The Story of Darkness, compiled by Hu Chongjun, published by the Changjiang Art Publishing House, 18 yuan (US$2.2)
For Hu Chongjun, who collected stories for the epic, the publication of "Darkness" is the culmination of 20 years of work, ever since he accidentally discovered a hand-written manuscript in Shennongjia, in Central China's Hubei Province, in the early 1980s.
Working at the local culture center of Shennongjia, Hu took to collecting local folk songs.
In August of 1982, Hu was visiting an old local farmer's home in the town of Songbai when he was handed a booklet.
Written with brush and Chinese ink, the booklet looked like a songbook, with about 3,000 lines of seven Chinese characters each. Reading the tales, he found himself reading familiar Chinese mythologies of primeval times.
Hu had heard that local people used to sing folk songs and beat drums when somebody died. The libretto they were chanting spoke of legends for the creation of the universe, the world and human beings which sounded eerily similar to the copy he found.
Hu began to study and gather the manuscript. Soon the first copy of the ballad of "Darkness" was published in a collection of Shennongjia.
Liu Shouyi, a professor at the Chinese Culture Department at the East China Normal University, read the ballad and suggested that "Darkness" may represent the Han people's Genesis that has been handed down in oral form.
Encouraged, Hu started to search for more old manuscripts of "Darkness."
Though he earned a meager income, Hu traveled around almost every corner of Shennongjia. He visited about 200 old funeral singers and finally found eight different copies of "Darkness" and noted plenty of oral narrations.
In 1986, an overall collection of different versions of "Darkness" was published by Hubei Folk Arts Association. The collection attracted great attention from experts inside and outside China.
Yuan Ke, an eminent scholar in Chinese mythology who died last year in Beijing, carefully studied the original materials and supported Liu's suggestion that "Darkness" is a folk epic.
Yuan said that the discovery of "Darkness" could be regarded a historic event in the folklore history of the Han people.
Meanwhile, Yuan suggested that some people should further study the different versions and rearrange, with care and caution, the manuscripts into an integrated epic, without ruining its original flavor.
Hu was the best man for the job of compiling this massive epic.
It took Hu nine years before he finally finished his collection. With 5,500 lines, the new edition was the best of the many different versions, compiled after Hu sifted through more than 30,000 lines of the original manuscripts.
Many experts were worried that the new edition may have changed the original words and plots.
But Liu, who has read most of the original material, said in his preface, "So far, the content of this edition is the richest one. Compared with other versions, this edition is more beautiful and is in the linguistic style."
The same year, 16 publishing houses competed to buy the copyrights to The Story of Darkness before the Beijing-based Hualian Publishing House in Beijing finally won the competition.
But due to financial problems, the publishing house delayed the publication of "Darkness" year after year.
In 2000, Zhou Baiyi, publisher of the Changjiang Arts Publishing House met Hu Chongjun in Shennongjia and asked about the book.
When Zhou discovered that such a valuable book was still shelved after five years, he persuaded Hu to end his former contract and gave rights to his publishing house.
In 2001, Hu signed a new contract with Changjiang Art Publishing House and went to Wuhan for some final corrections. The final edition of The Story of Darkness would finally see the light of day.
"I believe the book's publication will spark a strong response from both readers and the researchers," Zhou said.
One of the most frequently asked questions will be why such manuscripts survived in Shennongjia.
Located in the remote northwestern part of Hubei Province, Shennongjia National Nature Reserve has arguably the wildest scenery.
The name for the area was translated as "Shennong's Ladder" to commemorate a legendary emperor, Shennong, believed to be the forefather of traditional Chinese herbal medicine and agriculture.
As part of a more modern legend, Shennongjia is also known for the sightings of wild, ape-like creatures - the Chinese equivalent of the Himalayan Yeti or the North American Bigfoot.
Above all, the place has been considered the confluent point of the Ba culture, an ancient state in the eastern part of what is now Sichuan Province and the Chu, a powerful state more than 2,000 years ago that covered today's Hubei and Hunan provinces.
Some funeral singers said the oral form of "Darkness" could date back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Some reports said "Darkness" already had a wood copy in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Some elderly people in Shennongjia claim that they had once seen it. But Hu couldn't find that copy.
Hu said that the mountains and nature have protected it from modernization and enabled "Darkness" to be handed down from one generation after another.
(China Daily April 3, 2002)