Shu Wen's eyes were so still--locked on something I couldn't see.
"Everybody admired Kejun," she continued. "He had lost all his relatives during the Sino-Japanese War, and the government had paid for him to go to medical school. Because he was determined to repay this debt, he worked hard and was an outstanding student. But he was also kind and gentle to everyone around him, particularly to me. I was so happy . . . Then Kejun's professor came back from a visit to the battlefields of the Korean War and told Kejun of how the brave soldiers who were hurt and crippled in those terrible battles had to do without doctors and medicine, how nine out of ten of them died. The professor said he would have stayed there to help if he hadn't thought it his responsibility to pass on his medical knowledge to a new generation, so that more hospitals could have trained surgical staff. In war, medicine was the only lifeline: whatever the rights and wrongs of combat, saving the dying and helping the wounded were heroic acts.
"Kejun was deeply impressed by what his mentor had told him. He talked to me about it. The army was in desperate need of surgeons to help its wounded. He felt he ought to join up. Although I was frightened for him, I didn't want to hold him back. We were all suffering hardship at that time, but we knew it was for the greater good of the country. Everything was changing in China. Many people were packing their bags and heading for poor rural areas to carry out land reform, or going to the barren, uninhabited borderlands to turn the wilderness into fields. They went to the northeast and northwest to look for oil, or deep into the mountains and forests to fell trees and build railways. We regarded separation from our loved ones as a chance to demonstrate our loyalty to the motherland."
Shu Wen didn't tell me where Kejun's first army posting was. Perhaps she didn't know. What she did say was that he was away for two years.
I asked her whether she and Kejun wrote to each other. Shu Wen gave me one of her hard looks that made me ashamed of my ignorance.
"What kind of postal system do you imagine there was?" she asked. "War had created enormous upheaval. All over China, women were longing for news of husbands, brothers, and sons. I was not the only one. I had to suffer in silence."
"I heard nothing from Kejun for two years. Separation was not romantic, as I had imagined--it was agony. The time crawled past. I thought I was going to go mad. But then Kejun returned, decorated with medals. His unit had sent him back to Nanjing to take an advanced course in Tibetan language and medicine.
"Over the next two years our love grew stronger. We talked about everything, encouraging and advising each other. Life in China seemed to be getting better day by day. Everybody had a job. They worked not for capitalist bosses but for the government and the motherland. There were free schools and hospitals. We were told that, through Chairman Mao's policies, China's economy would catch up with those of Britain and America in only twenty years. We also had the freedom to choose whom we would marry, rather than obeying the choices of our parents. I told Kejun about how our friend Mei had, to everyone's surprise, married Li, an unsophisticated country boy, and how Minhua, who seemed so meek, had eloped with Dalu, the head of the student council. Their parents had come to the university to complain. But I didn't tell him how, while he was away, I had had other admirers, and people had advised me not to pin my hopes on a man who risked death on the battlefield."
"When Kejun finished his studies, we decided to get married. He was awaiting orders from the military headquarters in Nanjing. I was working as a dermatologist at a big Nanjing hospital. In the eyes of our friends, many of whom had children, we had already waited late enough to marry. Kejun was twenty-nine, I was twenty-six. So we applied to the Party for permission. Although my father found it difficult to get used to the idea of free choice in marriage, he was very fond of Kejun and knew I had made a good decision. In any case, if I delayed marriage any longer, he would lose face. My older sister had already got married and had moved to Suzhou, taking my parents with her.
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.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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