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King Gesar: The World'S Longest Epic

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King Gesar,a great epic created by the Tibetan race in ancient time,has been orally transmitted down the generations and widely known throughout Tibetan-inhabited areas.It tells of the exploits of the magical hero-King Gesar,and his prowess in battle as he strives to defend his people.The epic embodies the highest level of the ancient Tibetan culture,hence commanding high academic and aesthetic value.Internationally,it is known as "Homer epic in the east."

  King Gesar was born into the tribal society in ancient Tibet. Its formation and development experienced a long history. With the fall of the Tubo Kingdom (early 7th-9th centuries), the Tibetan society suffered from turbulence and social changes. During the transition of the Tibetan society from the slave society to the feudal serfdom (10th-12th centuries), King Gesar became increasingly perfected. With the restoration and development of Buddhism in the Tibetan-inhabited areas around the 11th century, some monks made efforts to gather stories related to King Gesar from among folks, and compile them into an epic for spread among the Tibetans. During this period of time, a hand-written copy of King Gesar made its debut. Wood block printed copy didn't appear until the 19th century, when a Lingcang man in Dege, a legendarily offspring of Gesar, managed to print a few copies of King Gesar.

  Tibetan balladeers were the most important creators and propagators of the great popular work, which tells of an ancient story: Long, long ago, the Tibetan areas reeled under natural calamities and wars. Demons, ghosts and other evil spirits went rife, and the Tibetans lived in the abyss of misery. According to the epic, Gesar was the incarnation of a Heavenly King sent down to the mortal world to subdue demons, curb the violent, assist the weak and bring peace to the black-haired Tibetans. In the epic, Gesar is described as a hero who is the combination of the deity, dragon and a fierce religious god. In his fight with demons and ghosts, he escaped a narrow death largely thanks to his own magic power and protection from the deities. In the end, Gesar managed to wipe out all demons and ghosts.

  When Gesar was five, he and his mother moved to live at the source of the Yellow River. When he was eight, the Ling Tribe to which Gesar belonged moved there, too. When he was 12 years old, Gesar beat all the others in a tribal horse race, and became king of the Ling State. He married Sencham Zhumo, the most beautiful woman in his state. Later on, Gesar declared war against and defeated demons from the north who invaded the Ling State, King Baicham of the Hor State, King Samdain of the Cham State, and King Sinchi of the Moin State; vanquished dozens of zong (tribes and small states in ancient Tibetan areas); and unified the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. When all done, Gesar and his mother and wife set out for the Heavenly World. Unlike those epics famous in the world, King Gesar has a unique structure. Its prelude is composed of "The Heavenly World", "The Birth of Hero", and "The Horse Race". It is followed by four chapters-"Battle Between Demons and Ling", "Battle Between Hor and Ling", "Battle Between Moin and Ling", and "Battle Between Cham and Ling". Other sections of the epic include those on the 18 large zongs, 18 medium-sized zongs, and 18 small zongs. The epic ends with the chapter titled "Rescuing Mother in the Hell". Folk artists often summarize the epic with three sentences: "The Heavenly World sends its envoy down to the mortal world; the mortal world is fraught with various kinds of fightings; and achievement is made in the hell."


 That "the Heavenly World sends its envoy down to the mortal world" refers to the story that, when the Heaven Deities meet in the Heavenly World, they decide to send Gesar down to the mortal world to subdue demons, curb the violent, assist the weak, and bring peace to the black-haired Tibetans. That "the mortal world is fraught with various kinds of fightings" refers to the process from the birth to the death of Gesar, which is the major part of the epic. That "achievement is made in the hell" refers to the story that Gesar makes effort to lift his mother and all other sufferers out of the hell and returns to the Heavenly World. While singing praises of the just and bright prospect of the society, the epic tells of the history of the Tibetan race, reflects the aspiration of the Tibetan people, and describes how Tibet goes from tribal conflicts to a unified region. The epic contains a total of over 1,000 characters, including despotic kings and ordinary people, each boasting his/her own characteristics. Gesar, Sencham Zhumo (Gesar's wife), Rongcha Chagen, Huantong, Dainmai and Gyiacha Shige are known-to-all heros in the history of Tibetan literature. All the deities and demons contained in the epic never repeat each other in description.

  King Gesar, the jewel of Tibetan secular literature, features heroic hyperbole and metaphor. Indeed, it is a treasure of Tibetan vocabulary. Using a combination of alternate prose and poetry, it encompasses a rich variety of language with many verses being sung in the favorite Tibetan ballad style, and peppered with proverbs and lively metaphors. Here lies the basic reason why the epic can pass down the long history and is still much loved by the Tibetans even today. However, what should be admitted is that no organized efforts have been made in history to gather and compile the incoherent episodes of the epic. As a result, the stories were created, told and left untold all among the folks.

This makes it almost impossible for the epic to be better preserved, perfected and spread in larger areas. China has since the founding of the People's Republic made much ground in work on King Gesar. Efforts have been made to gather, compile and study the epic. In 1959, organized efforts were made to gather segments of King Gesar from among the ordinary people and balladeers in Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. During the chaotic "cultural revolution" that hit China in 1966-76, the effort was suspended. After the end of the chaos in 1976, fresh efforts were made toward the end. With the advent of 1983, the Chinese Government department concerned three times made the gathering and compiling of King Gesar a national project.

  In 1984, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the State Commission for Ethnic Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the China Association for Literary Workers exercised joint leadership over departments concerned in Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, where the epic enjoys great popularity, to undertake the epic gathering and compiling work. The Chinese Government has since the 1950s organized and dispatched academic inspection and study groups composed of hundreds of specialists to areas concerned. The effort is unprecedented in terms of scale and duration of the work and the number of people involved. And, according to authoritative sources, the Chinese Government will go on with this effort now and in the future. Thus far, some 300 volumes of King Gesar, sung and told by a score of outstanding balladeers, have been recorded (including those which are about the same in contents), and over 5,000 tapes produced on this basis. Work is going on to compile them into a best whole for publication.


Thanks to dozens of years of efforts, we have gathered closed to 300 kinds of hand-written or woodblock printed volumes of King Gesar; and over 300 volumes sung and told by folk artists (when those which are about the same in contents are excluded, they numbered 120-odd volumes). Thus far, 75 volumes in Tibetan have been published, totalling some 3 million copies or one copy per capita for the Tibetan population. This marks unprecedented achievement made in Tibetan history. In the meantime, we have published some 20 volumes of King Gesar which are actually Chinese translation of the Tibetan versions. Judging by the variety of King Gesar, there are 120-odd volumes of King Gesar, with over 1 million lines of poems totalling some 20 million words. None of other epics in the world is in a position to rival it in variety, contents and popularity. It is longer even than those epics very famous in the world when put together, such as Iliad, Odyssey, Ramayana and Mahabharata. On the basis of achievement made thus far, academic activities of various kinds have been held for balladeers to perform King Gesar and for specialists to probe into its academic value of King Gesar. King Gesar is famous even in other parts of the world. Since 1989, four international symposiums have been held.

 Thus far, parts of the epic have been translated into English, Russian, French, German, Japanese, Hindi and Finish language. This facilitates international study of the epic. China boasts a good contingent of King Gesar workers. They include old, middle-aged and young balladeers, translators, and those involved with the work to gather, compile and publish the epic. They are of the Han, Mongolian, Tu, Hui and other ethnic groups. They have published a batch of books and papers on King Gesar, which are all of high academic value. On this basis, the Collection of King Gesar Study (Vol. 1-5) and the Journal on King Gesar Study have been published. Many international scholars agree that King Gesar study is gaining momentum and has become part of Tibetology in China, and the most energetic subject of the county's folk literature and art. The system of King Gesar study with distinguished Chinese characteristics has been initially formed, and is growing in strength. Its value and cultural significance are being understood by an increasing number of people in the world. Inheriting and carrying forward the outstanding cultural tradition will play a great role in building up the new cultural undertakings of the Tibetan race.

  Activities are planned in areas inhabited by the Tibetans to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the Tibetan epic King Gesar. Unfortunately, the epic has not been translated into many other international languages. King Gesar, loved by the Tibetans and attractive to domestic and international academic circles, is therefore being spread only in a comparatively small scale. We wish to see more will know King Gesar through the said activities to be held to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the epic. As is mentioned above, we do have made progress in gathering and publishing King Gesar. For instance, we have recorded some 300 volumes of the epic sung and told by over 20 balladeers.

 On this basis, we have produced more than 5,000 tapes, which, however, represent only a small number of the work we have gathered. We don't have enough financial and man power to do more. And we lack scientific technology to preserve these tapes, which are therefore highly likely to be damaged if not well preserved. Another case in point is that we are not in a position to translate the Tibetan version of King Gesar which we have gathered, compiled and published into foreign languages. This points up to the need of cultivating young and middle-aged scholars involved with the King Gesar study and translating work.