A while back I stumbled upon a short Chinese news item about a newly discovered handwritten manuscript of the Kyrgyz Epic of Manas (玛纳斯史诗). This centuries-old trilogy in verse recounts the exploits of the legendary hero Manas, and his son and grandson in their struggle to resist external enemies and unite the Kyrgyz people. Along with heroic tales such as Dede Korkut and the Epic of Köroğlu, Manas is considered one of the great Turkic epic poems.
According to the report (手抄本被发现), a retired cadre named 吾米尔·毛力多 in Xinjiang’s Wuqia County recently donated a 570,000-line, Kyrgyz-language Manas libretto to the local branch of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.
Based on the notes of a famous Manas storyteller or manaschi named 艾什玛特·玛木别朱素普, the text was painstakingly hand-copied by the cadre in the 1950s. At some point during the Cultural Revolution he learned the original had been seized and burnt, so he wrapped his own copy in several layers of cowhide and buried it in his courtyard for safekeeping.
“Now,” the news report quotes him, “I figure it is time to let this hand-copied manuscript see the light of day.”
Intrigued by the gap in time between the manuscript’s burial and its “re-discovery”— after all, the Cultural Revolution ended almost 40 years ago — I wondered why the text of an ancient Turkic epic like Manas is so politically sensitive.
Looking back now in 4Q 2015, the retired cadre’s words appear to have been prescient. In the year since he made his donation, it has become crystal clear that the PRC’s cultural mandarins intend to lay claim to many ancient classics — including those written in scripts other than China’s hanzi or transmitted orally — as core components of the literature of “multiethnic China” (中华).
For example, in January this year a new Chinese rendition of the 11th-Century Turkic classic Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧) was launched to great fanfare, with an excerpt recited at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tian’anmen Square. The influential Bai Gengsheng (白庚胜), current Secretary of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, argues that this work, like other ancient and modern works by China’s 55 official minority ethnicities, is part and parcel of China’s literary pantheon (民族文学). This, despite the fact that it was authored in Karakhanid (Middle Turkic) by Yusuf Khass Hajib (يۈسۈپ خاس ھاجىپ), an 11th-century Turkic poet. He lived in the city of Balasaghun that is located in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. At the time, it was the capital of the Karakhanid Empire, a Persian-influenced state that was not part of the Chinese Empire.
More recently, Bai wrote an essay (丝路文香) in which he firmly positions the Epic of Manas as an example of “Silk Road literature,” and China’s ethnic minorities as “creators and disseminators” of that cultural product. In so doing, he is deftly linking the Kyrgyz epic with China’s ambitious new “One Belt, One Road” campaign (一带一路), a grand development strategy and framework that seeks to foster connectivity and cooperation between China and the countries along the ancient Silk Road that extended through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Meanwhile, China unveiled its premier Encyclopedia of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage (中国非物质文化遗产, 史诗卷) on June 12, reports China Daily (Released). This is the first of three volumes, and is dedicated to three oral epics of the Tibetans, Mongols and Kyrgyz, respectively: King Gesar, Jangar and Manas. Perhaps more than any other prior publication, this set of books marks the official anointment of these tales as quintessentially Chinese. Referred to over the last few years as “the three great epics of China’s ethnic minorities” (中国少数民族的三大史诗), this phrase is now sometimes shortened to “China’s three great epics” (中国三大史诗).
Manas: A Toxic Tale?
To familiarize myself with the Kyrgyz oral classic, I purchased (not easy!) and read the Chinese-language biography, 居素普·玛玛依评传 (1), of the last great Xinjiang-based manaschi, Jusup Mamay (1918-2014), by CASS scholar Adili Zhumaturdu (阿地力·朱玛吐尔地) and his wife Tohan Shayik (托汗·依莎克).
In this comprehensive 312-page biography — implicitly authorized by Mamay, who penned a note about it in Kyrgyz
that is reproduced in the front of the book — there are precious few details about his life during 1959-1977. Those familiar with Chinese history will recognize that these were years of great famine and political upheaval, thanks to the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
The biography contains a detailed timeline that goes on for 7.5 pages, with some entries for one year exceeding one page. Certain enigmatic entries, however, are very brief. Here is my translation (2) of the entry for 1959:
1959: Jusup Mamay was designated as a rightist, [ordered to engage in] supervised labor. (3)
The term used in Chinese for supervised labor is jiāndū láodòng (监督劳动). It is not clear if Mamay underwent láojiào (劳教) i.e.,“re-education through labor,” or the more severe láogǎi (劳改) in a closed camp, but both involve forced labor.
The last entry between 1966 and 1978 reads (in my translation):
Between July 1966 and December 1978, because of his performance of the Epic of Manas, Jusup Mamay underwent struggle sessions and was ordered to engage in supervised labor. He sustained major blows both psychologically and physically. Years of heavy manual labor led him to suffer from pneumonia, arthritis and other illnesses. For five years, due to severe arthritis and back pain, he was unable to walk. He was subjected to the most intense misery of poverty combined with ill health. (4)
Chapter 3 recounts how, despite this mistreatment, Jusup Mamay bravely managed to impart his full version of Manas for posterity. It makes for a moving read, and it illustrates how hard he and his colleagues — other manaschi and several groups of devoted folklorists — worked to capture hundreds of thousands of ancient Kyrgyz verses amidst the madness that was the Cultural Revolution and its prelude.
According to Chapter 3, here are the important milestones in the textualization of Jusup Mamay’s version of Manas:
Survey of minority languages and scripts undertaken nationwide. It also turns up folk stories and isolated parts of the Epic of Manas.
Manas Investigation Team established in Xinjiang (玛纳斯调查小组). Jusup Mamay and 20-plus other manaschi brought to Artux (阿图什), the seat of Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, where their versions of various parts of Manas can be recorded and translated. Eventually, it becomes clear that only Jusup Mamay can recite all 8 parts of the epic, and within 6 months he performs the first 5 — an amazing 102,000 lines of verse.
Translation into Chinese formally begins, with renowned Manas scholar Lang Ying (郎樱) one of the workgroup members.
Jusup Mamay brought back to Artux where, over a period of 6 months, he recites Parts I-V again with additions and corrections, and goes on to record part 6 as well. At this point, the Kyrgyz manuscript now counts 196,500 lines.
Parts I-VI fully translated into Chinese.
With the exception of Part II, all Kyrgyz and Chinese texts are lost. No further work is done on Manas during the Cultural Revolution.
For third time, Jusup Mamay begins reciting his Manas in December 1978, with specialists recording and taking notes as before.
Jusup Mamay elected Deputy Head of the Uyghur Autonomous Region’s branch of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.
Jusup Mamay continues reciting the epic, and to save time, personally transcribes Parts III, IV, V and VI. He completes all eight parts within 1983 — 232,500 lines.
Parts I-VIII gradually published in Kyrgyz, totaling 18 volumes.
As I read the biography of the great manaschi, two questions occurred to me:
- Why was Jusup Mamay branded as a “rightist”?
- What actually happened to the Kyrgyz texts that were so painstakingly documented in 1961 and 1964, and fully translated into Chinese by 1966?
It should be noted that neither of these questions was addressed by the authors of the biography or by Manas
scholar Lang Ying in her insightful profile, The Bard Jusup Mamay (5). It’s obvious that this is due to deep-rooted political taboos that are operative even today.
I assume that the Chinese authorities were concerned about Central Asian epics for pretty much the same reason as the Soviets (The Kyrgyz Epic Manas):
. . . the heroic epics of the non-Russian peoples were a potential threat to the Soviet/Communist system, because they glorified their past and carried powerful messages that could stir up or awaken people’s pride in their national identity, history and culture. (6)
In the Soviet Union suppression of the epic was not limited to simple censorship (Post-Colonial Resurgence):
The 1930s was a period of great scientific interest in the Manas epos, however many attempts to record, study and preserve the epos were suppressed by the Soviets. At first, those involved in the research and publication of Manas were persecuted iv . Later, attempts were made to prevent performances of the epos v. The recording of Karalaev’s version of the Manas had taken place as a prelude to a 1000 year jubilee of the epos which was planned initially for 1937, then rescheduled twice for 1940 and 1947 (Bayjiev, 1999a). In the event, this jubilee did not take place until 1995. Publications which had been produced for the jubilee were burnt and the authors arrested. Many of those responsible for research into the Manas epos were imprisoned, disappeared, or were shot, including the scientists who had made the famous recordings from Karalaev and Orazbakov. The reasons for the suppression of the Manos epos were perceived pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic undercurrents which were damaging to the common, supranational culture that the Soviets were promoting (Paksoy, 1989). It was asserted by the Kyrgyz Communist Party that ‘bourgeois nationalists’ had encouraged the manaschi to introduce anti-Soviet sentiments. (7)
And what about the disappearance of the Kyrgyz epic as recited by Jusup Mamay, and their Chinese translations? In her lengthy English-language essay on the manaschi, Lang Ying simply states (8):
During the Cultural Revolution (1969-71) the five sections, including the notes and Chinese translations, were lost; only the second section, Semaitaiy, was preserved.
On the fate of these texts, biographers Adili Zhumaturdu and Tohan Shayik are similarly tightlipped in their otherwise richly detailed, 312-page work.
It’s simply inconceivable that all this precious material could have been misplaced, especially given that dozens of scholars — many high-ranking party members in the cultural sphere — worked on them for several years. We know from the 2014 newspaper report mentioned in my opening that at least one manuscript was burnt, and my guess is that Jusup Mamay’s librettos were also destroyed by zealous Red Guard types.
I have seen no research on this subject whatsoever, so this is merely an assumption on my part. But the fact that the whereabouts of all those notes and text is glossed over by these three authors, all of whom knew Jusup Mamay and are Manas scholars eager to popularize the epic and pay tribute to the manaschi, indicates that this remains a very touchy topic. Touchy, I suspect, because the story of the unexplained and unforgiveable disappearance of these manuscripts is at odds with China’s new 21st century narrative — that this great oral epic has long been recognized by the Chinese government as a national treasure, and cherished as such.
Positioning Manas as “Made in China”
Over the last decade or so, China’s culture apparatchiks have drawn up and begun to implement a coherent strategy for laying claim to the traditions and cultures of the minority ethnicities that now account for about ten percent of the PRC’s population. In particular, the ancient and modern literature – written and oral – of these peoples, is increasingly considered as a natural, inalienable component of multi-ethnic China’s culture.
First published in 2002, the content and tone of The Biography of Jusup Mamay (居素普·玛玛依评传) is unfailingly
consistent with this policy. On the one hand, the 312-page tome recounts how Jusup Mamay’s brother traveled widely and systematically collected librettos of Manas from famous manaschi in the first part of the 20th century, many of whom lived outside China. These librettos and notes were lost in the 1930s, but not before Jusup Mamay had memorized them — which naturally links his vision of Manas with the story as it was recounted by Kyrgyz beyond the border.
But the great bulk of the book – which often reads like a hagiography – focuses on the life of China-born-and-raised Jusup Mamay, the plot of the ancient tale, its value as an “encyclopedia” of Kyrgyz culture, and his version of Manas.
Thanks to the way the narrative is presented, the epic takes on a strong Chinese aura and at times feels only nominally “Kyrgyz.” This is achieved in various ways:
- Dozens of times throughout the text, the epic is referred to as “China’s Manas” (我国玛纳斯);
- Throughout the book, China’s version – thanks to its manaschi Jusup Mamay – is repeatedly described as the longest extant version of Manas, despite the fact that Kyrgyzstan claims to possess one by Sayakbai Karalaev (1894-1971) that consists of over 500,000 lines (more than double the length of Jusup Mamay’s);
- The biography does not contain any pictures or graphics of the Manas text in Kyrgyz;
- Unlike Lang Ying’s article and Köçümkulkızı’s essay on the epic that both use romanized forms of Kyrgyz to illustrate aspects such as rhyme, the Chinese biography never excerpts or quotes Manas except in Chinese. All discussions of vocabulary and style of the original Kyrgyz lyrics take place in Chinese;
- Various appendices that run 25 pages and list 280 books, including the bibliography that cites many published in Kyrgyz, are completely in Chinese;
- The only Kyrgyz script, Cyrillic or Arabic, to appear in the book is a short one-page note reportedly written by the revered manaschi himself;
- Unlike other well-known works on traditional Turkic storytelling, such as Ilhan Başgöz’s Hikâye: Turkish Folk Romance as Performance Art (9), Jusup Mamay’s biographers do not describe performances of Manas before a live Kyrgyz audience, and there are just two small photos of him gesticulating to a handful of people. Thus the theme of interaction between the storyteller and his listeners — so vital to keeping the tradition alive — is almost absent. This also tends to reinforce the impression that the epic consists essentially of words in verse form, and the only words one sees are Chinese.
In 2009, the Chinese authorities managed to get Manas inscribed on Unesco’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” on behalf of its Kyrgyz minority. According to its nomination form in English, “Manas has been passed down through thousands of years, and is well recognized as one of ‘The Three Major Epics of China’.”
The government of Kyrgyzstan was furious, and in 2013 belatedly succeeded in registering its “Kyrgzy epic trilogy of Manas, Semetey and Seytek” with Unesco (see UN Recognition).
Tellingly, in their formal nomination documents although both governments promised to spend large amounts of money to encourage and support the Manas epic tradition — China boasted a budget of 55 million yuan (US$8.6m at today’s rate) during 2009-2013 — neither proposed working together on cross-border performances/competitions or research.
Despite such strenuous efforts to claim Manas as “Chinese” or “China’s,” there are those in the country’s academic community who feel that the mainstream definition of “Chinese literature” is still overly narrow, if not downright Han chauvinist. In an essay by Li Xiaofeng entitled Presence of Absence: Situation of China’s Ethnic Minority Language Literature (不在场的在场：中国少数民族文学的处境) published in mid-2013, Li cites the words of famous author He Qifang (何其芳), and adds that precious little has changed since:
Right up to today , all Chinese literary history is actually the history of literature written in hànyǔ — the history of literature by the Han plus literature written in hànyǔ by some ethnic minority writers.
Until the Chinese literature textbooks pored over by millions of students nationwide for college entrance exams contain extracts of “The Three Major Epics of China,” and regularly refer to works originally in indigenous languages other than Mandarin, it’s hard to imagine that most citizens of the PRC will begin to perceive of those great oral epics as “ours” any time soon.
- 居素普·玛玛依评传: Lit., The Biography of Jusup Mamay. Not translated as far as I know. Published in 2002 by 内蒙古大学出版社. By Adili Zhumaturdu (阿地力·朱玛吐尔地) and Tohan Shayik (托汗·依莎克).
- All translations from the Chinese into English in this essay are mine.
- Page 273, 居素普·玛玛依评传 (The Biography of Jusup Mamay).
- Page 274, 居素普·玛玛依评传 (The Biography of Jusup Mamay).
- Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 222-239.
- The Kyrgyz Epic Manas: Selections translated, introduced and annotated by Ph.D. candidate Elmira Köçümkulkızı, U of Washington (Seattle).
- Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Manas’ Epos Millennium Celebrations: Post-Colonial Resurgence of Turkic Culture and the Strategic Marketing of Cultural Tourism, by Karen Thompson, Peter Schofield, Nicola Foster and Gulnara Bakieva.
- See 5 above.
- Hikâye: Turkish Folk Romance as Performance Art by Ilhan Başgöz. Published by Indian University Press in 2008.