This book was surprisingly captivating, interesting, and fast. I began to read it last night, and within an hour, I’d gone through the first quarter. The book is sort of a memoir-in-proxy. Xinran is a journalist, and in 1994 met a woman named Shu Wen. Wen had just returned to China from Tibet, where she’d lived for over three decades after getting separated from her army unit in 1958. For two days, Wen told Xinran her story, then disappeared out of her life forever. At least as of the writing and publishing of this book, Xinran had not seen her again. I don’t know if they ever got in contact afterwards.
Wen originally went to Tibet with the Chinese army in order to look for her husband. They had only been married for 100 days, and he’d left with the army after only three weeks of marriage. The army claimed he’d died, but no details about his death were available. Wen left China in order to search for him, not wanting to believe he was dead, thinking he was perhaps only lost. Almost immediately coming across conflict, Wen and another woman, Zhouma, are rescued by a Tibetan family. Most of the time of the book passes with this family, isolated and nomadic, where Wen is completely ignorant of what is happening politically or socially across China or Tibet. The book paints an intimate portrait of nomadic, spiritual life on the plains in Tibet. To me, that was the most fascinating thing about the book. The old Tibetan nomad culture was really fascinating.
I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that most mysteries are resolved by the end of this book. Not all, though. Since Wen and Xinran parted after two days, Xinran has no idea what happened to her after that long interview. She doesn’t know what happened to the people Wen was traveling with, or if some of the answers they were seeking were ever found. She doesn’t know if Wen went back to Tibet or stayed in China. That’s the unfortunate thing about memoirs, in proxy or not: they inherently leave you hanging. However, the book gave enough closure that I’m not frustrated with it.
This is a very simple and easy to read book, and doesn’t take much time. There isn’t a lot of plot, adventure, or thrills, so don’t read this if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you’re interested in this culture, or in the more human side of the conflict between Tibet and China, this is a good book for you.