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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Book Review: In Death's Shadow -- "Sky Burial"

May 26, 2009

Colleen Keane
The Age
June 1, 2009

BUDDHISM is central to Xinran's novel "Sky
Burial," but not the form that engages people
from the West, which is more related to
philosophy than to religion. Yet both versions
are about ways of being and coping with reality.
In both Tibet and rural China, conditions are
harsh and far removed from the life and values of the West.

The narrative biography of Shu Wen unfolds as a
simple text that can be read from diverse angles:
as a love story, a cross-cultural study, an
exploration of tradition and modernity, or a
story of mid-20th century politics. In the
closing pages, Xinran, the keeper of Wen's
stirring tale, refers to one strand as "the
relationship between nature and religion".

Spirituality and love emerge as the two major
themes of the work, and both have many meanings
and nuances. Individual love and love for
community make major claims on the central characters.

The Tibetan life encountered by Chinese Wen in
Sky Burial presents the religious and spiritual
traditions of Tibetan Buddhism as steeped in
colourful and obscure rituals, and a fair degree
of superstition. This is anathema to the
rationalist West, and the pragmatic Chinese
communists. And it is partly why the Chinese have
been so determined to control Tibet and drag its
people into the 20th century. The People's
Liberation Army saw itself, literally, as a
modernising force for liberation from poverty and
backwardness. Cultural symbols, ritual,
spirituality in general continue to be regarded
as regressive forces holding the people back from
development and advancement. The Chinese project
in Tibet had a colonising and missionary aspect,
and is now seen by the world as manifestly oppressive.

Wen took much of this for granted in 1958 when,
as a dutiful Chinese woman, she followed her lost
husband Kejun's footsteps and set out to find him
and bring medical assistance to Chinese soldiers
in Tibet. She displays little consideration for
questions about why the Chinese were fighting in
Tibet, or for the context of Chinese political,
cultural and social control, although she is puzzled by "why they hate us".

The starkness of the landscape reflects Wen's
broader geographical and cultural dislocation.
"She hadn't been prepared for a landscape that
lacked any kind of landmark around which to
orientate oneself. They hadn't yet seen a single
sign of human habitation."(p.25)

At the core of Sky Burial is Wen's love for Kejun
over three decades, but there is also her growing
love for Tibet. The extreme physical and mental
trials she faces do not destroy her but plant in
her the seeds of resilience that surrounds her in
the Tibetan culture and assists her to stay alive
and to maintain hope for more than 30 years, just
as the Dalai Lama keeps alive the hope of Tibetan autonomy.

Wen, in the company of the noblewoman Zhuoma, is
forced to adjust to the basic subsistence life of
the herdsmen when rescued by the nomad family.
The traditional family - with Saierbao, the
mother, at its centre - contrasts with the
Chinese system, which attempts to play down
gender difference although within a setting of regimented patriarchal rule.

What helps her to survive is the profoundly
gentle spirit she encounters in the Tibetan
people and the bonds of family and community they
create in the harsh environment, the rhythms of
the seasons and cycles of life and survival. The
"relationship between nature and religion" is
embodied in rituals that grow out of a need to
live in sympathy with the climate and terrain.
They involve an acceptance of the power of nature
and create the lore of spirits and demons to be
appeased in order for nature and humans to live in harmony.

The harshness of the landscape and climate marks
the facial features of Tibetans, and Wen's face
also takes on rugged characteristics after years
of exposure to the elements and adjusting to
minimal comforts. But Xinran also raises the
matter of Tibetan savagery as perceived by the
invading Chinese. This may be about fierce
resistance to domination or about the harshness
that develops in response to brutal environmental
conditions. Either way it is inconsistent with
Buddhist non-violence as the West knows it. But
no society can afford simple equations.

The "sky burial" is the major motif. Kejun's
violent demise, being chopped up and left for the
vultures, encapsulates many dimensions of power,
nature, spirituality and love in its broadest
sense. The burial symbolises interconnections
within nature, where bodies are just another part
of a complex whole and spiritual realms must be
regulated through ritual. The sky burial
symbolises unity across the realms of difference.
Wen's love of one individual parallels Kejun's
self-sacrifice for the larger group, and for peace.

"By your husband's action, they had realised that
the Chinese could also be carried into the sky by
the sacred birds. His death had taught them that
Chinese flesh and Chinese feelings were identical to theirs." (p.141)

The persistence of love as a theme provides an
interesting conundrum. Wen's attachment to and
obsession with finding her husband is a
contradiction in Buddhist terms. She learns of a
broader, bigger love in learning about Buddhist
beliefs and in acceptance she is also rewarded
and eventually achieves what she set out to do so long ago: learn the truth.

This story of unchosen yet gently expanding
awareness of contrasting lives is also a subtle
study of shifting cultural and political
consciousness. Wen develops a profound
understanding of different lives and cultures and
the forces that motivate and develop certain
group values and rituals. Wen's life and identity
are transformed on many levels by her time in
Tibet. In her own way she is converted, and
reassimilation into regimented Chinese culture
seems impossible. At the end Xinran, a modern
Chinese woman, pleads with Wen to renew contact,
so that her remarkable story of contrasts can be shared more fully.

Shu Wen's story is both forceful and poignant,
not just for its romantic essence but for its
appreciation of and respect for profound cultural difference.


Kundun (film): directed by Martin Scorsese, 1997.

Cave in the Snow (biography): a Western Woman's
Quest for Enlightenment. Vicki Mackenzie/Tenzin Palmo. Bloomsbury, 1998.

The Art of Happiness, A handbook for living
(spiritual guide): His Holiness the Dalai Lama
with Howard C. Cutler. Hodder, 1998.

Fool's Mountain (blog): Blogging for China

Official website of the Central Tibetan Administration:

Tibetan Independence Movement (Wikipedia entry):

* Colleen Keane is a freelance writer and librarian
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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