The framing device describes the author meeting a gnarled old Tibetan woman, spending a couple of days with her hearing her remarkable story, and then (in)conveniently losing touch with her completely. The main narrative is that story, in which is transpires that Shu Wen isn’t Tibetan at all, she’s Chinese, but has spent decades searching for her husband, who disappeared shortly after his army unit was dispatched to the region during its ‘incorporation’ into China in the 1950s. She joins the PLA herself, but very quickly gets separated from her unit, living the rest of her life among the nomads of the Tibetan plateau before a series of conveniently fortuitous encounters deliver her closure regarding her husband, if not her place in modern China.
The bulk of the book details Shu’s day-to-day life among the nomads, and while it’s beautifully and hauntingly rendered, it’s also essentially the Noble Savage in Central Asia. Just as the original trope grew out of the West’s self-serving justification for its imperial misadventures, so too is China’s annexation of Tibet presented as a disagreeably messy but ultimately beneficial step towards modernity for both the conquerors and the conquered. Shu’s isolation means she proceeds blissfully unaware of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, and can instead present a ‘both sides’ story about the violence with which Tibet was brought into China: it was all just one big misunderstanding, you see? And one which, as it transpires, her husband’s death went a significant way towards clearing up. What a stroke of luck.
This is a gorgeously written book, and some of the imagery and detail is stunning, but throughout it all you can’t help but wonder about what’s not being said. In this post-truth era of fake news and the like, it’s probably important to remember that the best propaganda doesn’t feel like propaganda at all.