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Epic Traditions
Rescuing the Epic King Gesar

A rich and splendid treasure house of folk literature, the heroic epic of King Gesar, which has a history of more than 1,000 years, is on par with all other world cultural masterpieces. Since the 1980s, the government has devoted enormous efforts to reviving this epic. Now it"s time to see the results of those efforts. Here is our reporter Wu Jia.

The Heroic Epic of King Gesar is prized as one of the few epics that is still performed by traditional storytellers today. Having a history of more than 1,000 years, King Gesar has been collectively created by masses of Tibetan storytellers who passed down the tales orally drawing from ancient myths, legends, stories and ballads. Chao Gejin is an expert on Tibet who works at Beijing"s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"King Gesar is a grand story and also known as the longest epic in the world. It has been mostly passed down orally, with only a few manuscript or block-printed copies produced. Although there is no one definitive compilation, according to historical records, if completed, it would fill some 120 volumes and contain over 20 million words in more than one million verses."

Performers stage a King Gesar-inspired opera on July 26, 2007. [File Photo: Xinhuanet]

Distinctly Tibetan in style, the epic appears to date from the time when Buddhism was introduced to Tibet for the second time some 1,000 years ago. It relates the heroic achievements of Gesar, the superman, warrior, and ruler of the Ling Kingdom. He was born into a very poor family on the Tibetan Plateau, and became the king of his tribe through a horse race. After waging a series of wars to wipe out demons in the world, he took his family back to heaven.

The epic not only narrates the life of Gesar, but also describes the complicated relations among various ancient ethnic groups and reflects their moral concepts, religious beliefs and social customs. Some people regard King Gesar a cultural treasure of Tibetans. But actually, this epic was widespread in central Asia as well. Now, the Mongolian minority also recognizes an epic called Gesar of the same origin. Chao Gejin tells more.

"When Tibetan people perform King Gesar, they like to use their unique costumes and props to symbolize their beliefs. They always wore a big hat with bird feathers when they performed, sometimes ringing a small bell. While among Mongolians, a Mongol stringed instrument and a four-stringed fiddle are needed for accompaniment."

King Gesar was usually performed by storytelling artists on different occasions. As it is not possible to narrate and sing the entire epic at one time, the performers just pick the most relevant episodes for their audience. For example, for a wedding, the storyteller could choose the part about how Gesar married his wife; and for a funeral, how the heroic family returned to heaven.

There are more than 80 ballads reflecting the various moods of the story. In addition, the storytellers also use different intonations, facial expressions and gestures to bring the epic to life. King Gesar was once so popular that his image and stories could be found across the Tibetan Plateau in carvings, paintings, murals, woodcuts and embroideries as well as in the songs and dances of local folk bards.

However, when it came to the 20th century, the epic lost some of its prominence and fewer and fewer storytellers were able to perform the story. Some parts of the epic have been lost to the world. Nyima, who works at the Tibet Cultural Bureau, recalls their effort to call on more people to save the art.

"Before the reform of Tibet in 1959, the folk artists were viewed as inferior and led very poor lives, so not many people were interested in learning the epic. Now, in order to protect this art form, we focus on nominating artists as heirs to the intangible cultural heritage and helping them recruit more students. When the artists feel respected, they are more enthusiastic about reviving their culture."

Tibetologist Jiangbian Jiacuo speaks with a CRI reporter about the rescue of King Gesar on December 17, 2009. [Photo:]

Besides nominating the artists, another major part of reviving King Gesar is collecting all the materials and recording them on paper and tapes. Jiang Bian Jia Cuo, a Tibetologist now in his 70s, explains.

"The Han ethnic group has been much more developed than the Tibetan for a long time. So when some excellent cultural works were created by Han people, they could quickly be recorded in history. For example, the thoughtful words of Confucius were composed into analects and have passed down over thousands of years. But when King Gesar was created, Tibetan even didn"t have their written language. This explains why the art was not so well preserved."

He says in the 1930s, a small number of scholars noticed this art and began researching it. After the founding of the People"s Republic of China, the government attached more importance to the work and devoted enormous human and material resources to rescuing the art.

Since the early 1980s, rescuing King Gesar has been a key project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Jiang Bian attended the program as an expert. Now some of his students have also joined the effort. They have made noticeable progress on the project of preserving this classic story.

"So far we have tape recorded 5,000 hours of Gesar storytelling, and this is just half of the entire epic. This is a world record. Once I went to Finland, and the locals said their epic Kalevala was the world"s longest epic and recording a single version of it needed more than ten tapes. But our King Gesar is 20 times that number."

Besides the tapes, nearly 100 episodes of King Gesar have been published as books, with 20 publications of monographs. In 2006, the epic was cataloged into the first part of the national Intangible Cultural Heritage archive. This year, it also has been collected into the UN"s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Jiang Bian says this signifies international recognition of ethnic Tibetan culture and deepens Chinese people"s own understanding of the heroic story.

In Jiang Bian"s eyes, the most valuable is the nearly 100 storytellers in China who now still narrate and sing the epic in the primitive and simple language. The oldest of these performers is 86 years old, while the youngest ones are in their 20s and 30s. To arouse more people"s interest in learning the epic, the government has just set up a training base for King Gesar artists and plans to introduce this masterpiece into local primary school courses. Chao Gejin adds that designing some new products related to the story of Gesar is also a good way to promote it to the public.

"A couple of days ago, someone suggested I make an online game about Gesar. I found this idea very creative and interesting. On one hand, the story of the epic is about how the hero beats demons one after another, which is very suitable for a computer game. On the other, the vivid descriptions of different characters and their magic powers are also appealing for the players."

As various methods are or will be used in reviving the epic of King Gesar, it is not hard to imagine one day this super hero of Tibet can become a legend enjoyed by all.

Selected  2009-12-23

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