According to Hegel's statement that "an epic is a people's bible," the heroic epic "Manas" must be the bible of the Kirgiz people living in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.The Tibetan epic "King Gesar" and the Mongolian "Jungar," have together with Manas become the "three great epics" of China. Created first from the 9th to 10th century A.D., later they would, in the process of being passed down through generations of talented Kirgiz musicians, be perfected, blending with the new wisdom of the people, and becoming works of literature characteristic of this rich and abundant cultural heritage. Distinct from the ancient Greek epics of Homer, already set in stone and existing only within the pages of books, Manas has a living form, sung by people even still today. All you need is a gathering of Kirgiz people to witness the passing down of this epic work. You can hear the sound of Manas everywhere in China's Xinjiang Province and Central Asia's Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Each generation of Kirgiz people listened to Manas as they grew from children to adults. And each generation will listen to Manas as they depart from the world of the living. China's most prominent Manas performer, Zhusufu Mamayi sings this prelude before his formal performances:
Of all the flowing waters
How many have gone dry?
The green river banks
How many have turned to desert?
How many have seen the remote wilderness
Turn to lake and river shores?
The flat earth has been carved by rushing streams
Towering mountains have all caved in
When did it begin?
These great changes in the Earth
The desert leaves its stones
Stone turns to forest
The green wilds turn to riverbanks
Mountain streams have shifted course
There's been a great change,
All that's left are our ancestor's songs
In 1999, Manas was included within a published, five book "Chinese Epics Research Series." The Chinese Epic Research Institute's authority committee has stated that these epics, "are without doubt a marvel of China's cultural history." This aroused a revolution in concept for academia and broke apart this notion that China does not have her own national epics. The traditional concept that only primitive cultures create epics was also dissolved. Chinese experts believe that the "epics" entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica should be totally rewritten. This is because the biases of European centralism latent within the entries result in serious misunderstandings in the world's conception of the epic. It not only overlooks the world's earliest heroic epic, the Babylonian Gilgamesh, but also ignores India's epics, The Ramayana and Mahabharata. Going so far astray as to miss these three major world epics, China's Manas and other epics did not enter into their line of vision either. In fact, outside of Europe's seafaring epics, there are hundreds of epics to be found throughout the massive expanses of China's mountains, prairies and highlands. A complete understanding of these epics should change people's conception of the epic altogether, and change our academic theories concerning the epic literary form.
Manas embodies the Kirgiz legendary heroes and leaders, who are the incarnation of power, bravery and wisdom. The epic relates stories of Manas and eight generations of his descendants leading the resistance against the plundering and enslavement of foreign invaders. It is a story about the struggle to win freedom and welfare. The epic is told in eight parts and takes its name from the main hero Manas. Titles of stories within this epic include "Saimaitaiyi", "Semetey", "Kainienimu", "Saiyite", "Aselbaqa and Bekbaqa", "Sombirek" and "Qigtey". Each section stands on its own, depicting the story of one generation's hero. All of the stories link together to form the complete epic legend. The work in its entirety is told in 210,000 verses, altogether 20 million words.
Manas was not the creation of poets but rather a transmission. Performers of Manas, after returning from a dream state, sometimes suddenly obtain the ability to recite this lengthy epic beginning to end. Most cannot believe this. But Kirgiz people enraptured by the Manas story believe it without doubt. How can it be that an illiterate shepherd growing up on remote pastures is able to recite this epic that takes months upon months to tell in its entirety? Reciting a hundred thousand, even hundreds of thousands of lines? If you were to take the story he sings and compile it into a written document, it would contain a million, even tens of millions of words. That would be a small library of books! How do they learn to sing this epic? How do they memorize it? People say they have a strange ability. Where is it that these people with this strange ability exist? How would we go about solving the riddle of their amazing memory? It has become the "Sphinx" of the epic research world.
For every festival celebration, Kirgiz people come from every direction, riding on horseback to converge upon the green grasslands. In white yurt tent homes, below a dim oil lamp or beside a crackling stove-fire, they quietly lean in to listen to the exquisite, heartfelt sounds of the musician's enchanting voice. This is a time for musicians, when they are welcomed and made honorary guests. He sits facing the door of the yurt, resting against folded quilts and bedding with a cup of milk tea in front of him, and some butter and cheese. There is a copper teakettle on the stove at the center of the tent. Listeners sit on colorful felt rugs, gathered row upon row around the performer. A lantern hangs over the doorway. The lamplight and the flickering light of the stove shed mysterious color upon the performer.
At the climax of the story, the musician will suddenly jump up, gesture with his hands, and walk to and fro within the yurt. While singing about the hero's final victory, his voice will soar to a high pitch, lighting up with pleasure. When the story reaches a point of dangerous threat to the hero, the storyteller's voice becomes choked with sobs, tears filling his eyes. The audience is drunk with excitement; unconsciously the room will burst into laughter and then be weeping in silence. The fate of Manas rests deep in their hearts. His victory is their victory. His frustration is their impatience. His hardship is their suffering. His sacrifice is their sorrow. Their spirit and emotion melds completely with the hero Manas's life and times. They feel his sweet and his bitter, his trials and victories. The musician sings through the night. He may sing for a few days, or even a few weeks.
The Kirgiz people's respect for these performers exceeds even that for their parents. Whoever hosts a Manas performance, will feel honor in doing so. Because of this, once the performance has ended, the host families will present the performers with gifts of clothing and horses or sheep to express their thanks. Upon hearing of a performance of the Manas, men and women, old and young will rush to see it. Mothers carry their children on their backs, young people lead the old and everyone will come. In the winter performances begin when the sun has fallen below the mountain ridges- singing all night until the sun rises, and then continuing on till evening again. Sometimes the audience will huddle inside a yurt and never come out. People from the area who have heard of the performance will come and stand outside the door to listen. More and more people come. Great crowds gather, swarming around, yurts have been known to topple under the push and shove of eager listeners. They forget time and space, all of them immersed in the world of Manas. According to Kirgiz people, the epic Manas holds a timeless enchantment.
Kirgiz people believe that Manas has a seat in heaven from which he protects their people. They believe his spirit lives. In the nineteenth century while a musician performed Manas for locals the wind suddenly became violent and rain fell in torrents, threatening the people's safety. He thus proceeded singing Manas with all his skill and energy. Suddenly, outside the tent was heard the sound of a horse's call. The sound shook the earth and there appeared for just a flashing moment Manas and his 40 brave warriors. At Manas's appearance, the rain and wind ceased. Disaster was dispelled. The Kirgiz shepherd people believe that Manas has spiritual power. If you sing this epic, Manas's spirit will appear to protect you. Because of this, in the past when some Kirgiz shepherd's family members or livestock fell ill, or a woman was to give birth, they would invite a musician to perform Manas. Thus dispelling illness, avoiding calamity and exorcising ghosts. Entering the twentieth century, the Kirgiz people's veneration of Manas has become their pride and responsibility. Manas has already become a symbol of power and courage. During the Second World War, the Soviet Kirgiz and Kazak cavalry would call out the Manas war cry as they attacked German fascist troupes. Amongst China's Kirgiz people, you can also hear the name of Manas at every turn. During drinking festivals they often make a toast to Manas, feeling a sense of pride and honor to be the descendants of this hero. Manas will never die.
The line, "we are the descendants of Manas" is often heard in Kirgiz folk songs. A profound sense of love and esteem for Manas has settled deep into the consciousness of these people. "Manas" has become the very spirit of the Kirgiz nationality; the pillar of their vitality.
The greatest features in the Manas epic can be found within its characters and landscapes. In addition to Manas and his descendants, there are over 100 other lively characters including the wise elders that advise Manas, and his comrades in arms that support him. There is the fierce King Kaermakehan, the outrageous rebel, and the wrathful evil demons. The epic contains many great battle scenes. Each depicted in vivid detail from the weapons yielded down to the colors of their saddles.
As the folk epic of this nationality, Manas has innumerable creators and preservers. These people are called "manaschi." In the past one thousand years, there has not been anyone who could sing this epic in its entirety. And of course no one has managed to write this epic down until Zhusufu Mamayi appeared.
This year he is 87 years old. He has been praised as a "living Homer" spending his whole life collecting, compiling and performing Manas. In 1940, when not at work, he would sing Manas for seven nights straight. For this he traveled in all directions. From 1984 to 1995, Zhusufu Mamayi performed the entire eight part, 18 volume Manas. This was the first time ever in China for a single person to accomplish this.
Now, Manas has been published in the Chinese language. Essential segments of the epic have been translated into English, French, German, Japanese and other languages. At the same time, Manas has enjoyed great respect in literary history outside China. The UN deemed 1995 the "International Year of Manas."