Profile: Guarding the legendary epic of King Gesar

Publish Time: 2019-07-04 Author: From: Xinhua

Some call it "The Iliad of the East," but it is believed to be dozens of times longer than Homer's work.

For centuries, folk artists in the snow-covered plateau of Tibet, southwest China, travelled the region telling and singing stories of King Gesar, a legendary 11th century hero who fought evil and helped the weak.

The epic of King Gesar is fading as an oral tradition, but Jampel Gyatso is determined to preserve it in text, as a "treasure of humanity."

"It's the longest epic ever discovered in the world, with 1 million verses and 20 million words!" said the retired doctoral supervisor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). "But the value of a work is not determined by its length. Gesar is an encyclopedic masterpiece that reflects the social and cultural landscape of ancient Tibet."

During the past four decades, Jampel and his colleagues travelled across the country's vast Tibetan-inhabited areas, interviewing folk artists, while collecting, compiling and translating the epic tale. With Jampel as chief editor, a 40-volume, 16-million-word selected version of King Gesar was published in Tibetan in 2013.

Now aged 81, Jampel still frequently travels to the oxygen-deficient Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, continuing his research on the epic. His latest work, a five-volume Mandarin version of "Hero Gesar" was published last year.

"There is still a long way to go," he said. "Hopefully more young people will join us translating the epic to let the Tibetan hero enter more people's hearts."


Born in Batang County, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Jampel grew up listening to the stories of Gesar.

Batang was located on the only route for the trade caravan to enter Tibet in the past; Jampel had abundant chances enjoying folk artists singing episodes of King Gesar for the caravan at night.

The stories mesmerized young Jampel, who was especially fond of a story about horse racing where anyone, no matter poor or rich, could claim the throne if they won at horse racing.

"The epic of Gesar does not advocate the hereditary system but the public mind, reflecting the expectations of the toiling masses," Jampel said.

The folk artists, usually herdsmen and farmers, were struggling at the bottom of society, and the singing of the epic was stigmatized as the "noise of beggars," by the nobility.

"The study of Gesar first began overseas, and the value of the epic was long overlooked in old Tibet," Jampel said.

The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 changed the fate of King Gesar, and the life of Jampel who became a PLA soldier in 1950 and followed the army to Tibet after the peaceful liberation of the region in 1951.

While in the PLA, Jampel learned both Tibetan and Mandarin, and was sent to Southwest Minzu University for further education in 1954.

Jampel started his career as a translator in 1956, working on Tibetan versions of Marxist works, continuing with such work for over 24 years.

During this period, China included the protection of King Gesar into its national agenda. In 1958, preparing to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, the country initiated a project to search for and collect the epic in Tibetan areas.

Jampel became the first Tibetan associate research fellow of CASS in 1981, thus started four decades of dedication to the preservation and research of the epic tale.


In the 1980s, China listed King Gesar as a national key research project, and research institutions were set up in several provinces and regions. Researchers across the country collected Gesar-related material, while looking for folk artists and carrying out academic studies.

Compiling a selected version that presents a complete picture of the epic was a major goal of China's Gesar researchers. But it was not easy.

It was urgent to record the singing of the Gesar artists who were mostly in old age. Jampel and his team had to race against time, travelling around the Tibetan areas, interviewing folk artists, recording their story-telling, and turning the oral art into a script.

Jampel visited the renowned Tibetan Gesar singer Drakpa several times.

Born into a serf family, Drakpa lost his father, two brothers, three sons and wife one after another due to poverty, diseases and famine. Life was tough. As the value of the epic was rediscovered, artists like Drakpa were began to be treated as treasures by the country.

Drakpa died in 1986 while he was singing and recording Gesar for researchers from Tibet University. The elderly singer left more than 1,000 hours of tape recordings.

Based on the recordings of Drakpa and other artists, Jampel and his team published the selected version of King Gesar in 2013. It had been 30 years in the making. The book series is the most comprehensive version of Gesar ever laid to print.

"Drakpa's passion for Gesar has always been an inspiration and encouragement for me," Jampel said.


Besides preserving the culture of Gesar, Jampel has been travelling around the world, giving speeches and attending international conferences to spread the stories of Gesar.

In 2009, the epic was inscribed into the UNESCO world intangible cultural heritage list. "It's good to see that the value of our cultural masterpiece and our endeavor to protect it are winning worldwide acknowledgement," he said. "But there is still much to do."

"Currently only a small part of the epic has been translated into English," he said. "Hopefully more foreign language versions will be produced in the future."

Making a blockbuster Hollywood-style Gesar film is one of Jampel's biggest dreams. "The story of Gesar can be turned into a great epic movie, just like the American movie 'Troy,' which is based on 'The Iliad'," he said.

Working with other writers, he has already finished a script.

There are some challenges to face. "One problem is that Gesar is too invincible, so there is not enough conflict in the storyline to amuse the viewers," he said. "At the same time, it is also hard to find an ideal actor to play Gesar. He has to be tall, strong and have certain understandings of Tibetan history and culture. No matter how hard it is, we will do our best to help the epic hit the big screen."

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