Han storyteller begins new chapter of Tibetan epic

A storyteller in Sichuan province performs the King Gesar in the traditional way. [Photo/Xinhua]

The story of "King Gesar," a warrior with boundless supernatural powers, has for centuries been preserved by the singers and storytellers that live on the roof of the world.

Now the ancient Tibetan hero of the Gesar epic tradition, which is inscribed on the UNESCO list of world intangible cultural heritage, finds himself in another realm: the Internet.

Han storyteller Zhang Zhun worked with Tibetologist Gyanpian Gyamco to produce a 40-episode podcast in Mandarin based on the vast oral narrative.

The episodes are performed in the "pingshu" style, which features literary and performance devices such as the use of a poem or rhyme to begin each story, the striking of a gavel to get the audience's attention and the use of suspense, by way of a cliff hanger, to end each chapter.

Since "King Gesar" first aired in mid-December on Litchi FM, a podcast platform, the first 10 episodes have been listened to over 40,000 times.

The Gesar legend has been traced back as far as the 12th century, and, due to the inherent flexibility of oral storytelling, the narrative is so vast that many different chapters and versions exist. Recurring, popular motifs are that Gesar was sent by the gods to vanquish monsters, end wars and unify tribes in Ling, a kingdom on the Tibet plateau.

Zhang's pingshu version of "King Gesar" is part of the non-profit program Ears for Epics, which aims to preserve and promote traditional storytelling. Ears for Epics is the brainchild of the Reading China Salon under the Chinese Culture Translations and Studies Support, Beijing Dongcheng District Library and Litchi.

The choice to perform the epic in pingshu will not only help Mandarin speakers understand the Tibetan story, but it could also help to popularize pingshu.

The 1,000 year old pingshu style witnessed a revival in the 1970s and 1980s, when radios became widely available. With the advent of new entertainment alternatives since the 1990s, however, its popularity has waned.

Zhang is no stranger to re-imagining works in the pingshu style, having won acclaim for an adaption of the Japanese cartoon series "One Piece," which he produced two years ago.


Adapting King Gesar was no easy task, Zhang said, and the biggest challenge was the different cultural understanding of literary tropes.

While no Tibetan has ever questioned how it could be possible that Gesar's half brother, the unbeatable Chatsa, is killed by a single arrow, many of Zhang's listeners would not have accepted a plot hole like this.

"How can an invincible hero die such a humiliating death?" Zhang said. As many of his target audience would object to such an easy murder, this had to be changed.

Zhang's adaption is based on a shortened Chinese version of the epic compiled by Gyanpian Gyamco. Although the Tibetan scholar was open to changes to the narrative to make it "listener friendly," he said that the essence of the story should not be ruined.

It was agreed that Chatsa had to die, Zhang explained, or Gyanpian Gyamco would not agree. So a new scenario was created that would be accepted by the listener, as well as Zhang and Gyanpian Gyamco

The discourse styles of Mandarin and Tibetan are different. The pingshu style, for example, goes into a lot of detail about the appearance of a character when they are first introduced.

When Gesar sees his uncle Zhaotoin for the first time, Zhang uses very typical Han expressions to project a cunning and insidious image: a man with a hawk nose, triangle eyes and goat's beard. These descriptions are absent from Gyanpian Gyamco's adaption.

Zhang had not even heard of the Gesar epic tradition before he began this project and is aware that his adaption strays from the original narrative. This said, Gyanpian Gyamco endorsed Zhang's adaption.

"It is difficult to tell a Tibetan story to those who have no understanding of our culture. The listeners of this story are not Tibetans, and this was Zhang's greatest challenge. I think he has done really well to find the right balance," Gyanpian Gyamco said.

This really goes to the heart of what Zhang had set out to do: he was not motivated by wanting to create an academic resource or quoting the story verbatim.

"My adaption was made to inspire non-Tibetan speakers to listen to this classic epic. That's what I want."

Zhang has been encouraged by Song Dequan, the director of the Chinese Folk Art Association. Song was especially impressed that Zhang combined ethnic Tibetan culture with a traditional Han art form.

Song is hopeful that Zhang will master the oral performance of the King Gesar epic. "After all, the new chapter has to be continued," he said.