Sky burial is an ancient Tibetan ritual in which the deceased’s body is chopped up and the flesh is fed to the vultures at the burial site. Many foreign cultures will see such a practice as barbaric, but the Tibetans view it as a means to nobly share one’s body even after death and in so doing, gain karmic merit.
Sky Burial 天葬 tells a touching love story between a dermatologist by the name of Shu Wen and her army surgeon husband by the name of Kejun set in the China during the 1950s when the PLA was struggling to subdue a newly “liberated” Tibet. Not long after their marriage, the army surgeon was sent on a mission to Tibet. And barely 100 days from their marriage, the dermatologist received news that her husband was killed in battle. No body was sent back. No explanation or details were given.
Refusing the accept the news and believing that Kejun was still alive, Shu Wen joined a military convoy entering Tibet on the then new Sichuan-Tibet Highway. Far from the picture of peace and harmony painted by the Communist propaganda machine, their journey was plagued with ambushes and guerrilla attacks from angry Tibetan seeking revenge.
Their convoy disintegrated after repeated attacks. Shu Wen and a Tibetan woman who spoke Chinese ended up living with a family of nomadic Tibetans. At first, she was shocked or even disgusted by some of their bizarre practices, but just as she was slowly adapting to the nomadic way of life, Zhuoma was kidnapped. Without a translator, Shu Wen was forced to learn the language. The months turned to years. The children in the Tibetan family grew up, got married and had children. In many ways, Shu Wen had blended in and become Tibetan. But deep down, Shu Wen was still hoping to find Kejun.
Sky Burial is not just a love story. Though there are strong allusions to Princess Wencheng, the author presents a relatively objective and down-to-earth view of cultural differences and misunderstandings between Tibetans and Chinese. Both sides are equally capable of fear, greed and ignorance. The shocking ending may sound somewhat incredulous, but it ties in very nicely with the theme. Chinese flesh is the same as Tibetan flesh. It sometimes takes sacrifice before ignorant people can see that.
© Chan Joon Yee