A romantic quest, begun in Mao’s China, turns into an epic of endurance—and a spiritual parable.
In spite of its subtitle, Xinran’s second (after The Good Women of China, 2002) is presented as a memoir, the story of Shu Wen as narrated to the author when the two women met in 1994 in Suzhou. An open letter to Shu Wen ends the book, asking that she resume contact. The short text itself is Wen’s tragic but uplifting fable of devotion and spiritual enlightenment. A child of Mao’s revolution, Wen was educated in medicine and, as a student, met another young doctor, Kejun, whom she fell in love with and married. But their happiness was cut short when Kejun was sent to Tibet with the People’s Liberation Army. After fewer than a hundred days of marriage, he was reported killed, and, unable to accept Kejun’s death, Wen decides to go after him. Joining an army unit, she makes the arduous journey to Tibet, where the soldiers suffer from altitude sickness and are picked off by Tibetan guerillas. A young Tibetan noblewoman named Zhuoma joins Wen’s party, and soon the two women are split off from the soldiers but rescued by a family of nomads. So begins a new life—self-sufficient, purifying, hard and isolated. As the story takes on a more spacious tone, the simple, pared prose lends a kind of balm: Wen learns the nomads’ ways, and time and identity fall away. She finds her soul during this 30-year sojourn and is finally released after discovering Kejun’s fate. He rescued a young Buddhist lama from a sky burial (where corpses are eaten by vultures) but shot a sacred bird and offered himself as a sacrifice to make amends. This knowledge comes to Wen in one of a series of unlikely, fateful encounters that seem to transform the vast Tibetan landscape into a small community packed with symbolic meetings.
A picaresque fairy tale with elements of National Geographic, but also lovely, spare and mystical.