King Gesar Update: Academics Congregate, but Septuagenarian Bard Struggles to Pass on the Tradition

One-third of the extant written versions of the Tibetan epic King Gesar (格萨尔王) make a reference to Maqu County in Gansu (玛曲), leading Chinese experts to believe it may be the historical birthplace of the epic. But according to a report on Chinanews.com (说唱传承人), only one bard residing there is capable of performing the saga.

Ga’erkao (尕尔考) knows that this art, passed down to him from his great-grandfather, will not be taken up by any of his living relatives. So he is busy training a handful of teenagers in Zhaxi Village (扎西村) who are keen to learn, but at 70, his energy is limited.

But if most seasoned performers of the epic are in their twilight years—rendering it an endangered art form—China sees a new opportunity for burnishing its image as steward of this Tibetan cultural heritage, and thus it is busy promoting its study among academics. Some 70 international experts were recently invited to a conference in Inner Mongolia to share their research on various orally transmitted epics, and primarily King Gesar.  Details of the topics covered can be seen here in Chinese.

A few factoids:

  • Delegates: From locations as diverse as Japan, Russia, Mongolia and Turkey
  • Popularization: New Chinese versions of the tale are appearing in the graphic form—similar to comics in the West—known as 连环画.
  • African echoes: A professor (阿德莫拉·达斯尔瓦) from Nigeria’s University of Ibadan drew parallels between the performance of King Gesar and West African epics.

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