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 (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, 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.

“Tibet Code”: China’s New Imaginary

In Inventing Chinese Mass Tourism to Tibet, we see the creative marketing of China’s Tibet moving into high gear:

The most recent and most spectacular staging of Tibetan history and culture, specifically intended for tourist consumption, was announced in 2013. Three mass entertainment companies combined in 2013 to turn the best selling Chinese fantasy book series, Tibet Code into a movie and, they announced, a theme park.

The three companies involved are a Hollywood studio and two Chinese partners with global ambitions. The partnership was put together by Dream Works, a studio keen to earn more from the booming Chinese movie market.

This planned movie, theme park and branded merchandise has the lot: not only fiercely loyal Tibetan dogs, swords, spears, mystery, pacy action, but even Hitler and Stalin play roles in exhibiting the universal fascination with Tibet. Tibet Code is preoccupied with the external artefacts of Tibetan mysticism, as power objects to be sought and fought over, much as the mysteriously powerful ritual objects of the Catholic church feature in The da Vinci Code. These sacra are both wondrous and fearsome, long dead yet still alive, with a power to confer power or wreak harm, an ambivalence deeply felt in modern life. Tibet Code does not hesitate to throw in both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, both supposedly despatching secret missions to capture that power for their evil ends, each preoccupied with Tibet as a mysterious source of power.

Caixin’s “Day in the Life of a Beijing Black Guard”: Straight out of “Champa the Driver”

In January 2013, Beijing-based Chan Koonchung’s novel The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver (《裸Caixin's story on Black Guards命》, 陈冠中) was published in Chinese in Hong Kong. The closing chapter recounts how a young, naïve Tibetan chauffeur from Lhasa proudly takes his first job in the capital, working in what he refers to as “Preserving Stability Hotel” (维稳宾馆).

His job: to ensure that the hotel guests remain under lock and key until they can be “escorted” back to their hometowns. It takes a while for Champa to realize that he is just a tool, charged with carrying out a form of extraordinary (domestic) rendition with Chinese characteristics.

On April 2—more than 2 months after Chan Koonchung’s novel was published— CaixinOnline published its own investigative journalism piece documenting a “strange industry” in which “temporary workers” are hired as interceptors to kidnap and imprison would-be petitioners, thus ensuring their grievances do not come to the attention of the central authorities:

Over the past year, Wang [a native of Henan] was stationed near the Guangdong provincial government’s Beijing bureau near the capital’s western Third Ring Road. His job was to help Guangdong officials detain people who had come from the southern province to Beijing to file petitions and then escort them home. There were 20 or 30 others doing the same job he was working under the same supervisor, and there were more than four supervisors providing the service to officials from all over Guangdong stationed in Beijing.

He referred to his profession as “helping the government handle affairs.” The more popular job title is “black guard,” a unique profession that comes in tandem with China’s petition system.

Read more about these “black jails” (extralegal detention centers) in English (A Day in the Life) at CaixinOnline, or check out the novel, The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver. 

“Turkish Culture Year in China”: Bringing Orhan Pamuk to . . . Tibetan Speakers?

Tibet specialist Françoise Robin has kindly alerted me to the fact that the February 2013 Tibetan edition of National

A dose of hüzün for Tibetan readers?

A dose of hüzün for Tibetan readers?

Literature Magazine (民族文学杂志,藏文版) features two pieces by Turkey’s Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk. If your Tibetan is up to par, read about them here: མི་རིགས་ཀྱི་རྩོམ་རིག.

One is apparently a speech by Pamuk that translates as “Eastern and Western cultures and the Literary Imagination” in English, and the other is a Tibetan version of The Ship on the Golden Horn, the penultimate chapter of his Istanbul: Memories of the City (Istanbul: Hatıralar ve Şehir).

Is this part of China’s government-endorsed 2013 “Turkish Culture Year” campaign? Can’t say for sure, though I wouldn’t be surprised. National Literature Magazine (民族文学) is a state-run publication now available in Han Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh, Korean, Mongolian and Tibetan.

But it would be interesting to know how Tibetan renders that peculiarly Turkish concept—hüzün or (something akin to) melancholy—that runs throughout Pamuk’s work.

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.

Tsering Norbu’s “Amerika”: Village Life in 21st Century Tibet – with a Twist

Only a handful of Tibetans who write fiction in Chinese have seen their work published in English, but Tsering Norbu has recently joined this elite. Here’s a brief intro to his Amerika (阿米日嘎,次仁罗布著):

A farmer in rural Tibet invests his life savings and more to purchase a breeding bull imported all the way from “Amerika” — an act that drives his fellow villagers green with envy. When the farmer’s prized bull dies in suspicious circumstances, a Public Security Bureau officer is called in from the county town to investigate. This short story provides a witty insight into the fragile social structures at the base of village life in modern-day Tibet.

Translated by Petula Parris-Huang, Amerika will appear in the soon-to-be published Anthology of New Stories from China (2006-2009). Earlier this year Tsering Norbu’s A Sheep Released to Life (放生羊) was published in issue 2 of Pathlight, the new English-language magazine showcasing contemporary Chinese fiction.

Tsering Norbu will be speaking with Alai on the topic of Ancient Myths in Contemporary Fiction on April 17 at the London Book Fair.

Mini-review: Gao Ping’s “Tsangyang Gyatso, The Sixth Dalai Lama “

Leave me to myself. Go away.

I have had enough of your demands on me. I didn’t ask for it.

What right do you have to make me your Dalai Lama? What right do you have

to make me a eunuch, while still leaving my body and passions intact?

(From Paul Williams’ The Erotic Verse of the Sixth Dalai Lama)

This particular Dalai Lama (1683-1706) is more renowned for his love life and poetry—and his violent death at a young age—than for his role as a spiritual mentor. I came upon a fictionalized Chinese-language biography of him by Gao Ping (高平) not long ago, Tsangyang Gyatso, The Sixth Dalai Lama (六世达赖喇嘛仓央嘉措), but didn’t read it yet.

But it turns out that this (to me) unassuming book was, at one time at least, rather controversial. According to a report in the China Library Weekly on August 10, 2010 (出版过程可以写一部小说), Gao Ping originally found a publisher for the book in 1983, but “unfortunately there were Tibetan compatriots who held different views [about it] who, by means of several anonymous letters, hampered its publication.” So it wasn’t until 2007 that the novel was finally published by China Tibet Publishing (中国西藏出版社). It would be interesting to know what issues caused publication to be delayed for more than two decades. According to the report, Gao Ping is an accomplished Han poet who first entered Tibet as a PLA soldier in 1951 when he was just 19.

I am happy to report that a Chinese friend has read the book in its entirety, and has kindly written some brief thoughts on it, which I have translated and lightly edited below. [Read more…]

Newsweek via Cankao Xiaoxi: The Tibetans Have Never Had it So Good

In the run-up to Obama’s White House meeting with the Dalai Lama, Isaac Stone Fish (Newsweek’s Beijing correspondent) penned an interesting piece that argues that China’s rule has indeed brought indisputable benefits to the Tibetans. It’s all part of a grand “bargain”:

It’s true that, so far, all the money has failed to buy Tibetan loyalty. Beijing won’t deal with the Dalai Lama, even though Tibetans revere him, nor will it let his monastic followers build any power or voice any nationalist sympathy. Instead, the government is offering Tibetans the same bargain it has offered the rest of the country: in exchange for an astronomical rise in living standards, the government requires citizens to relinquish the right to free worship and free speech. The Chinese government has kept its end of the deal. Even if Tibetan residents never signed the contract, they have benefited from its enforcement—a fact Obama might keep in mind when he meets the Dalai Lama.

Newsweek’s report has now—just one day after Obama met with the Dalai Lama—been translated by Cankao Xiaoxi (参 考消息). Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. As noted in my past pieces, virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often deleted or reshaped.

To show you how censorship works in the People’s Republic,  the original article from Newsweek is fully reproduced below. Words that have been crossed out are those that were deleted from the Chinese version published in Cankao Xiaoxi, while words that have been added are noted [in brackets]. Tellingly, the description of the tit-for-tat bargain—economic prosperity in lieu of free speech and worship—has been radically “repackaged” in Cankao Xiaoxi’s version for China’s masses. [Read more…]

“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…]