Labor of love to keep heroic legend alive

Publish Time: 2019-07-11 Author: From: China Daily

BEIJING - 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 the Tibet autonomous region, Southwest China, traveled the region telling and singing stories of King Gesar. He was 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.

"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."

Over the past four decades, Jampel and his colleagues have traveled across China's vast Tibetan-inhabited areas.

They interviewed 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 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."

Changing fate

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. Therefore, Jampel had many chances to hear folk artists sing episodes of King Gesar for the caravan at night.

The stories mesmerized young Jampel. He was fond of a story about horse racing where anyone, rich or poor, could claim the throne if they won the race.

"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. The singing of the epic was branded 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 soldier in 1950. He followed the army to Tibet after the peaceful liberation of the region in 1951.

In the army, Jampel learned Tibetan and Mandarin, and was sent to Southwest Minzu University in 1954. Jampel started his career as a translator in 1956. He worked on Tibetan versions of Marxist writing and continued such work for more than 24 years.

During this period, China added the protection of King Gesar to its national agenda. In 1958, when 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 at CASS in 1981. It started four decades of dedication to the preservation and research of the epic tale.

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