An introduction to The Epic of King Gesar

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2020-07-05

The Epic of King Gesar of the Tibetan people, The Epic of Manas of the Kyrgyz people and The Epic of Jangar of the Mongol people are known as “the three ethnic heroic epics in China.” Each of these epics has spread across many of what are now Belt and Road (B&R) countries and regions over time, contributing to dialogue among civilizations of different ethnic groups.

The Epic of King Gesar is a sacred narrative about the hero Gesar. The epic was formed in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau during the 11th and 12th centuries, especially in the source region of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang rivers. Since then, it gradually spread into the regions outside the QinghaiTibet Plateau—the Mongolian Plateau and the Pamir Mountains. The story was circulated not only among many Chinese ethnic groups, but also in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia and Russia, demonstrating cultural creativity and cultural exchange among different ethnic groups along the B&R route.

Gesar first caught Western attention in the 1770s, when the German zoologist and botanist Peter Simon Pallas (1741–1811) spoke of the Temple of Gesar in his travelogue Reisen durch verschiedene Provinzen des Russischen Reichs (Travel Through Different Provinces of the Russian Empire, 1771–76). French scholars Alexandra David-Néel (1868–1969) and Rolf Alfred Stein (1911–1999) as well as American scholar Robin Korman (1947– 2007) successively translated and introduced the epic for their own nations, bringing this long-buried ancient culture to the modern world. In China, Ren Naiqiang (1894–1989) published his paper “A Brief Introduction to the Tibetan Three Kingdoms” in 1944, the first work to allow Chinese readers to better understand this great epic. The paper introduces The Epic of King Gesar through the context of the household story of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (a historical novel set in the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period), greatly promoting its understanding among the public at the time. It also can be seen as a preliminary attempt to break through the linguistic boundaries of The Epic of King Gesar and an initial form of its popular reading in a non-native language.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, great achievements have been made in the systematic exploration, protection and transmission of epics. Most epics, however, are still disseminated merely in their ethnic languages. There has been no introductory book that makes the original Tibetan of the story more accessible for the public so far. The translation and introduction of the three ethnic hero epics have become important issues facing academic circles. Since July 2019, the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has taken the lead in writing an introductory book on The Epic of King Gesar, which will be published soon.


Norbu Wangdan is a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnic Literature at CASS.

Editor:Yu Hui

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