King Gesar, the subject
of many stories and dramas The Gesar Epic of Tibet is regarded as the world’s second longest book in the world after the India epic The Mahabharata. It is a heroic tale created by the Tibetans from a collection of ancient legends, myths, verses, proverbs and various other folk cultures of Tibet. Originating via folk oral traditions, King Gesar was passed down from generation to generation orally in a combination of song and narration. Thought to have be written down in the 11th century, "Biography of King Gesa'er" is a called "Jiawugesa'ertena" or "Gesa'er'azhong" in Tibetan, and is widely read over Tibetan regions, including Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan, and the Tu and Naxi region. There are at least 70 versions of it, with some having over one million lines. [Source: Tibetravel.org ; Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities]
The Tibetan epic is believed to have been formed between around 200 B.C. or 300 B.C. and A.D. 600. Even after it was written down, folk balladeers continued to pass on the story orally, which enriched the plots and embellished the languages. The story gradually become the story known today and was very popular in the early 12th Century. The epic began to be compiled mainly by the monks of Nyingmapa (Red Sect of Tibetan Buddhism) in about the 11th century mainly in hand-written books.
The unabridged King Gesar has been collected in more than 120 volumes, with more than one million verses (over 20 million words) — 25 times the length of the Western classic, Homer's Iliad. The epic has been translated into Chinese and the languages of other Chinese nationalities as well as English, French, Russian, German, Indian and other foreign languages. It has now become a subject of study and has been discussed as a topic in the international seminar. The King Gesar’s story has been the the subject of stage operas and serial TV dramas.. ~
From early times, the epic was passed on orally by Tibetan minstrels and singing actors known as "Zhongken". Today, a small number of inscribed woodblocks of the epic can be found in Lhasa, Xigaze and Dege County in Sichuan Province; a few handwritten copies are also dispersed among some families. The Potala Palace contains a statue of Gesar, which still attracts pilgrims on a daily basis. Gesar's deeds were recorded in the Kangba region more than anywhere else, and handwritten and printed versions of Gesar from Dege are considered the most authoritative works. People still argue that the village of Ngaxu in Northern Dege County was the birthplace of Gesar. [Source: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China ]
Gesar's image and story are immortalized in carvings, paintings, murals, woodcuts, embroideries, songs, dances and plays. The epic is not only an outstanding literary work, it also has very high academic value. It is useful for studying ancient Tibetan society, and is very important in studying understanding Tibetan culture. Tibet has a research institute specializing in the study of the epic, whose research projects are listed as key State projects. Since 1979, the institute has collected more than 180 different song and narration versions of the epic, 55 woodblock and mimeographed editions and has recorded 70 performances of the epic on more than 3,000 recording tapes. Since liberation, China's related research institutes have been working on this monumental portion of world literature by gathering, sorting, collecting, studying and publishing the material on a large scale.
See Separate Articles TIBETAN CULTURE: HISTORY, STEREOTYPES AND KEEPING IT ALIVE factsanddetails.com; TIBET, SHANGRI-LA MYTH AND WESTERN ACTIVISM factsanddetails.com; TIBETAN LITERATURE factsanddetails.com; WOESER: HER LIFE, POEMS AND ACTIVISM factsanddetails.com OPERA AND THEATER IN TIBET factsanddetails.com; FILMS ABOUT TIBET AND THE HIMALAYAS factsanddetails.com; PEMA TSESDEN AND FILM IN TIBET factsanddetails.com
King Gesar: the Mythical Hero
In Tibetan-inhabited areas Gesar was known as the king of the ancient Tibetan kingdom of the Ling and commander of a brave army. The epic describes that Gesar as an incarnation of a god able to summon wind and rain and as a male lion king known for his impressive strength. The epic not only narrates the heroic achievements of Gesar but also describes ancient wars and the complicated relationship among nationalities and the tortuous uniting process of the Tibetan people. The epic tells the story how the hero, King Gesar, conquers all the devils and brings happiness to the people with his perseverance and magic strength. The epic also expresses the theme of the people's wish for justice and bliss. The background of the story spans from the three periods of ancient Tibet: Clanship in the late Prehistoric Times, the Slavery Period, and Serfdom in the Feudal Society. The epic is really an encyclopedia of the social and historical changes, relationships among classes and nationalities, ethnical cultures and customs of Tibet. [Source:chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China ]
According to teh story, King Gesar of the Ling Kingdom was born in the 11th century B.C. as the son of the supreme god Indira. As a boy, he was very mischievous, but divine by nature and full of supernatural powers. His greatest enemy was his uncle — a cowardly, vain and pretentious man who hoped to rule the country. Although the hero and his mother were banished, Gesar's exile enabled him to nurture his hidden strengths. He emerged victorious in a horse race to become king of the nation. King Gesar then began conquering the "kingdoms of demons" — the Jiang and Hor (northern Mongolian people) kingdoms. The war between the Ling and Hor kingdoms constituted one of the central parts of the story. It began with a beautiful girl, Qomu, who was King Gesar's queen.
The Hor king, also known as the "White Tent King," heard about her beauty and sent for her. When his request was refused, he sent troops to attack the Ling kingdom. After several battles, another girl was sent to the Hor king in the place of Qomu. But once the truth was uncovered, the battles resumed. The Ling capital, along with Queen Qomu, was finally captured by Hor troops. But King Gesar organized all his troops with the help of an important Hor general, captured the Hor capital, killed the White Tent King and rescued his queen.
Geographical and Historical Setting of King Gesar
King Gesar drama The structure of the King Gesar story touches on two important periods in Tibetan social development and includes depictions of almost 100 tribes, kingdoms and regions. The epic is generally divided into three parts: the birth of Gesar; his expeditions against the enemy; and his return to heaven. Of the three parts, the depictions of his battles and exploits are most detailed and contain the most enlightening contents in relation to Tibetan history and culture. The second part includes four chapters — "Defeating Demons in the North," "Battles Between Hor and Ling," "Defending the Salt Sea," and "Battles Between Mon and Ling"
The King Gesar epic emerged at time when clan society was being replaced by one based on religion and feudalism. During the period, battles between clans, tribes and ethnic groups broke out frequently. During the Tibetan (Tubo) Empire period from the seventh to the ninth centuries, Tibetan society experienced enormous changes characterized by the development of a large military force and extensive trade netowrks.
The epic became popularity in Tibetan-inhabited areas, as well as in Mongolia and Tu and Yugu regions. More than 90 percent of King Gesar's storytellers and balladeers singers are Tibetans scattered throughout Tibet, and the Tibetan-inhabited areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. Despite the geographical barriers between the regions where the story is told, these epic singers tell the same stories. This also true in areas inhabited by Mongolian and Tibetan ethnic groups outside China.
Plots of King Gesar
The Tibetan heroic epic, King Gesar is set in the distant past, when the common Tibetan people were suffering from many natural disasters and vicious devils and living rather a miserable life. Demons and spirits ran wild. To deliver the people from their troubles, the merciful Avalokitesvara or Bodhisattva of Compassion, asked the Amitabha, the master of the western Pure Land, to dispatch a son of a heavenly deity, Toiba Gawa, who later came to be known as Gesar, to descend to the world and help the people. Since his birth, King Gesar had begun to exterminate the evils for Tibetans. [Source: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, Tibetravel.org ]
Gesar descended upon the earth and became king of the Tibetan people later. With his great abilities to defeat the demons and aid the poor and common people, Gesar was portrayed as a combination of god, dragon and a fierce spirit known as nyan in primitive Tibetan religion. He was endowed with special characteristics and marvelous powers and abilities, also suffering several trials. However, his invincible powers and protection from the God of Heaven helped him to survive and eventually defeat the demons.
Throughout his human life, Gesar labored to abolish the scourges that plagued the lives of the common people. At the age of five, he and his mother with a tribe 'Ling' moved to the banks of the Yellow River. When he was eight, they were joined by the members of the Ling tribe. At the age of 12, Gesar won a victory in a horseracing match and then became the leader of the tribe. Gesar then married Sengjam Zholmo and led expeditions against his enemies, defeating the northern demons that had invaded the Ling Kingdom.
In successive campaigns, Gesar defeated King Gurdkar of the Hor Kingdom, King Sadam of the Jiang Kingdom, King Shingkhri of Monyul, King Nor of Tangzig, King Chidan of Khachevigyu, King Toigui of the Zugu Kingdom and scores of other small tribes and minor kingdoms known as zongs in ancient Tibet. After he finished his glorious missions, King Gesar took his mother and his beautiful empress back to heaven, bringing the grand epic of his life to a dramatic close.
Literary Features of King Gesar
King Gesar originated from ancient Tibet's ordinary society and had a deep grounding in ancient Tibetan literature, especially folk tales. Before the epic emerged, Tibetan literature boasted a numerous variety of richly woven works, especially folk and fairy tales, legends, traditional stories and poems. King Gesar drew much from previous literary works and carried forward the tradition of excellence via plot development, evolution, materials, and forms of expression, as well as ideology, religion and customs. The epic also borrowed a number of Tibetan proverbs that were cited in the original work or adapted later in the epic. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 17, 2005]
King Gesar has also preserved various traditional odes, such as the "Ode to Wine," "Ode to the Mountains," "Ode to Tea," "Ode to Horses," "Ode to Swords and Knives," "Ode to Dress," and "Ode to Armor." The epic also combines many prose and verse styles. Its poetry links the ancient past with the modern age of Tibet's literary development. It reflects the importance of ideological and rhetorical methods, especially in terms of poetic rules and forms. Poems of this style are common in King Gesar: Not only do they follow a multiple paragraph pattern and a circular style characteristic of the Tubo period, but they also create a new style that uses eight-word stanzas instead of the former six-word stanzas (in the original Tibetan language). The rules and forms were basically fixed by the 11th century and have remained unchanged. This form is widely used in Tibetan folk songs, narrative poems, poems in lyrical stories, and Tibetan dramas, as well as in the works of scholars and poets. They have become the most influential and important rules and forms in Tibetan poetry. By using verse, prose, lyrics and narration, the epic combines real stories, myths, poems, fables, proverbs and mottoes, making it an eclectic collection of Tibetan folk culture.
According to UNESCO: The hundreds of myths, folktales, ballads and proverbs handed down as part of the tradition not only serve as a form of major entertainment in rural communities but also educate listeners in history, religion, custom, morality and science. A continuing inspiration for ''thangka'' painting, Tibetan opera and other art forms, the Gesar epic imbues audiences both young and old with a sense of cultural identity and historical continuity.
King Gesar’s Fights with Demons and Enemies
When he ascended the throne, King Gesar was confronted by an invasion launched by four vicious enemies. And how this story unfolds in "Battle Between Mo and Ling," "Battle Between Hor and Ling," "Battle Between Jiang and Ling," and "Battle Between Moin and Ling" occupies a major part of the epic.
To the north of the State of Ling was the State of Mo, ruled by King Lutsang, who ate children. One day, King Lutsang kidnapped Maisa, Gesar's second concubine. To wipe out the demon and rescue his concubine, Gesar departed for the north. He managed to get in touch with Maisa and the two worked together to abolish King Lutsang. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 17, 2005] Maisa, who wanted to be Gesar' s wife, managed to trick the king into drinking her magic portion. As a result, Gesar stayed in the State of Mo for 12 years. During this period, the State of Ling was invaded by the State of Hor, and Gesar' s wife, Zholmo, was kidnapped by the invaders.
The State of Hor lay to the northeast of the State of Ling and was ruled by three kings, who were brothers. Named after the tents in which they lived, they rulers were called the "Yellow Tent King," "White Tent King," who was the most powerful, and the "Black Tent King." Following the death of his wife, the White Tent King sent a parrot, magpie and crow to find him a beautiful bride. The crow reached the State of Ling and was astonished by Zholmo's beauty. Hearing about Zholmo, the White Tent King launched a war against the State of Ling. With the help of traitors from the Ling state, the powerful king seized the region and kidnapped Zholmo. When Gesar's magic spell was finally broken, he rushed back to the State of Ling to kill the White Tent King and rescue his wife.
To the southeast of the State of Ling was the State of Jiang, ruled by King Sadain — a very greedy sorcerer, who tried to seize the State of Ling Saltern. Gesar sent Sinba, a former general of the State of Hor, to win over Yulha Toju, the son of Sadain, while the king led his troops to guard the saltern. With help from Yulha Toju, Gesar learned everything about Sadain. When the Jiang king was drinking water one day, Gesar changed his form into that of a tiny gold fish so he could enter Sadain's stomach undetected. Gesar then transformed himself into a large wheel that turned endlessly until Sadain surrendered.
Gesar Epic Balladeers and Storytellers Recognized by UNESCO
The Gesar epic tradition was inscribed in 2009 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: The ethnic Tibetan, Mongolian and Tu communities in western and northern China share the story of the ancient hero King Gesar, sent to heaven to vanquish monsters, depose the powerful, and aid the weak while unifying disparate tribes. The singers and storytellers who preserve the Gesar epic tradition perform episodes of the vast oral narrative (known as ‘beads on a string’) in alternating passages of prose and verse with numerous regional differences. [Source: UNESCO]
Tibetan masters carry bronze mirrors and use facial expressions, sound effects and gestures to enhance their singing, while Mongolian performers are accompanied by fiddles and intersperse improvised, melodic singing with musical storytelling and oral narrative. Epic performances, often accompanied by rituals such as offerings and meditation, are embedded in the religious and daily lives of the community. For example, when a child is born, passages about King Gesar’s descent into the world are sung.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2022