The longest epic over the world:
The epic "Gesar" that has been sung for thousands of years spread widely throughout a variety of nationalities in the Chinese Tibetan Plateau including Tibetans, Mongolians, Tu nationality, Yugur nationality, Naxi nationality and Pumi nationality. The Gesar tells the heroic exploits of King Gesar who descended from the heaven onto the earth to eliminate demons, restrained the powerful and helped the weak, reunified all ministries and finally returned to the heaven, which is handed down from one generation to another by word of mouth. In the long process of development, the preservation of this epic is mainly relied on illiterate folk artists’ dictating and heart memory while it is spread out in a variety of forms such as speaking, singing and dancing etc. They are considered as the creators and disseminators of this epic and thus formed the unique Gesar rap art. These folk artists are called “Zhongba” or “Zhongken” in the Tibetan language.
The extant earliest epic "Gesar" was a manuscript written in the 14th century while the Beijing woodcut in the year of 1716 was the earliest printed book. As for the oral-spread part, the Gesar epic can be divided into three parts: outset, expedition articles and the closing chapter. In its opening chapter, it tells about the heaven, Gesar’s birth, horse racing and enthronement. Then in the expeditionary chapter, it tells how Gesar yielded four demons and the eighteen staples. At this part, different rap artists’ story differs. At last is the closing chapter that is mainly about the hell and stability of three worlds. For the opening and closing chapter, the arrangement of the arts is roughly the same while the middle part differs from varieties of folk artists.
The expeditionary chapter is an open structure that enables folk artists to tell diverse stories about wars that they know at this part. Some folk artists are able to rap out 18 staples and 4 stories of eliminating demons, or even more stories about wars. Some can only sing the 4 stories of eliminating demons while others just sing the 18 staples. The opening structure has certain regulations but it is convenient for the folk artists to perform at the same time. The folk artists can abundantly develop the middle expeditionary part in accordance with their own knowledge and abilities. This is also the reason why the “Gesar” is still continuously circulated, developed and like a snowball rolling becoming increasingly larger until today.
Its open structure enables “Gesar” become the longest epic all over the world. So far, there collected 289 a variety of manuscripts and wooden editions in all from the epic spreading regions like Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan as well. To conservatively estimate, each book contains 5000 lines and 20 thousand words, which means it involves 40 thousand lines and over 16 million of words in all. However, this is just the current version of the collection.
In fact, epics preserved in the memory of Tibetan folk artists are far more than the number mentioned above. There is an aged folk artist who is able to sing 34 staples excluded the non-staples and mid-staples and another artist can sing 63 units that has been recorded 45 of them, up to more than 2000 hours of tape. In addition, a talent artist in Qinghai can even sing 148 units.
Only computed in accordance with the written record of the 400 thousand lines of epic, it is also far more than the several worldly famous epics. For example, Homeric epic the lliad has a total number of 15693 lines while the Indian longest epic “Mahabharata” is consisted of only 100 thousand of Song (a section in the book of songs consisting of sacrificial songs that is equivalent to 2 lines), equivalent to over 200 thousand lines. The wonderful content displayed by epic “Gesar” and vivid performance of Tibetan artists as well as its open structure and rap form of casual rhyme are major reasons why the “Gesar” turned to a vast full-length work of art.
By talent or learned?
According to a traditional view, there existed several types of rap artists: one is called “dream artist” or “talented artist” who learned to sing “Gesar” through having dreams. The second is called “insight artist” who suddenly saw the light and learned rap by chance. The third kind learned by listening to others’ rap without god’s enlightenment. The fourth type refers to artists who can read and can rap by watching the book. The fifth type is regarded as “treasure artist” who hide a lot of stories about Gesar in their heart and can write them out assembled miners digging treasures from mountains. The sixth sort of artist refers to people who will put out a mirror and pray. Then, they will rap in face of the mirror for it is said that they can see King Gesar conquering around and can’t tell any stories without the mirror. The seventh is who dig out hidden Gesar classics and learned the stories of Gesar. These classics are often hid in mountains, deep caves or other very secret places.
An illiterate farmer or herdsman grown up in remote mountain villages or pastoral areas is able to tell a dozen or even dozens of epic stories, recite hundreds of thousands or even millions of lines. If record all the lyrics they sang and write them up, there must be millions of or even tens of millions of words, which can be written up to dozens of very thick book. How they learned to sing and how they remembered so many lyrics? Such amazing artistic talent not only surprised people but also puzzled them as well. Some scholars used to address those outstanding folk artists who are able to recite dozens sections and tens of thousands of words as “wizard”. Where are these “wizards” and how to unlock the mystery of their memory have become an unsolved mystery in the field of Epic Studies.
The Museum of National Memory:
The Tibetan folk rap artists are just like a museum of national memory, taking people back to childhood of human beings. As the first mature fruit in the field of poetry during the childhood of the human beings, this kind of heroic epic has indicated that the social form at that time had gradually entered the era of inspiring heroes from the time when the whole society completely worshipped deities. In terms of the general developing patterns of heroic epic, the epic “Gesar” mainly falls into four stages including its germination stage, growing period, mature period and setting period. Nowadays, a majority of scholars hold that the maturity of this “Gesar” appears by about the eleventh century. On the other hand, from the perspective of its ways and means of transmission, during its budding stage and the growing period, the heroic epic was preserved totally by folk rap artists’ oral-spreading. After its mature stage, it is generally assumed by both the folk artists and the character carrier. When it comes to its setting period, the social environment bred this epic has been lost as well as folk artists no longer appeared and epic had been recorded down through text. For instance, the vast majority of the world’s epics have been fixed into the text as early as one or two thousand years ago. The Chinese heroic epic “Gesar” is now in its transitional period from the mature stage to the setting period. In other words, the number of Tibetan folk rap artists are gradually declined while text records which, of course, includes modern recordings and videos are getting more and more at this time. There is no doubt that the “Gesar” rap artists’ existing of today has become another marvel in the epic field. With the advancement of modern civilization, it will inevitably result in the reduced number of folk rap artists on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the change of social environment that gave birth to these folk artists singing “Gesar”. Some scholars pointed out that the death of a “Gesar” rap artist resembled the disappearance of a museum of national memory. Subsequently, in such an era when Chinese government attaches great importance to the intangible cultural heritage, it appear particularly urgent to pay close attention to the study of those recordings of the live fossils and live records as well as those artists themselves.