyond me at the
empty sky outside.
"My husband was a doctor in the People's Liberation Army. His unit was sent
to Tibet. Two months later, I received notification that he had been lost in
action. We had been married for less than a hundred days.
"I refused to accept that he was dead," she continued. "No one at
the military headquarters could tell me anything about how he had died. The only
thing I could think of was to go to Tibet myself and find him."
I stared at her in disbelief. I could not imagine how a young woman at that time
could have dreamed of traveling to a place as distant and as terrifying as
Tibet. I myself had been on a short journalistic assignment to the eastern edge
of Tibet in 1984. I had been overwhelmed by the altitude, the empty
awe-inspiring landscape, and the harsh living conditions.
"I was a young woman in love," she said. "I did not think about
what I might be facing. I just wanted to find my husband."
I had heard many love stories from callers to my radio program, but never one
like this. My listeners were used to a society where it was traditional to
suppress emotions and hide one's thoughts. I had not imagined that the young
people of my mother's generation could love each other so passionately. People
did not talk much about that time, still less about the bloody conflict between
the Tibetans and the Chinese. I yearned to know this woman's story, which came
from a time when China was recovering from the previous decade's devastating
civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, and Mao was rebuilding the
"How did you meet your husband?"
"In Nanjing," she replied, her eyes softening slightly. "I was
born there. Kejun and I met at medical school."
That morning, Shu Wen told me about her youth. She spoke like a woman who was
unused to conversation, pausing often and gazing into the distance. But even
after all this time, her words burned with love for her husband.
"I was seventeen when the Communists took control of the whole country in
1949. I remember being swept up in the wave of optimism that was flooding China.
My father worked as a clerk in a Western company. He hadn't been to school, but
he had taught himself. He believed strongly that my sister and I should receive
an education. We were very lucky. Most of the population at this time were
illiterate peasants. I went to a missionary school and then to Jingling Girls
College to study medicine. The school had been started by an American woman in
1915. At that time there were only five Chinese students. When I was there,
there were more than one hundred. After two years, I was able to go to the
university to study medicine. I chose to specialize in dermatology.
"Kejun and I met when he was twenty-five and I was twenty-two. When I first
saw him, he was acting as a laboratory assistant to the teacher in a dissection
class. I had never seen a human being cut up before. I hid like a frightened
animal behind my classmates, too nervous even to look at the white corpse soaked
in formalin. Kejun kept catching my eye and smiling. He seemed to understand and
sympathize with me. Later that day, he came looking for me. He loaned me a book
of colored anatomy diagrams. He told me that I would conquer my fear if I
studied them first. He was right. After reading the book several times over, I
found the next dissection class much easier. From then on, Kejun patiently
answered all my questions. Soon he became more than a big brother or a teacher
to me. I began to love him with all my heart."
Excerpted from Sky
Burial by Xinran Copyright © 2005 by Xinran. Excerpted by permission of
Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part
of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing
from the publisher.