Book Reviews

Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, USA; Chatto & Windus, UK

Ma Jian’s five stories of a brutal and impoverished Tibet few experience linger long after this short book ends. When the book was first published in China in 1987, Stick Out Your Tongue was banned by the Chinese government "as a vulgar and obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots." The government accused the author of failing "to depict the great strides the Tibetan people have made in building a united, prosperous and civilized Socialist Tibet." The Tibet that Ma Jian reveals is far from the Shangri-la that dreamers and China encourage. Ordinary Tibetan life is harsh, and Ma Jian reveals how "dehumanizing extreme hardship can be." He notes that Lhasa itself has now "become a dirty, polluted city like any other you might find in China, with karaoke bars and massage parlors and gaudy neon signs."

In "The Woman and the Blue Sky," a Chinese journalist whose marriage has fallen apart travels to Tibet looking for spiritual hope. He hopes to witness a sky burial. A lonely Sichuan soldier he befriends grants his wish. The journalist photographs and describes how the body of a 17-year-old woman who died in childbirth is laid out by her two husbands. Her flesh is hacked and torn from her bones while vultures spiral for the feast on the burial platform beneath a startling blue sky. Time suspends them in a ritual where the atmosphere is thin, the towering peaks surrounding them barren and stark.

"The Smile of Lake Drolmula" is equally unsettling. A young man returns home to find his nomad family during his school break. He finds the letter he had sent them four months before lying undelivered in the village. Each time he gets to where he thinks they have gone, nomads give him conflicting reports as to where they had moved their herd until he thinks he’s found them—but then, that might have been an achingly real hallucination. 

If anyone had images of Tibetan Buddhist monks chanting serenely in their remote monasteries, seeking enlightenment amidst flickering candles and pure thoughts, "The Final Initiation" shatters that image. A young Tibetan Buddhist nun, the reincarnation of the Living Buddha Tenzin Wangdu, receives her final initiation during the Ceremony of Empowerment that will recognize her as a Living Buddha. Up to that time her training has been strict and intense. In one of her classes, which involves the dissection of a corpse, she learns that "If you achieve enlightenment through meditation, your cartilage will be come transparent." In this ceremony, she has to perform the Union of the Two Bodies Ritual with a monk who, she senses, resents her for being the reincarnation of his brother. The union should be a metaphor for the desired result of Tantric meditation, the bliss-inducing fusion of two components of liberation—male (active compassion) and female (wisdom). Instead, she is submitted to a brutal rape. She is unable to maintain her focus to meditate in an icy river. When they pull her out, her entire body is completely transparent. 

This is a powerful book of honest stories succinctly told. Ma Jian lives in self-imposed exile in London.

Reviewed by Pam Chun