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Book Review: A Year in Tibet

June 1, 2008

Nigel Richardson
The Telegraph (UK)
May 30, 2008

A Year in Tibet
By Sun Shuyun
(Harper Press, £20)

Nigel Richardson reviews A Year in Tibet, a fascinating account of a
Chinese filmmaker's experience in a remote corner of Tibet.

On a remote plain in the mountains of Tibet, an extraordinary ritual
was unfolding. A team of men was cutting up the body of the local
blacksmith and feeding the bits to the gathering vultures. This is
known as a "sky burial" and it was being observed, through
binoculars, by a Chinese filmmaker and writer, Sun Shuyun. When the
men began to sing as they worked, she felt horrified. Then she
realised that "for them death is not the point" they are charged now
with helping the soul on its journey."

This is just one of the arresting vignettes in a fascinating account
of the year that the author and a film crew spent in a village in a
remote corner of Tibet. The book is far more than a thin spin-off of
the television series - already aired on BBC4 - as I had feared it
might be (the sky burial, for instance, was not filmed). Sun Shuyun,
who studied Tibetan at Oxford, uses it to chart a much more personal
and sometimes painful journey.

When she was a child, she was told by her father, an ardent Maoist,
that "Tibet was a barbarous land where men drank blood". She
preferred to imagine it as a Shangri-La. The reality was that a
gentle and ancient culture, founded on Buddhism, was being
systematically destroyed by the great god Communism. The legacy of
that struggle is all too familiar. In a poignant scene, Sun Shuyun is
upset -- but not surprised -- when the owner of a pizza parlour
shouts at her to "get lost" and go back to China.

Her book focuses on a less familiar story: despite oppression (mere
mention of the Dalai Lama is an imprisonable offence), ancient ways
are surviving and superstition, in a range of deities, persists.
Polyandrous marriages (several husbands to one wife) are common and
the local shaman, who works "as an intermediary between the known and
the unknown," is called "hailstone lama" because he is believed to
have the power to stop the hail falling and ruining the harvest. (The
Chinese pooh-pooh such primitivism and fire an anti-aircraft gun to
disperse the hail clouds.)

All this takes place in a beautiful but implacable environment.
Seeing a group of villagers as specks in the vast landscape of
mountain and plain, the author asks herself: "Is it any wonder they
have so many gods?" No, Tibet is not Shangri-la -- too much poverty,
tension and oppression for that. "But it is extraordinary, it is
spectacular and it is unique."
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