The ancient king, Gesar, may have been dead for a thousand years, but he lives on in the Gesar ballad singers who rove the Qinghai-Tibetan and the Mongolian plateaus, constantly reciting and developing The Life of King Gesar, the world's longest epic poem.
"King Gesar tells the story of an ancient Tibetan king who conquered the devils of other Tibetan tribes and made Tibet stable.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated 2002 and 2003 as the years to celebrate the millennial anniversary of the epic poem King Gesar.
Yang Enhong, the renowned Chinese "Gesarologist", said that the Gesar folk artists were the true spirit of the epic. Their enthusiastic performances inspired herdsman for generations.
The Life of King Gesar has been orally handed down by ballad singers for a thousand years in China. "Without them, the longest epic would have been forgotten amid the long process of history," Yang said.
China now boasts about 100 Gesar ballad singers. Most are Tibetan, while the rest are from the Mongolian or Tu ethnic groups. But few young Tibetans continue to learn how to sing the epic, putting the cultural treasure in danger of being lost.
Senior Gesar ballad singers, mostly from impoverished herdsmen's families, made a living by singing the epic before 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded. They wandered the vast pastures with no fixed abode, just like the Homer epic performers of ancient Greece.
They also used to travel with Tibetan Buddhist disciples, supporting each other and worshipping holy places together.
Zaba, a noted epic performer set foot on all the holy mountains and lakes in Tibet, together with disciples, leaving the epic echoing everywhere he went.
But how did those epic performers, who were mostly illiterate and settled in remote areas, recite dozens of epics with millions of characters?
Some performers claimed to be divinely chosen as artists, saying that they received decrees from God and King Gesar in childhood dreams. The decree ordered them to be epic performers. After the dreams, they fell ill. When the illness went away, lamas prayed for them and suddenly epics came to their minds.
Gangri Qucheng, guest professor of Southwest China's Institute for Nationalities, says that their talent is so impressive that experts wonder how they memorize such a long epic. Understanding their method of memorizing is becoming a major project.
The Life of King Gesar is divided into more than 100 sections. Every folk artist can perform different parts of the epic.
So far, those artists have been regarded as national treasures. To guarantee the epic is handed down in future, Chinese experts have invited the artists to record their own editions of the epic.
It is such a big project, say experts, that every artist could record hundreds of cassettes.
(Xinhua News Agency July 9, 2002)