China & “King Gesar”: Challenges of Putting an Oral Epic to Paper

Gesar Storyteller (格萨尔王说唱艺人)In a Q & A (艺人及其抢救) with Dr. Yang Enhong, Yao Hui of the Institute of Ethnic Literature (China Academy of Social Sciences) succeeds in extracting fascinating details about how Drakpa (གྲགས་པ།,扎巴), a master storyteller (说唱艺人) of the Tibetan oral epic King Gesar was discovered, and his performances preserved in audio recordings and in written form — the first such documentation project in China. Eventually, during 1978-86  he was persuaded to record some 26 parts of the monumental epic, and 17 volumes of his lyrics were subsequently published.

Dr. Yang Enhong (杨恩洪) took part in the project, and is former Director of the National “Gesar” Leading Workgroup (全国《格萨尔》工作领导小组办公室主任).

Here is a brief excerpt from the Q & A that I’ve translated because it highlights a sensitive issue: How to maintain faithfulness to the original narration as dynamic voiced content is “textualized”?

The following is part of  Dr. Yang Enhong’s answer regarding the sort of difficulties that arise when carrying out such a conversion:

The Finnish epics expert [Lauri] Honko once said this, which left me with a deep impression: “The greatest benefit to putting an orally transmitted epic down on paper is that it endows it with a second life — people can access it by reading the written word.”  This is truly important.

During the process of progressing from oral to written transmission, however, I believe there are many issues that we need to consider carefully. How should we undertake textualization?

. . . Some of our scholars, including Tibetan ones, hold the opinion that folk storytellers and renditions by the common people employ a vulgar, unrefined language. So during compilation, all wording deemed rambling, repetitious, inconcise or redundant is changed or deleted, and then adapted according to one’s personal literary standards. They think that by means of such ameliorations a fine work will emerge. To the contrary, this serves to distort the features of genuine folk literature. Such a work may have a certain value when read, but academically, it possesses no research value.

Within China’s academia and among Gesar scholars the phenomena of willful adaptation still exists. Perhaps a certain scholar speaks the Amdo dialect and does not understand the Naqchu or Chamdo dialects, so he changes the text to Amdo. After adaptation, such a version’s academic value will be greatly reduced. And there are even those who merge many elements, massaging them into a pastiche comprising the best parts of each storyteller’s rendition, handwritten libretto, block book or actual lyrics, and edit them into a finished tome. In his estimation, this is a highly refined work. But in fact, I think not. This is equivalent to maltreating the original nature of the epic, which is now neither fish nor fowl.

Once I went abroad to ask the opinion of several respected scholars regarding this phenomenon. France’s [Anne-] Marie Blondeau, for instance, who is a famous Tibetologist. “That’s unacceptable,” she said. “I would definitely not consult such a version. And for research purposes, I absolutely would not use it.”

I personally sought advice from the German Professor Walther Heissig, an expert in Mongolian epics, explaining that there were differences in opinion regarding the version [of King Gesar] we were compiling. Could we proceed with a hybrid version? “No,” he replied. “That’s known as ‘cooking together’.”

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