Institute of Ethnic Literature CASS > Home
Epic Traditions
China helps King Gesar storytellers to continue

China Helps King Gesar Storytellers to Continue

                                                            by Xinhua writers Ji Shaoting, Chen Guozhou and Hu Xing

NAGQU, Tibet, May 21 (Xinhua) -- "King Gesar jumped onto his horse, riding across mountains and rivers, taming all the mountain gods and earth gods..." recites Cering Dradul, a 43-year-old "King Gesar" storyteller performing on a colorful stage in the Tibet Autonomous Region's Nagqu Prefecture.

The Epic of King Gesar, an epic poem from Tibet, is a piece of intangible cultural heritage that the regional government has been trying hard to preserve.

The story's 1 million lines are now repeated by the region's 116 King Gesar storytellers every day as part of a government initiative to encourage the performance and preservation of the epic tale.

The Epic of King Gesar is sometimes referred to as an "Eastern Homer," referring to the famed epic poet from Greece. The tale is composed of many smaller stories of kings fighting demons and helping their weaker subjugates. The poem is one of the world"s only living epic poems, as it continues to be written and changed by those who perform it.

"The magic power of King Gesar comes from the artists," says Cering Lungba, director of Nagqu Prefecture's culture, press and publication bureau.

Many of the poem's performers are said to be granted the ability to perform the poem by living Buddhas who appear in their dreams. Many of the storytellers say that they knew none of the poem's words previously, but began to tell the stories contained in the poem after experiencing strange dreams.

Cering Dradul remembers a dream he had when he was 12 years old, when he ran away from home following an argument with his parents. Taking refuge in a cave, he says that he fell asleep and saw a living Buddha in his dream.

"After that dream, I started to tell the stories," he says.

Cering Dradul says that he has met the Buddha frequently in his dreams since then.

"He told me different stories every night and I repeated the stories the next day," says Cering, who has never been to school but can perform the tales of King Gesar for hours at a time.

"I couldn't restrain my will to tell the stories, I spoke nonstop. People were annoyed by me and told me I was mad, so I placed stones and yak dung in front of me and spoke to them like they were my audience," he says.

Cering Dradul's ability to recite the epic without any kind of formal education confused researchers. "It's difficult for people to tell ordinary stories for one or two hours, let alone a rhyming epic," says director Cering Lungba.

Western epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey were finished in ancient times, but the Epic of King Gesar is still very much alive, says Nyima Gyatso, a King Gesar researcher in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in west China"s Qinghai Province.

This has encouraged the Chinese government to find and aid artists who are still capable of performing the piece, he says.

The government began its search for King Gesar storytellers in the 1960s, starting in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan. Local governments in those areas found artists who could recite the poem and recorded their recitations. As of today, 49 books have been written using the recordings.

Cering Dradul was one of the artists found during the search. He was discovered by experts from the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences in 1985 and was brought to the Tibet Autonomous Region's capital of Lhasa that same year.

"I told them many stories and they made many tapes of me," he says.

One year later, he was taken to a concert hall in Nagqu to perform for audiences there. The local government provides him with a stable salary for his performances. He also started receiving an annual subsidy after being given the title of "National Intangible Cultural Heritage Inheritor" in 2006.

"The artists' living conditions have largely improved," says director Cering Lungba. King Gesar storytellers used to have to travel to earn a living, with only a few of them going on to become respected, well-known artists.

"These days, protected artists have stable salaries here. They don't have to worry about making a living anymore, but can instead focus on their art," the director says.

The Nagqu Regional King Gesar Center now employs 10 storytellers, including Cering Dradul. These artists are given professional stage performance training by the centers and attract audiences of hundreds every day.

Finding new and unique voices for the storytelling performances is another important job for the center, says the director.

The Nagqu regional government conducts field research every year to find new artists to help create new written and recorded versions of the tale. A total of 68 artists are registered with the government, with ages ranging from 19 to 94.

"The singing voices vary due to different styles and personal habits. We've collected 234 types of voices so far," says Chongser, head of the Nagqu Concert hall where Cering Dradul performs.

"We're also trying to create some innovation in the way the story is performed," Chongser says.

King Gesar performers of old typically performed alone on simple raised platforms, but the Nagqu Concert hall adds music and lighting to create a more modern performance. Several artists can perform onstage together to take on different roles in the story.

The innovations seem to have been welcome. There are rarely empty seats in the Nagqu Concert Hall. Most of the audiences members are local residents, and only a few are tourists.

"The money the artists make performing is enough to feed most of them," Chongser says.

However, the artists themselves have a complicated opinion regarding the innovations.

"There used to be only me on the stage, but now we have lights and music. I can't simply say that I like or hate it, although I was used to singing alone. The new methods have their own advantages, and the audiences seem to like it more," Cering Dradul says.


Related articles
  • Epics in China: A Working Bibliography
    Bibliography: Aiergunenghala [Aiergunenghala]. By Tuo Badema. Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, 1986. Ailifu yu Sainaimu (Weiwuerzu minjian xushi changshi) [Ailifu and Sainaimu (Uighur Long Folk Narrative ...
  • Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers
    Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers Issue: Volume 16, Number 2 Author(s): Zhambei Gyaltsho Download: Download PDF Citation:
  • 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 19...
  • The Bard Jusup Mamay
    The Bard Jusup Mamay Issue: Volume 16, Number 2 Author(s): Lang Ying Download: Download PDF Citation: ...
  • A Brief Account of Bensen Ülger and Ülgeren
    A Brief Account of Bensen Ülger and Ülgeren Bense Issue: Volume 16, Number 2 Author(s): Zhalgaa Download: Download PDF Citation:
The 36th session (2012)
Committee sessions