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Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Song of King Gesar

The Song of King Gesar
And on this bridge of longing, as we sing of him,
Gesar himself, the ever-youthful Lion King descends
Surrounded by flags and pennants snapping in the wind
To forge the weapons that cut the life force of fear and doubt,
To subdue and destroy the demonic hordes

(trans Douglas J. Penick)

Before Canongate sent me this book I knew nothing about the Epic of King Gesar. Had I been born in Tibet and not Scotland the story would’ve been very different. There he’s as well-known as King Arthur is in the UK or Odysseus is to the Greeks. Surprisingly, considering the fact it’s been around since at least the 12th century (although there are arguments suggesting it started to take shape much earlier – see History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar), it took a long time for an English translation to appear despite the fact that “Western researchers had discovered King Gesar in the 18th century and the study of the epic, named Gesarology, blossomed in the 1960s.”[1] Probably the world’s greatest expert on the subject is Jampel Gyatso who has been studying King Gesar since 1981. In August 2013, W020131115410498856121after working on the project with others for nearly thirty years, he finally published a forty-volume abridged version of the epic. The newly-published edition comprises nearly 600,000 lines in Tibetan poetry, equal to 20 million words in Han characters. But that’s nothing:

From more than 150 ballad singers, Chinese researchers have collected more than 120 volumes of the epic, reaching more than 20 million words in 1 million lines. It you add the Greek epics—the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Indian epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata, their total length is much shorter than that of King Gesar.[2]

Over the years, four million copies of King Gesar in Tibetan have been published in various versions of which some two hundred exist. When you consider the fact there are only some five million Tibetans it puts the book’s importance into perspective. In Scotland I wonder, for example, if 80% of the population these days even own a Bible let alone any book of Scottish mythology.

Although people have started writing it down the fact is it existed for a long time only in oral form which it still does to this day and is still very much a work in progress. Basically it’s a chantefable, a chant-fable, recorded partly in prose and partly in poetry, although it existed before the western term was popularised but I’ll come back to that. Ballad singers throughout the east keep the work alive and “China boasts about 100 Gesar ballad singers, mostly from ethnic Tibetan or Mongolian groups in outlying areas with poor access to traffic or modern communications.”[3]

A CNN report on one of the oldest Gesar singers

"There are 20 Tibetan opera troupes propagating the ancient epic in different forms," said Zhang Yong, a leading official of the Culture, Sports, Radio and Television Bureau of the Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Zhang said, in a village called De'erwen in Gande County, Guoluo, all villagers, young or old, can sing the ballad. There are more than 30 villagers who can sing more than two versions of the epic. The village thus was named "De'erwen Gesar Culture Epic Village."

There are more than one hundred folk artists engaged in Gesar epic, and 24 folk Tibetan opera troupes in Guoluo. With the perseveration and creation of the folk artists, the story of Tibetan hero King Gesar has been widely propagated.[4]

A recent article in Shanghai Daily regarding the ballad singer Dawa Zhagba makes interesting reading.

According to Wikipedia the core of the epic in all versions can be summarised very, very briefly as follows:

King Ge-sar has a miraculous birth, a despised and neglected childhood, and then becomes ruler and wins his (first) wife ’Brug-mo through a series of marvellous feats. In subsequent episodes he defends his people against various external aggressors, human and superhuman. Instead of dying a normal death he departs into a hidden realm from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies

The main episodes of the epic are outlined here.

When this book arrived from Canongate I got the wrong end of the stick completely. I assumed it was an English translation because it says on the back:


the superhuman lifewhich it is not. Alexandra David-Néel translated the epic into French in 1931: this was subsequently translated into English as The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling in 1933 and on checking Amazon I found several other English translations; Douglas J. Penick, for example, has recently completed a three-volume version. There’s nothing on the dust jacket of The Song of Gesar to suggest this is actually a part of Canongate’s long-running Myth Series in which ancient myths from various cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors which is, in fact, what it is. As far as I was aware there are eighteen of these so I did wonder why on the book’s spine there was a ‘XV’ but I let that pass; they’re planning a hundred in total. It would’ve probably helped, too, if I had known who Alai was, but I didn’t and just dived into the book without checking anything as I tend to do if I can get away with it assuming that the less I know beforehand the better.

Most of the books in the Myths Series are short—that was part of the deal—but when you’re starting off with a text that fills some 120 volumes concessions have to be made. That Alai managed to compress the epic into a single volume is Chinese Covercommendable in itself although to be fair what we have here is an abridged version of Alai’s book. Alai wrote his original in Chinese and was agreeable to the work being shortened further following the translation process. But at what cost?

I should probably state here and now that I’m not a big fan of mythology. I struggled to get through Ragnarok: The End of the Gods when I read it back in 2011 despite the fact it was well-written and was far more interested in the little biographical snippets that I found myself in the lives of the gods in question. At least there, thanks to Marvel Comics, I was familiar with some of the Norse gods but with The Song of Gesar it was all new. Well, it was unfamiliar. The stories weren’t new—there are only so many stories—and the characters in these stories reminded me constantly of other characters from Norse, Roman, Greek or even British mythology. “All epics share certain characteristics. There are nine generally accepted characteristics of the epic form, which include such things as humanity's interactions with deities, long lists and long speeches.”[5] Let’s take one example to illustrate: the evil uncle trope.

Evil uncles crop up all the time in mythology: Horus fought his evil uncle Set to avenge the death of his father; Osiris; Krishna had an evil uncle, Kamsa, who was destined to die at Krishna's hands; Jason had to locate the Golden Fleece and win back the throne from his evil uncle Pelias; Romulus and Remus were snatched from their mother by an evil uncle who threw them into the River Tiber to drown; Perceval had to retake the Grail Castle from his evil uncle, the King of Castle Mortal—hell, the basic plot of The Lion King is that there is a young prince who has an evil uncle that wants to take power—and there are plenty of examples from history like Richard III so it’s not surprising that the young man who will eventually become Gesar, Joru, would find himself at odds with his uncle Khronthung.

The story begins by looking back to help the reader appreciate why the gods agreed to send Gesar. When the deities ascended to live in Heaven the demons stayed in the world to make trouble. From time to time the gods would send one of their own down to try to help but for some unexplained reason they often made matters worse. So the deities stopped meddling and the demons seemed also to disappear only they didn’t really. Some believed that the demons instead “transformed themselves, perhaps into a beautiful girl or into a tree trunk that gave off the sweet smell of rot.” Finally, however, “they found the perfect hiding-place: the human heart.”

Concerned, the deities eventually sent a monk, Master Lotus, to assess the situation and report back but when he tries he’s told by the Bodhisattva, “There is no need for you to describe what you heard and saw in Gling. We see everything clearly from here, not only that which has already happened but that which is to come.” Oddly enough the monk doesn’t ask, “Why the hell did you bother sending me to them?” but he does ask why they don’t do more to alleviate the suffering of the humans. He receives no good answer. Rather he’s told that he has now accumulated sufficient karmic merits and has been “freed from samsara, the wheel of reincarnation. You will become a deity and take your place in the heavenly court,” and I imagine once that took place he would need ask no more questions; everything would become clear to him. Pity the readers are left out in the cold.

What the deities eventually do is to send one of their own. A young deity called Thosba Gawa volunteers. There is a catch however:

‘[Y]ou must consider it carefully. If you go, you will no longer be a deity. You will be a mortal who suffers misery and hardship from the moment you are born. Are you afraid?’

‘No, I am not.’

‘You may lose your divine qualities and sink into evil ways, as mortals do. Then you will never be able to return to the celestial world.’

The young man’s mother and older sister wept.

‘And you will lose all memories of your life here.’

Seems odd that when the gods themselves have failed they would assign a human as their champion but I’m not a god so what do I know? The deities make a search and decide upon Metog Lhartse the daughter of the Dragon King to bear the child and Senglon, a member of the Mu clan, to be the father. Rather than an archangel it’s Master Lotus who passes on the news to the girl:

‘Virtuous and blessed woman,’ Master Lotus said, ‘Heaven would like to borrow your noble body that you may give birth to a hero who will save Glingkar. No matter what hardship you may encounter in the future, you must hold fast and believe your son will be the king of Glingkar. He may be a stern deity to the demons, but to the black-haired Tibetans, he will be their brave and wise king.’

That Gesar is indeed a messiah figure is well-documented by David-Néel who, in her commentary on the text, refers several times to conversations with Tibetans and other Asians, who predicted to her the “second coming” of the great King Gesar who would drive out the European colonists once and for all. Come to think of it, it’s not that different from Arthurian legend which promises that Arthur will arise when England needs him the most.

From the start it’s very clear, however, that the child is far from an ordinary mortal:

[S]he felt no pain when her son was born, and her heart filled with joy. More wondrous: the baby was the height and weight of a three-year-old. Although it was winter, thunder rolled in the sky, sending down a shower of blossoms. Clouds of many colours surrounded the birthing tent.


Only Khrothung, head of the Tagrong tribe, kept apart from the festivities.

Apparently Khrothung is normally a comic character in the epic but I didn’t find him particularly so. Perhaps because the whole thing is so caricatured it was hard to take anyone seriously (or, indeed, comically) which is part of the problem I have with texts like this. Also practical little matters like how a woman could possibly survive giving birth to a child of that size.

Despite the fact they realise their son is bound to do great things after calling him Gesar (and the similarity to Ceasar is noteworthy—see this blog entry) they give him the childhood name Joru because, even his mother has to admit: “He is ugly.”

Within three days Khrothung reappeared, smiling, bringing with him cheese and honey. ‘My newborn nephew is already as big as a three-year-old. He will surely grow even faster when he eats the food I offer.’ His words were sweet as honey, but the food was laced with poison powerful enough to kill a yak. Taking the baby in his arms, Khrothung began to feed his nephew.

Joru looked up at him with clear eyes and smiled, then held up his hands to show wisps of dark smoke rising from between his fingers. The powers given to him by Heaven had expelled the poison from his body. In his confusion, Khrothung licked a fragment of fresh cheese stuck to his fingertip. In an instant, he felt as if lightning bolts were lashing him, that his intestines were being tied in knots, and he knew he had been poisoned.

Khrothung stumbled to the river, where he pressed his tongue to the ice for a long time. When at last he could speak, he uttered incantation to summon his friend Mgonpo Redag, a warlock, half human, half demon, who could snatch a living soul and take control of the body. Soon a great raven appeared, whose wings cast a wide shadow on the ground. It tossed the poison’s antidote to Khrothung, who stumbled to his feet as the raven flew off.

In the time it had taken for his uncle to run to the river, Joru had begun to talk.

Then Joru leaves his physical body; his celestial body flies towards Mgonpo Redag and the boy’s first fight takes place. He defeats the demon with ease, then traps his uncle in a cave but in a moment of self-doubt his powers wain and Khrothung manages to escape. And so the story continues:

The epic does not recount any battle scene until after Gesar has proclaimed himself king by virtue of winning a horse-race. From this point on, most of the epic, and almost every canto, involves battle scenes that are cantered on the main story-line. Demons are killed, evils are exterminated, and wise kings are sworn in to rule the states that are subjugated to the Kingdom of Gling. The treasures of the defeated states are distributed among the commoners or taken back to the Kingdom of Gling. Having fought many wars, and with the universe restored to peace, Gesar has fulfilled his mission to Middle Earth. He has saved his mother, his wife, and others from the land of the dead, and he returns to his heavenly world.[6]


Traditional Thanka of King Gesar

I managed to get about halfway through the book and then gave up. Obviously a book like this has an audience but I’m not sure the general reading public will get very excited over this and even scholars may find themselves disappointed because the epic has been so reduced. Also the songs are presented as prose—this epic is still performed regularly—and I do wonder whether this was the wisest decision. The prosimetric epic medium—a tale in prose with occasional lines of verse—is traditional among the Tibetans:

Usually, the proportion of verse is larger than that of prose. The verses are not a repetition of the prose: they provide their own separate content. The prose sounds very emotive and fluctuates in tone and rhythm. The versification usually follows closely either the widespread glu style or the free style of folk singing; in both styles each verse consists of seven or eight syllables, with occasional exceptions, in a form that is relatively free.[7]

In his review of the Chinese version, Dadui Yao, writes that Alai’s novel “lacks poetry” although he readily admits “[i]t’s not difficult for us to understand why writing King Gesar has tied Alai’s heart in knots for several years.” He adds:

Fiction is instinctual to literature, however, and to limit this instinct signifies nothing less than curtailing the work’s artistry. If he insisted on remaining faithful to this traditional telling, he would inevitably be inhibited by it. But if Alai, a member of this ethnic group, retold the story in less than an ideal manner that fictionalized, distorted or added or cut too much content, then he would be rebuked by readers intimately familiar with the epic.

On the other hand, Alai is like other sgrung (Tibetan for “roaming bard”) who want to recite the story well; where he differs is that he must transmute the epic into a novel. To replace the story, traditionally recited in song, with a novel’s narrative requires transforming oral expression into a written one. Visited by the spirits in his dreams, the sgrung would enter into something akin to a “possessed” state in which his singing, tone of speech, vocabulary, facial expressions, movements and emotions would differ from those of a typical person. In other words, the gap between this performing art and the art of the pure written word is a wide one, so mastering a successful transformation from one to the other is a major challenge.[8]

The more I read about this text the more I realised how much it suffers from lack of annotation. And this was the problem I had with Ragnarok. I appreciated Jeanette Winterson’s Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles a little more but of all the retellings I’ve read recently the ones I probably enjoyed the most were The Dreams of Max and Ronnie and The Meat Tree which were reimaginings of stories from the Mabinogion published by Seren Press. The reason for this is because the authors moved far enough from the original stories for their works to stand on their own. In all of the Canongate versions I’ve read—I’m sure this isn’t all the case—there’s been a definite feeling of a retelling rather than an updating. Shakespeare in modern dress is still as hard to understand as Shakespeare in period costume whereas films like My Own Private Idaho and Scotland, PA make the text accessible to a modern audience even if much is lost in translation; that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In The Meat Tree, for example, Lewis relocates the storyline to outer space. That’s about as unmythological as you can get. The Song of King Gesar is most definitely set in Tibet a good eight hundred years ago.

This is not to suggest that Alai didn’t put a lot of work into this project. In his own words:

The essence of a re-telling is to render a myth concrete. To re-tell the Epic of King Gesar, I mainly did work in three areas: Firstly, I went into the Tibetan hinterlands to conduct research. King Gesar reflects the state of the Tibetan people from the time of primitive tribal alliances to the birth of a state, that is, the period of history that begins with King Gesar and encompasses the unique nature of Tibetan culture. Although I am a Tibetan writer and in the past I mastered some of this information, it wasn’t nearly enough, so I had to leave my desk for the areas where Tibetans reside.

The second task was to study the epic in depth. For more than a century [the story of] King Gesar has been orally transmitted. But to use contemporary techniques to convey it, there are very many research results, and quite mixed ones, so you have to put a lot of effort into studying and putting them in order.

Thirdly, historical data must be verified. The nation grew from a small one to a big one, and expanded, involving a number of wars. After the passage of such a long time, things must be re-checked.[9]

He was first approached by Canongate in 2003 with a view to tackling the project however the author was in the middle of writing Hollow Mountains, a three-volume realistic work on six Tibetan villagers' fate against the fast-changing rural landscape, at the time but in 2009 the Chinese version appeared and was generally well received. The biggest problem he was faced with was what to leave in and what he could afford to lose. His solution to the problem came in the shape of ballad singer Jigme (Jigmed in Canongate’s version):

"A writer should not be content with books and second-hand information, he must visit the field to find solid details," Alai says.

In his novel, Jigme also journeys across the plateau, doggedly searching for such sacred sites and dreaming of King Gesar's growth from a gifted child to a mighty king.

"The ballad singer dreams of parts of King Gesar's life and comes out to reality. That works like a pair of scissors cutting out the most interesting parts from the colossal epic," Alai says.[10]

In her review of the Chinese version Liu Jun says:

King Gesar looks like a fossil: The meaty parts—glamorous descriptions of battles, attire and witty banter—had to be sacrificed. But Alai does a good job introducing the world's longest (and still growing) epic to the reader.[11]

This is an interesting comment since in his earlier interview with Liu Jun Alai said, "I won't build a 'dinosaur skeleton', or cut my own toes to fit smaller shoes," which is exactly what he’s had to do to make the book manageable and as the goal was to introduce westerners to the Tibetan epic he’s done as good a job as he could. For those whose interests are kindled there’s definitely a growing amount of information available. Researching this article is as far as this particular reader wants to go though.

howard_and_sylvia_resizedAlai wrote his book in Chinese as I’ve said although apparently his native language is rGyalrong. The English translation is the work of Howard Goldblatt and his wife Sylvia Li-chun Lin. Howard is Research Professor at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the Centre for Asian Studies; Sylvia teaches modern and contemporary Chinese literature, film and culture also at the University of Notre Dame. Both are experienced translators and this is not their only collaboration. As Goldblatt is the translator of Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, there’s a fair bit about him online—one of the most informative is here although it says nothing about Gesar or Alai—but he’s clearly both experienced and highly regarded. There’s not so much about his wife but this article is helpful.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


AlaiAlai, born in 1959 in Sichuan Province, is a Chinese poet and novelist of Rgyalrong Tibetan descendent. He was also editor of Science Fiction World. Alai's notable novel Red Poppies, published in 1998, which follows a family of Tibetan chieftains, the Maichi, during the decade or so before the liberation of Tibet by the People's Liberation Army in 1951. It was the first major literary novel by a Tibetan about Tibet. Red Poppies was rejected by numerous Chinese publishers for a number of years due to its sensitive political content. It finally made its way to China's prestigious People's Literature Publishing House, where an editor championed its publication. The novel was an immediate bestseller in China and was awarded the nation's highest literary award, the Mao Dun Prize. In America, it was selected as one of the 100 best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times Book Review and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize.



Transcription of a television interview from 2008: part one , part two

Geoffrey Samuel, ‘The Gesar Epic of East Tibet’, Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, pp.358-367

Xu Bin, 'The Application and Cultural Understanding of the Epic Gesar Images in Rites', China Tibetology Magazine

Wang Guoming trans. Li Xianting, ‘The Tuzu Gesar Epic: Performance and Singers’, Oral Tradition, 25/2 (2010), pp.381-390

Kurtis Schaeffer etc eds., ‘The Epic of King Gesar’, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, pp.309-318

Gregory Forgues, ‘Materials for the Study of Gesar Practices’

Zhambei Gyaltsho, Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers’, Oral Tradition, 16/1 (2001), pp.280-293


[1] Liu Jun, ‘Long Live the King’, China Daily 30 March 2009

[2] Ibid

[3] 'Young Ballad Singers Keep World's Longest Epic Alive',, 27 July 2002

[4] Xinhua, 'Gesar folk artists promote world's longest epic', China Tibet Online, 13 April 2009

[5] Robin Kornman, Lama Chonam, The Epic of Gesar of Ling: Gesar's Magical Birth, Early Years, and Coronation as King, p.xvi

[6] Yang Enhong, ‘On the Study of the Narrative Structure of Tibetan Epic: A Record of King Gesar, Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001), pp.297, 298

[7] Ibid, p.299

[8] David Yao, ‘Modern-day Karma of a Re-told Epic’ (translated by Bruce Humes)

[9] Alai quoted in Tian Guo, ‘King Gesar: Tibetan Culture’s Calling Card’, China Publishing Today (translated by Bruce Humes)

[10] Liu Jun, ‘The king and I’, China Daily, 7 September 2009

[11] Liu Jun, ‘A novel of epic proportions’, China Daily, 28 October 2011

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