Internet podcast brings new life to ancient Tibetan epic
Long the purview of singers and storytellers, The Epic of King Gesar is now being introduced to new audiences via a newrealm: the Internet.
Han storyteller Zhang Zhun worked with Tibetologist Gyanpian Gyamco to produce a 40-episode podcast in Mandarin based on the vast oral narrative about the warrior with boundless supernatural powers.
The episodes are performed in the pingshu style, which features literary and performance devices, such as the use of a poem or rhyme to begin each story, the striking of a gavel to gain the audience’s attention and the use of suspense, by way of a cliffhanger, to end each chapter.
Since King Gesar first aired in mid-December on Litchi FM, a podcast platform, the first 10 episodes have been downloaded more than 40,000 times.
The Gesar legend has been traced back as far as the 12th century, and the inherent flexibility of oral storytelling has led to a vast number of narratives. Recurring, popular motifs find Gesar sent by the gods to vanquish monsters, end wars and unify the tribes in Ling, a kingdom on the Tibetan plateau.
Zhang’s pingshu version is part of the nonprofit program Ears for Epics, which aims to preserve and promote traditional storytelling. Ears for Epics is the brainchild of the Reading China Salon at the Chinese Culture Translations and Studies Support, the Beijing Dongcheng District Library and Litchi.
Performing the epic in pingshu will not only help Mandarin speakers understand the Tibetan story, but it could also help to popularize pingshu. The 1,000-year-old pingshu style witnessed a revival in the 1970s and ’80s, when radios became widely available. Its popularity waned, however, with the advent of new entertainment the 1990s.
Zhang is no stranger to re-imagining works in the pingshu style, having won acclaim for an adaptation of the Japanese cartoon series One Piece, which he produced two years ago.
Adapting KingGesar was no easy task, Zhang said, and the biggest challenge was the different cultural understanding of literary tropes.
For example, while no Tibetan has ever questioned how Gesar’s half brother, the unbeatable Chatsa, could be killed by a single arrow, many of Zhang’s Han listeners would not have accepted such a plot device.
“Howcan an invincible hero die such a humiliating death?” Zhang asked.
As many of his target audience would object to such an easy murder, this had to be changed for the new adaptation, which is based on a shortened Chinese version of the epic compiled by Gyanpian Gyamco. Although the Tibetan scholar was open to changes to the narrative to make it “listener friendly”, he insisted on the retention of the story’s essence.
So a new scenario for Chatsa’s death was created that would be accepted by the listener, as well as Zhang and Gyanpian Gyamco.
Zhang had not heard of the Gesar epic tradition before he began the project and is aware that his adaptation strays from the original narrative. That said, Gyanpian Gyamco endorsed Zhang’s version.
“It is difficult to tell a Tibetan story to those who have no understanding of our culture. The listeners of this story are not Tibetans, and this was Zhang’s greatest challenge. I think he has done really well to find the right balance,” Gyanpian Gyamco said.
That goes to the heart of what Zhang set out to do. His adaptation “was made to inspire non-Tibetan speakers to listen to this classic epic”, he said. “That's what I want.”