Cultural Exchange

Great Chinese Epics Boost Cultural Confidence

Since the 18th National Congress, the Party central committee with General Secretary Xi Jingping at the core has highlighted the preservation and development of fine traditional Chinese culture by defining it as one of the three sources of socialist culture with Chinese characteristic. It was pointed out that without full confidence in our culture, without a rich and prosperous culture, the Chinese nation would not be able to rejuvenate itself. These important remarks become our guidance for the work to keep our culture alive and innovative.

 At the closing ceremony of the First Session of the Thirteenth National People's Congress, General Secretary Xi mentioned three precious Chinese “epics”, Epic of King Gesar, Epic of Manas, and Epic of Jangar. In new era, it is undoubtedly meaningful to study and carry forward Chinese epics, and learn about the great people, nations and cultures that cultivate them.

At the closing ceremony mentioned above, Xi praised, “the Chinese people are creative. Throughout the history, we have been dedicated ourselves to production and invention. As a result, this nation harvests various fruits. She is the cradle of great thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, Zhuang Zi, Lao Zi, Mo Zi, Sun Zi, Han Fei; the birthplace of epoch-making inventions like paper-making, printing, compass and gunpowder; and the home to such historic projects as the Great Wall, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the Forbidden City, and the Potala Palace. As for literature, we have ethnic Han masterpieces The Book of Odes, The Songs of Chu, Han Poetry, Tang poetry, Song poems, Yuan-style verses, novels in Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the three epics from ethnic minorities, Epic of King Gesar, Epic of Manas, and Epic of Jangar.” 

In his speech, President Xi put Chinese great spiritual achievements into 5 categories: thinkers, science and technology, literature and arts, epics and construction projects.

In the past, when it comes to Chinese culture, we often enumerated Han literary works yet seldom mentioned literature of ethnic minorities, especially their epics. In this speech, however, President Xi included the three ethnic epics into the sources of Chinese civilization and upgraded their academic level.

Those who care for the development of Chinese literature and study this branch of Chinese history long regarded it a pity that epics, especially heroic epics, were absent in China.

In his masterpiece Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel once alleged that the Chinese nation had no their own epics, concluding that China’s literature was more prose than epic. This was because, according to Hegel, the prose form of Chinese literature had long been settled, and Chinese views on religion, which was not friendly to art expression, did not help. 

Hegel’s comment exerted far-reaching influence, as this philosopher and aesthetician was so authoritative that Engels referred to him as the ‘Zeus on Mount Olympus’. For centuries after that, nobody ever challenged his conclusion. Introduction to Chinese epics were missing in the world’s history of literature and poetry.

To correct this false judgement, President Xi declared, on the occasion of the National People’s Congress at the magnificent Great Hall of the People, that we did have our own epics, great ones actually, like Epic of King Gesar, Epic of Manas, and Epic of Jangar were among them.

Epics play a significant role in human civilization. The word “epic” originates from the Greece word ‘epikos’, meaning “words, narration and story”. The famous ancient Greek philosopher and writer of literary theory, Aristotle, provides his profound and comprehensive comments on epics, especially on Homer's Epic, in his work Poetics.

Hegel discusses the nature, features and development of epics in Lectures on Aesthetics, where he divides epics into two categories, ‘general epics’ and ‘formal epics’. In his opinion, a great epic depicts “the whole picture of a nation’s spirit”, and exhibits “ a nation’s outstanding mind power”.

Marx and Engels delved into the study of Homer's Epic and thought highly of it. Iliad, according to Marx, “is the most splendid epic of all times”, and“brings us artistic enjoyment, while serving as a norm to some extent and an unmatched model.” He added that ancient myths and epics showed “everlasting charm”.

Engels cited Homer's Epic in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State to explicate the living conditions, women’s status in family and the clan society of Greece during the advanced stage of the barbarian age, more specifically, the transition period between primitive society and slave society. He then further his argument, “... the epics of Homer’s as well as all myths-- they are the important legacies that drive the human society from barbarism to civilization.”

This book is regarded as a Marxism classic. Engels’ absorbing the thoughts and opinions from Homer's Epic during the composition of this book serves as a enlightening example for our subsequent research on epics.

Heroic epics usually emerged as products of the rise of nations during the transition from primitive society to the establishment of slavery. Great heroic epics showcase the resolution and diligence of a nation, embody the nation’s wisdom and become a special form of knowledge pool. No wonder that they are often praised as ‘encyclopedias’ of certain historical circumstances.

Epic of King Gesar, lauded by President Xi, is qualified to be an ‘encyclopedia’ of ancient Tibetan society and history.

It is a collective work that marks the top achievement of ancient Tibetan folk culture. This time-honored, multi-volume, profound and rich-in-content masterpiece has been popular among Tibetan people. It is widely spread among the regions of Yangtze River, Yellow River, Lancang River, the vast Tibet Plateau, and Himalaya. It has become an integral part of the multi-ethnic cultural circle under the Himalaya. That is why the epic is such strategically important and influential to the development of the BRI.

This great heroic epic is based on ancient Tibetan myths, legends, poetry, proverbs and other forms of literature. The hero, Gesar, rises up to challenges and brutal suppression the whole life, conquers all places he has been to, defeats all devils, punishes the bullies and deliver benefits to people. His highly-praised heroic deeds, as the mainline, symbolizes justice defeating the evil and brightness covering darkness. The epic reflects the wish of suffering Tibetan, and thus strikes their chord. This is why the epic has been handed down for generations and lasted till now. Some scholars from the international academia titled it as ‘the eastern version of Homer’s Epic’.

Compared with other heroic epics in the world, Epic of King Gesar prevails in two prominent aspects. First, time. This living epic has been passed on for generations among the Tibetan, especially among their farmers and nomads. Second, length. With over 120 volumes and more than one million verses, it is reputed to be the longest in the world. If translated into Chinese, it will be more than 20 million Chinese characters.

The oldest heroic epic known to human beings is Epic of Gilgamesh, which consists of over 3000 verses carved on 12 separate clay plates in cuneiform. It marks the peak of ancient Babylonish literature.

In the world’s history of literature, Iliad and Odyssey are most widely known and influential, and show the most ideological and art value. Both of them fill 24 volumes, with the former consisting of 15693 verses and the latter 12110. They are the earliest European literary works. The great Greek poet Homer is believed to be the author, and thus two of them make Homer’s Epic. Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata enjoy the same popularity. Ramayana consists of nearly 24,000 Shlokas (48,000 verses), divided into seven books. Its latest revised edition is reduced to 18550 Shlokas (37100 verses). The meaty Mahabharata, 100,000 Shlokas in total, contains 18 individual poems of different length, each divided into several chapters with titles hinting the main themes. It used to be the longest poem before Epic of King Gesar was found and compiled.

The above-mentioned works are qualified as the ‘Five Epics of the World’. However, when it comes to length, Epic of King Gesar surpasses the aggregate length of the five and thus wins the title of ‘World’s Greatest Epic’.

Beautiful legends in early human history feed rich nourishment and add a strong hue of mystery to these epics. Marx called the Greek mythology ‘the arsenal and the soil for Greek art’. Chinese writer Mao Dun referred to epics as ‘myths in art form’ and he believed that ‘Homer’s Epic is the fountain and soil of European art’.

Homer’s Epic is to the European and the world, what the time-honored Epic of King Gesar is to Tibet. It is a source of Tibetan literature and art that will never dries up, the soil for literary long-time progress, and the drive for the development of Tibetan arts of all forms.

Like many other ethnic epics and folk literature, Epic of King Gesar has been carried forward mainly in two manners. First, they were transcribed by hand or carved on wood to be preserved and circulated. Second, they became stories or songs told or sung by the folk for generations, especially and mainly by those excellent storytellers and singers. The Gesar in nature is not so much an epic written by monks or literati as a ballad sung by ordinary people, especially fol artists. Thus it is fair to say that the epic largely depends on those folk artists to pass it on.

These folk artists are called ‘Zhong Ken’ or ‘Zhong Wa’, meaning ‘storytellers’ in Tibetan. These popular artists are the first-hand creators and the pious advocators that pass the epic on. They are the embodiment of wisdom, talent and creativity of the people. President Xi highlighted that “The people create history. They are the true heroes. The bitter-sweet history of China’s development is written by the people!” From this perspective, it is clear that the people also contributed to the creation of Epic of King Gesar, and undoubtedly they are heroes.

Popular and great as the epic is, it used to be disseminated only among the folk without organized and systemic compilation. This has limited its preservation and publicity, and disabled it to exert further influence. Many related materials were buried along with those deceased artists, and numerous valuable manuscripts, wood carvings, ancient books and cultural relics were unfortunately missing.

At this point, the State and the Party accentuate the academic study and compilation of the epic. The government has increased its efforts in saving and protecting ethnic folk literature especially since the reform and opening up. During the sixth, seventh and eighth ‘five-year-plan’, Epic of King Gesar was listed as a key project of national philosophical and social research for three consecutive times. Today, this on-going cross-century project has become a milestone in Tibetan history. These efforts demonstrate the Party and the State’s care for Tibetan people, and attention to protecting and promoting fine Tibetan and, to a broader sense, Chinese traditional culture.

We have now abundant first-hand materials of Epic of King Gesar thanks to the gathering and compilation work. Many domestic and foreign scholars regard the fast-developing study of Epic of King Gesar as one of the most heated subjects under Tibetology and ethnic folk literature. Guided by Marxist theory on art and literature, the academic structure of the study of Epic of King Gesar with Chinese characteristics is basically established and continuously developing.

Our achievements in promoting this epic are profoundly significant in that it renews the world’s view on this ethnic group surrounded by snow-capped mountains and on its history and culture, advance the country’s study on epics, places Epic of King Gesar to an irreplaceable position in the world’s history of epics and updates the world’s ‘map of epics’. Homer’s Epic represents western culture, and Epic of King Gesar the eastern one. They both shine as the pearls of human civilization. All in all, Epic of King Gesar earns our country enormous honor in international academia and cultural stage. (Original article from the China Ethic News, translated by Xiang Yueyi with the Cultural Exchange Organization of Presenting China to the World )