My grandfather, Jampel Gyasto, is a professor of Tibetan literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. For many years, he has focused his research on the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar. Growing up in the United States, I was fascinated by my grandfather's books on Gesar and Thangka (a typical Tibetan painting) with Gesar's image hanging on the wall. When my grandfather visited me from China, he excited me with stories about the Lion King Gesar.
Ever since I was a young girl, the epic of Gesar, a superhuman warrior king of the Kingdom of Ling who waged war with the demons, has ignited my creativity and imagination. The Epic of Gesar is a long epic with over one million lines of verse. It is longer than the world's five other great ancient epics put together, including ancient Greek poet Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," old India's "The Mahabharata" and "The Ramayana" and ancient Mesopotamia's Gilgamesh. Compared with the Homeric epics-the Iliad and the Odyssey, probably dating from the 8th century BCE, Gesar is the world's longest epic poem still performed today.
In high school, I took Latin classes and learned about literature created in Latin, such as the Aeneid Latin epic poem written from about 30 to 19 BCE by the Roman poet Virgil. I was also fascinated by reading Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I see many similarities in "King Gesar" stories versus "Homer's Epic." Each is an Encyclopedia-like masterpiece reflecting ancient Tibetan and Greek people's lifestyles, costumes, religious beliefs, customs, and habits.
Although the Gesar epic reflects the beliefs in Buddhist culture, such as reincarnation, we still see many similarities with the Western epic and ideas, such as how the Godfather tells Gesar his duties through a dream, how Gesar fights with four demon kings and defeats the evil Uncle Chaotong, and the most exciting part about horse racing, which was historically common. Gesar was developed in the ancient Himalayan region, far from Hollywood. Still, the stories about Gesar can be found in Hollywood epic movies like Avatar, Lion King, Helmet, Troy, or even Mulan. Joseph Campbell's theory remains powerful and salient:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." - Joseph Campbell.
The original language for the King Gesar epic was written in Tibetan. Historically, the original method for the younger generation to know the King Gesar epic is through the oral traditions of Ballads. To put these oral traditions into written documents, my grandpa was the one who traveled all over the Tibet Qinghai plateau and neighboring countries around the Himalayas to collect stories of Gesar.
In 1986, he published his first research book, "A Preliminary Study of Gesar" in Chinese. It was the starting point for non-Tibetan speakers to learn about Gesar. Later, he published "The Legend of Gesar King" in China; the book has been translated into Korean and English. After several years, he presided over the compilation of the "Gesar Dictionary."
My grandpa told me that "The Epic of King Gesar" was created not by one person but by generations. The bards passed it down. As the longest epic in the world, the King Gesar epic has different versions and understandings, but one thing is sure: he is the hero created and praised by the people of snow and mountains who loved peace and believed in the hero. They are my Tibetan ancestors.
In this book, I summarize the main story and introduce this tremendous Tibetan epic in English. My grandpa and I want to let more people in the West know about this immense Tibetan heroic epic, King Gesar.