Samzhub never learned to read or write -- but 20 million words of the world's longest epic poem are kept in his head.
Now the octogenarian Tibetan folk artist is at the forefront of the Chinese government's efforts to save the Tibetan folk epic King Gesser from disappearing.
For a thousand years, the tale of Gesser, who conquered other Tibetan tribes and brought stability to Tibet, has been handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, through singing or recitation.
For this reason, many folk artists have been invited to record and save the epic in a bid to save it from extinction.
Samzhub is regarded as a master of singing and reciting the epic, with the ability to retell 65 parts, totaling 20 million words, out of the poem's 200 or more parts.
Several dozen parts of the epic compiled according to Samzhub's telling have been published or are set to be published in coming years.
Samzhub is only one of the 100 Gesser singers, who have been discovered in China and who have made significant contributions to saving the epic poem, known as the oriental Iliad, after the Greek epic poem by Homer in the eighth century BC.
Gyambian Gyaco, former chairman of the China Gesser Society, said the Tibet Autonomous Region, in southwest China, alone has recorded 70 parts of the epic, according to the telling of local ballad singers compiled in 80 volumes covering one million lines.
King Gesser, which originates in Tibet, has been very popular in seven provinces and autonomous regions in China including Tibet, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.
There are many versions of the epic, which has long been recited and developed in Tibetan and Mongolian languages and the languages of the Tu and Naxi ethnic minorities of China.
Special offices for saving the epic have been set up in the seven provinces and autonomous regions.
The Tibet Autonomous Region has discovered and collected more than 100 versions of the epic, sung and recited by different folk artists, and 55 different xylographed and mimeographed versions, with more than 40 parts having been published in recent years. Sichuan Province has compiled more than 40 parts of the epic treasure.
To date, the Chinese government has collected and compiled more than 150 parts of hand-written and woodcut versions of the epic, totaling 15 million words, according to Yang Enhong, an expert in the study of Gesserology.
Yang said this was the result of the efforts that the Chinese government and people from all walks of life had made to save the epic over the past half century and more.
Yang said the central government had devoted huge manpower and material resources to saving King Gesser ever since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Collecting and studying the epic had long been a major program of China's philosophy and social sciences research and a major research program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences over the past 20 years.
To save the epic, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Ministry of Culture, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have jointly set up a special leading group to promote and oversee the work.
Gyambian Gyaco, former chairman of the China Gesser Society, said the Chinese government, over the past 50 years, had organized several hundred experts and scientists to investigate and collect different versions of the epic.
"The move is unprecedented in the history of Tibetan culture and is rare in the history of China's multinational cultures," said Gyambian Gyaco.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designated 2002 and 2003 as the years to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Gesser.
The Chinese government is preparing a series of activities and the seven provinces and autonomous regions where the epic is popular will also stage celebrations.
The achievements China has made in the study of the epic attract attention from both at home and abroad. King Gesser in the Tibetan language and the Story of Gessuerh in Mongolian have been translated into English, French, German, Russian and other foreign languages. The story of Gesser is known in about 40 countries and regions.
"We shoulder the responsibility to protect the epic, the common treasure of mankind, and to guarantee its permanence," said Gesserology expert Yang Enhong.
The big success of the Chinese government and experts is in making the research of King Gesser an international topic in addition to its protection in China, Yang said.
(Xinhua News Agency July 11, 2002)