(Posted: April 24, 2014) With the recent opening of the “Jangar Culture & Arts Palace” (江格尔文化艺术宫), China’s campaign to project itself as a nation with a rich multi-ethnic past and present continues apace. According to a report republished on the web site of the China Writers Association (建成投用), the building covers over 6,000 square meters and cost almost US$10 million to construct.
Xinjiang’s Hoboksar Mongol Autonomous County (和布克赛尔蒙古自治县) is reputed to be the birthplace of the Jangar Epic (江格尔史诗), a unique form of Mongolian storytelling and dance dating back to the 15th century. It recounts the battle between the forces of good — Jangar, elected Khan at just seven years of age — and evil, represented by the monster Mangus. Leading some 35 generals and 8,000 warriors, Jangar defeats the monster, keeps his homeland free from occupation, and eventually establishes a Mongolian-style utopia.
Along with the Tibetan King Gesar and Manas of the Kyrgyz, Life of Jangar is now officially considered by the authorities in Beijing as one of the three great epics of ancient Chinese literature. According to some in the field, however, recognition of this among the mainstream Chinese population has yet to occur. As cited elsewhere on my blog, one ethnic literature specialist in the PRC notes that these tales “have all become the object of global studies in the genre. But there is not even a basic introduction to these three epics in our histories of Chinese literature.”
But thanks to the fine publication Oral Tradition Journal, a detailed overview of the birth and development of this Mongolian classic is available in English. The Oirat Epic Cycle of Jangar is written by Chao Gejin (朝戈金), a Mongolian with a Ph D in Folklore who serves as Deputy Director of the Institute of Ethnic Literature under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It contains much interesting detail about Jangarichi (the bards who perform the story) the language of the cantos, and five different types of text: retold texts, dictated texts, manuscripts, transcriptions of audio recordings, and lithographed and modern printings.
It is refreshing to see that he notes that many Jangar manuscripts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and some Jangarichi even briefly imprisoned. Such admissions are rare in the Chinese-language reports that I read on the website of The Institute of Ethnic Literature (中国社会科学院民族文学研究所). Chao Gejin also mentions that Jangar manuscripts have been discovered in Russia and Mongolia, but “we do not have further information about the discoveries.” It appears that such cross-border ethnic research projects are rather sensitive, politically speaking; that’s an impression I also got when researching the Evenki — who straddle both sides of the Sino-Russian border — for my translation of Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon.