A large-scale, colourful rendition of the Kyrgyz epic Manas (玛纳斯史诗) was staged March 22-23 in Beijing’s ultra-modern Poly Theater. This performance came just two days after the newly anointed President Xi Jinping, speaking at the People’s Congress, cited two of the three great oral epics of non-Han peoples, Manas and the Tibetan-language King Gesar. While he
mangled the title of the latter (Xi Jinpingian Sager), their mere mention shows their importance in the Party’s current multiethnic-is-good narrative.
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 — primarily the Oirat Mongols and the Khitan —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.
Experts don’t agree on the epic’s history, but it has undoubtedly been around in oral form for at least several centuries. Composed in Kyrgyz, a language spoken by the Kyrgyz people in northwest Xinjiang and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, it was not available in full in Kyrgyz script until the mid-90s, and only then translated into Chinese. For details on the tribulations of the master manaschi, Jusup Mamay (居素普·玛玛依), who recited his 232,500-line version for prosperity (and was sentenced to a long stint of “reform through labor” during the Cultural Revolution for his efforts), see A Rehabilitated Rightist and his Turkic Epic.
For some time now, scholars at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the state media have been busy “re-packaging” these three epics in a way that emphasizes their Chineseness, while playing down their non-Han origins. The trio, which includes the Mongolian epic Jangar, are now frequently referred to as “China’s three great oral epics” (我国三大史诗), despite the fact that all three were composed in languages other than Chinese by peoples (Kyrgyz, Mongols and Tibetans) in territories that were not then firmly within the Chinese empire.
Media coverage of the Poly Theater production of Manas arguably takes this repurposing one step further. Entitled Manas Epic Reenacted on the Opera Stage (史诗《玛纳斯》再现歌剧舞台), in the first two-thirds of the widely shared article, there are no mentions whatsoever of the word “Kyrgyz,” or references to the Kyrgyz people or language, or their homelands in Xinjiang or Kyrgyzstan. The opera, it reports, “recreates the magnificent, relentless struggle of the Chinese people [中国人民] for freedom and progress . . .”
Granted, “Kyrgyz” (柯尔克孜) does appear three times in the remaining third of the article, but it appears at the bottom in what is essentially a sidebar that describes the storyline of the opera; far from the eye-catching photos of the opera characters in exotic garb and the opening text that follows those colorful vignettes. Nowhere in the article is it noted that the epic was composed in a Turkic language (Kyrgyz) or that it is still considered by Kyrgyz speakers — on both sides of the border — to be the very incarnation of their identity as a nation.