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Young Ballad Singers Keep World's Longest Epic Alive
A young ballad singer from China's northwest Qinghai province fascinated a packed audience recently at an international seminar on Gesar, the world's longest epic poem.

Dawa Zhagba, 24, a brilliant Tibetan singer from the Yushu Tibet autonomous prefecture in Qinghai, can recite more than 100 verses of the "Life of King Gesar", the story of an ancient Tibetan king who brought peace and stability to the region by conquering the demons of other tribes.

"The life of King Gesar," a folk epic of the ethnic Tibetan group in China, is the world's longest epic, comprising 36 volumes in 15 million words, with one million to 1.5 million lines in poetry alone in addition to those in prose. The epic enjoys unfading popularity in area inhabited by people of the Tibetan, Mongolia and Tu nationalities.

The epic in 200 verses has been orally handed down by ballad singers for 1,000 years in China.

"To our great relief, young ballad singers like Dawa will continue handing down the masterpiece," said Prof. Lan Qogya at the Northwest Institute for Nationalities.

China boasts about 100 Gesar ballad singers, mostly from ethnic Tibetan or Mongolian groups in outlying areas with poor access to traffic or modern communications, says Yang Enhong, a prestigious Gesarologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"These singers are priceless national gems," she said. "Without them, the world's longest epic could have sunk into oblivion in the long course of history."

To retain the original form of the epic and protect it from the impact of modern society, experts in China have started making verbatim recordings of the balladeers' singing, which will be compiled into more versions of the masterpiece.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designated 2002 and 2003 as the years to celebrate the millennial anniversary of the epic poem, believed to date from the 10th century.

( eastday.com July 27, 2002)

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