Feature: King Gesar speaks a new tongue

Local folks act as King Gesar in Dege County, southwest China's Sichuan Province, where King Gesar is believed to be born. (Xinhua photo/Wu Guangyu)

 King Gesar is believed to be a warrior with boundless supernatural power, but for centuries, his epic has been passed on mainly on the lips of Tibetans on the "roof of the world" due to both linguistic and geographic limitations.

Now the Epic of King Gesar, a world intangible cultural heritage inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has made its way to another realm: the Internet. More importantly, it is told by a Han teller in putonghua, or mandarin, in an effort to make the epic known by non-Tibetan listeners.

Zhang Zhun, the storyteller, has spent about one year adapting the Tibetan epic into 40 episodes of pingshu, an ancient form of story telling, with the help of renowned Tibetologist Gyanpian Gyamco.

Since they were aired in mid-December on Litchi FM, a popular podcast platform, the 10 episodes of Gesar that have been uploaded online have been listened to more than 40,000 times, roughly 4,000 in average for each episode.

The number is not high compared with those viral posts that can grab wide attention overnight, but it may indicate a stable listening group behind the clicks. Possibly, those who clicked the first episode may have continued following his podcast, says Zhang.

The Gesar legend has been traced back as far as the 12th century. Due to the inherent flexibility of oral storytelling, the narrative is so vast that many different chapters and versions exist. Popular motifs are that Gesar is 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 spread traditional oral literary works among potential modern listeners. It was initiated by the Reading China Salon under the Chinese Culture Translations and Studies Support, Beijing Dongcheng District Library and Litchi FM.

Jiang Haoshu, initiator of the program, thinks that pingshu is an interesting form of introducing the Tibetan epic to mandarin speakers as oral literature works have their own style of rhetoric and pingshu may fit well King Gesar. While the storyteller of pingshu usually begins each chapter with a poem or rhyme, King Gesar involves a lot of ballads and singing.

By choosing Zhang Zhun as the teller, Jiang says, she also hopes people can see vitality of the traditional art of pingshu on the new generation of storytellers. With a history of more than 1,000 years, pingshu witnessed its golden age around the 1980s when radios were widely available. With the advent of new entertainment alternatives since the 1990s, however, its popularity has waned.

Zhang, 32, is no stranger to re-imagining works in the pingshu style. He won acclaim for an adaption of the Japanese cartoon series One Piece two years ago. The young man, who works at a research institute in Beijing, then became known among both pingshu fans and manga lovers.

Zhang performs the pingshu version of King Gesar in Beijing. (Xinhua photo/Wang Jiaquan)


Adapting the Tibetan epic is no easy work, says Zhang. The biggest challenge might be the different understanding of listeners. 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 could an invincible hero die such a humiliating death?" In addition, he says, there is no story in such an easy murder. So he has to change.

Zhang's adaption is based on a shortened Chinese version of the epic compiled by Gyanpian Gyamco. His bottom line, one that he thinks the Tibetan scholar can bear, is not to ruin the story line. In this case, Chatsa has to die, otherwise the scholar would not agree, says Zhang. "I may argue about the way the hero dies, but I can never let him live on when he has to die in the story."

So he has complicated the scenario with the plot that in their archery bet, Chatsa and his foe agree to shoot each other's helmet tassels, but the snaky man intentionally shots lower at Chatsa's forehead.

The discourse styles of Mandarin and Tibetan are different, and pingshu has its own format, such as the detailed description of a character's appearance 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. Actually, such descriptions are absent in Gyanpian's book.

Pingshu usually involves a storyteller's personal interpretation of some elements to help listeners understand or attract their attention. The boldest interpretation by Zhang Zhun in his Gesar might be his association of Harry Porter's magic broom with the warrior's wand that can carry him fly.

Such association or interpretation is always necessary as though pingshu stories are always ancient tales, their listeners are contemporaries, says Zhang, "So we must adapt to them. Otherwise, they might not understand or may lose interest."

Another problem, Zhang says, is the long names of Tibetan people and places, usually in four or five syllables, which might tangle the tongue and spoil the pace of narration. In a recorded podcast, that's no big issue, but it is a real challenge at a theater performance when he has to shorten the names.

Gyanpian Gyamco has endorsed Zhang's adaption. "It's no easy work to tell a Tibetan story to non-Tibetan listeners who have no understanding of Tibetan culture. Zhang Zhun's challenge is that he is telling the story of Gesar, but his listeners are not Tibetans. I think he has done really well to find the right balance."

Photo taken in 1986 shows Tibetan folk artist performing the Gesar epic in Nagqu County, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. (Xinhua photo/Ma Jingqiu)


Zhang had not even heard of the Gesar epic before he began this project and is aware that his adaption strays from the original narrative. But he says that his adaption is not to offer academic research resources and he doesn't want to repeat the story verbatim, as that would be difficult for the listeners to understand.

"I want to inspire non-Tibetan speakers to listen to this classic epic. If they become interested in it after listening to my story and want to explore more about the legend or Tibetan history, they can go to the original resources. That's what I want."

Actually, that's also what Gyanpian Gyamco wants. The scholar has studied the Tibetan epic for decades. "He just wants more people in the country to know about the story of King Gesar, but the problem is now currently few non-Tibetans have heard of it," says Jiang Haoshu.

In addition to pingshu, Jiang and her colleagues with the Ears for Epics program are also considering other ways of introducing the epic to a modern non-Tibetan audience, such as cartoons, films or even derivatives like toys and computer games, but the question is that such ambitions need more funding support.

The pingshu adaption has got support from a friend of her who does business, says Jiang. Mr Gyanpian and Zhang Zhun have got very little money as reward for their work, according to Jiang.

There is also advice for betterment. Pema Cedain, a Tibetan film director, says that Zhang's Gesar is attractive to listeners, but he suggests that Zhang keep some of its original ballads and proverbs. He encourages Zhang to try singing some of the ballads as a Tibetan teller would do. "Then, that will be a greater boost to the spread of Tibetan culture."

Zhang Zhun says he hopes to make King Gesar a classic pingshu story and wants to adapt the unabridged version, about 100 episodes, but that needs time. "All classic pingshu works, such as the Three Kingdoms, have been polished once and again with time."

Zhang wants to find a theater or teahouse where he could tell the complete story episode by episode to seek listeners' response and comments and in this way to check his problems for further revision.

He is encouraged by Song Dequan, a well-known cross-talker and a director of the Chinese Folk Art Association. Song says that Zhang has opened "a new chapter" by combining ethnic Tibetan culture with a traditional art form of the Han.

Song hopes Zhang could go on, maybe for ten years, or even 20 or 30 years, until he becomes a master in telling the story of King Gesar. "After all, the new chapter has to be continued," says Song.