Sound of Lhasa - The only literate minstrel of the Epic of Gesar
    2013-09-17 16:16:27       Web Editor: Xiong Siqi

Sidar Dorje [Photo:]


The Tibet Autonomous Region in Southwest China is rich in its diversified ethnic culture. One inseparable cog on the wheel of Tibetan culture is the oral epic "Gesar" or "King of Gesar", which is haled as the "Homer of the East."

As the world's longest story, "Gesar" has been passed down orally from generation to generation among Tibetans for over a thousand years.

Today, let's follow Siqi to learn more about the story of Sidar Dorje, the only literate and youngest minstrel of Gesar.

When discussing Tibetan culture, one cannot afford to ignore the ballad called "King of Gesar," a legendary folk epic that has been passed down orally from generation to generation in a combination of song and narration for over a thousand years.

But over time, there are fewer and fewer local musicians capable of singing the crowning masterpiece of Tibetan folk literature, let alone young people. However, 23-year-old Sidar Dorje, the youngest minstrel of Gesar in Tibet, is trying his best to inherit and develop this Tibetan pearl. Furthermore, Sidar Dorje is the only literate minstrel in Tibet.

According to him, his talent for singing the epic of Gesar started when he was 9 years old.

Regarded as the longest epic poem in existence, so far, "King of Gesar" has been collected in more than 120 episodes. With more than one million verses and over 20 million words, it is 25 times the length of the Greek classic Homer's Iliad. Until now, Sidar Dorje can speak and sing over 80 volumes of Gesar.

"Up until now I can speak over 80 volumes of Gesar and I have already written them down. I can recite more of the Gesar epic than before. They are all connected."

The epic ballad tells the story of a legendary half-human, half-god Tibetan King of the 11th century, who conquered devils and enemy tribes to help ordinary people. Whether hero or tyrant, male or female, young or old, the characters leave a lasting impression on listeners with their clearly defined features and striking images. The heroic figures, led by King Gesar, provide immortal examples of valiant sacrifice. No two figures in the epic are identical.

"This is a battle scene between Gesar's general and the enemy's general. You can feel that the style of singing and the tone used to depict different figures are different. Each figure has its unique characteristic."

Until now, Sidar Dorje is the only literate minstrel of Gesar. He is a senior student majoring in Tibetan language and culture at Tibet University. As a result, he can record his singing and write them down both in Tibetan and Mandarin. All of his recordings are of high reference value.

"I've learnt a lot and know more after studying in college, which is very helpful for my understanding and study of Gesar. Besides, Tibetan/Mandarin translation is one of my modules now. By learning translation skills, I can translate Gesar into Mandarin more accurately and let more people know the story."

However, going to college and being exposed to a modern world outside also negatively affected Sidar Dorje's narration.

"First, I've learnt more languages aside from Tibetan, such as Mandarin and English. In college, we mostly talk in Mandarin. But narrating Gesar is in Tibetan. So language is one problem. Second, Lhasa, where I'm staying, has become a modern city now. Traditional Tibetan culture preserved here is not as authentic as in my hometown. Gesar is an ancient epic which needs the pure soil of Tibetan culture. I'm a bit worried about this aspect."

Today, King of Gesar is considered more than a folk legend; it is also a source of mental motivation for Tibetan people. It not only tells the story of a hero but also Tibetan history. And the main character Gesar is a representation of the Tibetan people. Tsering Puntsok, an expert of Gesar in Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, says Gesar is effectively an encyclopedia of the Tibetan people.

"First, Gesar is the longest epic poem in the world. Meanwhile, it's also an encyclopedia of ancient Tibetan society, which records Tibetan people's lives, customs, religious beliefs, moral principles as well as ancient economy and politics. You can almost find everything there. In addition, it's an active epic, which is constantly being enriched through folk artists' performances over the years. It's still very inspirational today."

Even though he is only 23 years old, Sidar Dorje is using his deeds to inherit and develop this epic. Over the past four years in college, Sidar Dorje has not returned home to spend New Year with his family; not even once. Every New Year holiday he is busy performing Gesar for the public. But to him, his efforts are still not enough.

"What I did is still not enough because I'm different from other minstrels. Only with the help of many people can I go to college. It's a big investment, so I have the responsibility to develop Gesar. My plan is to publish books of Gesar both in Tibetan and Mandarin in the future in order to provide a reference for future generations."

Besides written records, Sidar Dorje is also producing audio recordings to let more illiterate Tibetans hear the epic of Gesar.

"I found that many remote Tibetans who cannot read like to listen to Gesar on the radio. Books mean nothing to them. And some of them don't have a television at home. Radio is the only way to know more about the world. So now I've become a studio guest in China National Radio and Tibet Radio, narrating and singing Gesar for them. I think this is the most effective and direct way to spread Gesar."

When you walk on the street in Tibet today, you can easily hear Gesar on the radio. With the wide popularity of the ancient legend and thanks to the efforts of folk artists, this Tibetan cultural pearl will never fade.

For China Now, I'm Siqi.


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