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.

“The Shepherd’s Dream”: An Excerpt from Alai’s “King Gesar”

Several years ago, UK publisher Canongate commissioned contemporary ethnic Tibetan writer Alai to pen his own creative version of the King Gesar saga. The plan: to launch Alai’s King Gesar (格萨尔王, 阿来著)  as part of its global Myth Series, joining other creatively re-told tales including The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood’s take on Penelope of The Odyssey), Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Yaga as per Dubravka Ugresic), and Binu and the Great Wall (by China’s Su Tong).

The traditional Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan: གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ), believed to date from the 12th century, relates the heroic deeds of Gesar, the fearless lord of the legendary Kingdom of Ling. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose, and is performed widely throughout Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, besides versions of the tale conserved by PRC-based minorities such as the Bai, Naxi, the Pumi, Lisu and Yugur peoples, other variations are also found among the Burushaski-speaking Burusho of Hunza and Gilgit, the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples, in Baltistan, in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes. The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.

When I wrote Canongate in 2010, they told me December 2012 was the likely publication date of Alai’s work in English. Now August 2013 is apparently the new target date. Why the delay? I don’t know the inside story. But perhaps it’s because they eventually recruited the hottest duo in the world of Chinese-to-English literary translation—Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin—to render King Gesar in English.  It’s public knowledge that Goldblatt and Lin are the first choice of many publishers, and they are so busy that each new Chinese novel they translate has to (patiently) wait its turn. . .

Happily, asymptotejournal.com has now published an excerpt from Song of Gesar entitled The Shephard’s Dream:

‘My dear nephew, with so many people around, sometimes the gods simply cannot take care of us all, and that is why you feel out of sorts. When that happens, think about this syllable.”I don’t know how to carve.’

‘Then treat your heart as the best pear wood and imagine yourself holding a knife carving out this syllable one letter at a time. As long as you think about it and say it, gradually there will be only this syllable flickering in your consciousness, and that will bring you tranquility.’

On his way home, he said to the donkey, ‘I’m thinking about that syllable.’

The syllable was pronounced Om. When that sound is made, everything that turns, water wheels, windmills, spinning wheels and prayer wheels, begins to spin. And when everything is spinning, the world turns.

The donkey did not understand, but ambled along with its head lowered and its eyes cast downward. The road made a sharp turn by a sparse grove of pine trees. Swaying its narrow hips, the donkey disappeared momentarily from his view as it made the turn. So he raised his voice and spoke to two parrots perched on a wild cherry tree: ‘Think about the syllable.’

Startled, the birds fluttered up, clamouring, ‘Syllable! Syllable! Syllable!’ and flew away.

He quickened his steps and found his donkey waiting for him by the side of the road. It gave him a dispassionate look before setting off again, the bell on its neck jingling as it plodded ahead.

For a long time after that, Jigme spoke to all manner of living things that appeared along the way, telling them, in a half serious, half bantering manner, of how he was focusing on that syllable – serious because he hoped it would help him return to his dream world and not forget it upon waking, and bantering because he could not bring himself to believe in it. Mocking it helped him prepare for the inevitable disappointment. But deep down he hoped it would work magic.

Click here to read the full excerpt.

See also a book review of Alai’s Song of Gesar [full book published in 2014], and a marvelous look at how Tibetan epic singers come into being,  Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers.

“Pamir Kyrgyz Traditional Song Conference” Held in Xinjiang’s Akto County

Just a few weeks after 40 Uyghur masters of the rhymed epic tales known as dastan gathered in Hami to stage and talk about their threatened art form (Dastan Training Session), some 60-plus performers of traditional Kyrgyz songs have gathered for a similar get-together in Xinjiang’s Akto County (阿克陶县) bordering on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

According to the article (约隆歌) re-published on the China Ethnic Literature Network, there are a large variety of these songs known as 约隆歌 (Yuēlóng gē in Chinese, and 约隆歌, I think), including those reserved just for a man or a woman, satirical ones, or to welcome a guest. Similar renditions can also be found among other nomadic peoples of Central Asia such as the Kazakh, Altai, Tuvan and Khakas.

This traditional Kyrgyz musical form was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by China in 2008, and more than 800 songs have reportedly been collected in the Pamir region to date.

Tibetan Epic “King Gesar” Published in 8-volume Chinese-language Edition

A comprehensive 8-volume, 2-million word translation of the Tibetan classic “King Gesar” (格萨尔王传) has just been published in Chinese by Higher Education Press (高等教育出版社), according to a report carried on China Ethnic Literature Network (中国民族文学网).

The traditional Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan: གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ), believed to date from the 12th century, relates the heroic deeds of Gesar, the fearless lord of the legendary Kingdom of Ling. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose, and is performed widely throughout Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, besides versions of the tale conserved by PRC-based minorities such as the Bai, Naxi, Pumi, Lisu and Yugur peoples, other variations are also found among the Burushaski-speaking Burusho of Hunza and Gilgit, the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples, in Baltistan, in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes. The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.

The 8 volumes in the new translation are: 卡切玉宗, 辛丹内讧, 歇日珊瑚宗, 雪山水晶宗, 象雄穆德宗, 阿达拉姆, 大食财宝宗, and 丹玛青稞宗. The texts were translated by more than ten Tibetan specialists including 角巴东主、索南卓玛 and多杰才让.

A bit earlier this year an excerpt from Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin’s translation of Alai’s King Gesar was released, and can be seen here.

Scholar Critiques Media Coverage of Newly Published Miao Classic “King Yalu”

China media’s recent high-profile reportage of the launch of volume one of the first-ever bilingual version of King Yalu (亚鲁王), a Miao historical epic passed down orally, has been labelled “unscientific” (媒体对 《亚鲁王》报道不科学) by an academic whose views carry weight.

Traditionally sung over several days at a funeral, King Yalu is the story of war, defeat and migration of the western Miao tribes in Guizhou from their traditional homes in places such as Anshun (安顺). Legend has it that King Yalu was the 18th in a line of Miao rulers.

The scholar in question happens to be Chogjin (朝戈金), Chair of the Department of Ethnic Minority Literature in the Graduate School of the distinguished China Academy of Social Sciences.  He is an ethnic Mongolian and has an impressive résumé in oral literary research.

In particular, he rejects the assertion—proclaimed in the Chinese press and trumpeted in English by Chinadaily—that the origins of King Yalu doubtless go back more than 2,500 years.  In his brief but informative essay, Chogjin also notes: [Read more…]

“Butterfly Mother” and “Dragon-Eagles”: Processing Folklore in Southwest China

In the latest edition of Oral Tradition (Processing Epics), Mark Bender explores—via highly readable notes on his field-work—how the Miao myth-epic Mai Bang (Butterfly Mother) and the Nuosu’s creation-epic Dragon-Eagles have gradually been rendered in written form:

My title also contains the word “processing”—and by that I mean the process through which traditional texts are performed and received by local audiences. It also refers to the process by which some versions of stories are recorded, transcribed, translated, edited, and released in print or electronic format—a process the late Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko called the “folklore process.”

The term “processing” also carries, at least for me, a sense of the sorts of compromises and distortions inherent in the manner in which the recorded texts are preserved and communicated to new audiences. Just as natural foods or textiles are processed and marketed into products for consumption by target audiences, so too are items of oral literature. We now have genetically engineered corn, soybeans, and hemp. A box of “heart healthy” oat cereal may contain a whole list of additives, supplements, and fillers—sometimes mimicking original, truly wholesome products and directed at consumers open to healthy, natural, and eco-friendly foods.

But we increasingly know it is necessary to read the fine print—just as Lauri Honko reminded us that it is necessary to understand the process of the “processing” of oral texts that occurs behind the book or website banner.

He notes the tendency for compilers in China to strive for what they term a “complete” (完整), official version that involves “negotiations” and even deletion of “taboo” content:

Although the appreciation of multiple versions gathered in specific performance contexts has a growing place in folklore circles in China, there is still a strong tradition of creating “complete” versions of a given song cycle or story tradition that will serve as part of an ethnic group’s official tradition of oral literature. These versions usually combine several versions collected from a number of singers.

In some cases the participating singers and eldersmay be involved with editors in the negotiations concerning the makeup of the final master version. In theory, such master texts—which might be best described as “collective versions”— are intended to reflect and preserve the richness and completeness of the tradition in a format that can be read and appreciated to its fullest by present or future generations without access to multiple live versions. In the past, much more so than is usual now, this stage of editing also allowed for selection or omission of content deemed crude, backward, divisive, or otherwise taboo.

Throat Singing: UNESCO Deems Mongolian Art Form to be Made-in-China

In A Showdown over Traditional Throat Singing, the Washington Post reports:

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — For nearly two decades, Odsuren Baatar [pictured], a master of Mongolian throat singing, has been visiting China to teach his craft — making the human voice soar, quiver and drone, its pitches in eerie unison like a bagpipe.When he first started going there, his students were all beginners, because nobody in China knewOdsuren Baatar much about throat singing [呼麦]. But they were eager to
learn, and, after years of sharing his techniques, Odsuren took pride in having helped promote an art form prized here in Mongolia as a singular national treasure. 
His pride, however, turned to dismay and then anger when he saw a copy of a video that China had quietly submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: It featured one of his former students pitching a bid by Beijing to have throat singing registered by the United Nations as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” with China getting the credit.Visit here to listen to a bit of Tuvan throat singing.

“King Gesar” Book Review: Epic Ballad Turned Novel Lacks Poetry

Writes David Yao (姚达兑) in a review of the new best-seller, King Gesar (格萨尔王), by Alai (阿来):

. . . the tale of King Gesar is recited by [the roaming bard] Jin Mei, while the entire novel is recited by Alai; King Gesar recounts his world-weariness and confusion to Jin Mei, while the novelist makes use of Jin Mei to convey to the reader the dilemma of the epic in the modern world. With the advent of modernity, even remote Tibet, this last pure land, cannot escape encroachment by the evils of the modern world. Sgrung no longer roam the four directions singing their ballads, for they have been corralled where they sing instead to microphones and tape recorders . . .

[Read more…]