Keeping an epic alive on the Tibetan Plateau – Timothy Thurston
When he was 13, on the 15th day of the first of the summer months, one early morning as the cattle were spread out foraging on the side of Dzakyab Champa Taktse Mountain, in that holy place the birds and the bees were chirping and buzzing. Resting and listening lazily to a bubbling stream, he fell asleep. In his dream, he saw a white man with conch armor, a white horse with a turquoise mane. A loving smile appeared on his lips, and he said “Boy, I have an empowering jewel for you.” Then he seemed to open his chest with both hands placed light-filled volumes of books in his chest and closed it. He touched him three times with a vajra, and with a sharp voice, he said, “You, boy connected by karma, I’ve placed this highly auspicious jewel in your hands. May it bring benefit to all beings.” Having said this, he disappeared… From then on, he was able to tell the epic of King Gesar of Ling without difficulty.
This is the official story of how Gelek, a young man from Western China’s Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and the Eastern Tibetan region known as Kham, became a babdrung (འབབ་སྒྲུང་), a dream-inspired performer of the Tibetan epic of King Gesar of Ling.
When we think about epics, we often think of the Iliad and the Odyssey, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the Indic Mahabharata and Ramayana: relatively static, long-dead textual traditions linked to a single culture. The Gesar epic, however, is orally performed to this day by Tibetans, Mongolians and other ethnic groups in Western China and crosses the boundaries of the modern nation-state, with the story being told in modern-day Mongolia, in Ladakh in India, Baltistan (in modern-day Pakistan), and Bhutan. Performed for audiences ranging from school children to elderly nomads, to experts and visiting officials, bards switch between fast-paced spoken narrative sections and singing the speech of different characters. I recently spoke with Gelek and performers and researchers of the epic in Northwest China. Their interests and concerns provide insight into the future of intangible traditions across China, the continued (but changing) cultural importance of the Gesar epic in contemporary Tibet, and the epic’s place in local politics.
A few weeks before meeting Gelek, I was standing in a shop near a Tibetan pilgrimage site in Qinghai Province. The shop had caught my eye because a sign on the window advertised MP3s of Gesar. As I stood there, preparing to ask the shopkeeper how recordings of the Gesar epic fit into a sustainable business model, a pair of middle-aged men walked in to buy a set of recordings. Requesting recordings of specific bards and episodes, their inquiries suggested a sophisticated degree of connoisseurship both of the epic and its performance. In the end, they purchase a small speaker into which they could insert an SD card, pregnant with epic recordings, and listen at their leisure.
The epic of King Gesar, promoted in China as the longest epic in the world (though some, including Tibetologist George Solomon Fitzherbert, dispute this claim), tells of the hero’s miraculous birth, childhood in exile, winning of a dramatic horse race in disguise to earn his rightful place as King of Ling, and of ensuing battles against neighboring kingdoms. Popularly believed to have been a historical king who lived in the Eastern Tibetan area presently known as Derge (སྡེ་དགེ, Mandarin Dege 德格) around the 11th century AD, the epic was later textualized and fit onto a Buddhist cosmology in which Gesar is seen as the reincarnation of a deity, sent to earth to pacify the demonic kingdoms surrounding Tibet, and therefore pave the way for Tibet to become an ideal place for the spread of Buddhism. Performed to this day by bards, some of whom, like Gelek, are said to have learned the epic through divine inspiration, the epic is a lodestone for both traditional and contemporary Tibetan culture. The living epic even features new episodes, including a fight with a demon-king in Germany, sometimes thought to be an allusion to Hitler.
Gesar’s story has been transmitted in proverbs, folksong, opera, and short narratives occasioned by visits to particular landmarks or told around the hearth on long winter nights, but the long form epic is undoubtedly the most highly prized in contemporary China. Sinces the 1980s, the Chinese government has supported a network of national, provincial, prefectural and county-level Gesar research offices tasked with identifying, collecting, and publishing the Gesar epic and performances. Then, in 2009, the epic was inscribed in UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Based in a simultaneous sense of vulnerability and vitality, these projects have created an entire class of culture managers tasked with ensuring that the epic continues even as China hurdles toward modernity. It also places particular emphasis on the epic’s bards – especially those who, like Gelek, claim divine inspiration – as the most authentic bearers of the tradition.
The living epic even features new episodes, including a fight with a demon-king in Germany, sometimes thought to be an allusion to Hitler.”
In the years since a deity replaced his insides with scriptures, experts from China’s National Gesar Research Office in Beijing recognized Gelek as as a national-level bearer of the Gesar epic. Official recognition drew Gelek into a larger state apparatus dedicated to “safeguarding” the nation’s intangible cultural heritage. Gelek has been invited to conferences and was given a job in his home county’s culture bureau, where he performs for local audiences and distinguished visitors, and aids in the production of new publications of the epic. These new duties have moved Gelek away from the grassland, where the deity came to him in a dream, to the small but rapidly expanding county seat, which is split between the one-light old town and a gleaming new town where the government building offices are all located.
Itinerant bards traditionally eked out a meager living through performance for a variety of patrons. Now the government is their primary patron. The county government provides Gelek and a number of other inspired bards with a 1500 RMB monthly stipend (approximately $218.50). Gelek’s duties include performing for distinguished visitors and on public occasions, recording episodes of the epic, and working with the culture bureau to transcribe and publish these recordings. The performers themselves don’t seem to have any copyrights or other intellectual control over their own performances, and they don’t receive royalties on their recordings. One of the goals of international heritage programs is to give local communities control over “cultural property,” but this doesn’t seem to apply to Gesar performers.
Being a bard also comes with other religious and social responsibilities that have little to do with his official role as a national-level bard. For example, community members sometimes ask Gelek to perform divinations for family members to help guide their decisions or to determine auspicious days for events. He may also to breath on ailing people while in trance. Such breath is believed to have healing properties. Both of these practices, tied to Buddhist and popular religious ideas about the epic and its bards, go almost completely unemphasized in the atheistic Chinese state’s heritage apparatus.
As the stipend from their barding isn’t enough to make ends meet in an area where prices have skyrocketed in recent years, Gelek and many of his peers also supplement their incomes by collecting and selling yartsa gunbu, “caterpillar fungus,” a valuable medicinal herb native to the Tibetan Plateau sometimes described in English as “Himalayan Viagra.” Such is the life of a bard in modern China. Nevertheless Gelek and his peers ardently believe in the work that they’re doing, and that it is beginning to show results. “Before, except for the many elders who really understood Gesar, the younger generation liked the epic well enough, but if there were a performance they couldn’t really catch it in their minds. Now,” he says, “…regardless of where it is, whether in schools or other places, from the elders at the top to kids at the bottom, there’s not one who doesn’t know how to say a la tha la,” the opening for all sung portions of the Gesar epic. Finishing his thought with a quintessentially Tibetan double negative, Gelek impresses on me that, at least for now, the Gesar epic will live on thanks in no small part to both state support and grassroots actors. ∎