Xinjiang Story: Kirgiz epic storytelling gets more young voices

(Xinhua) 11:26, December 18, 2023

URUMQI, Dec. 17 (Xinhua) -- Swaying his body left and right to the rhythm, Yvmvtale Etekul sings the epic poem "Manas" at the center of the stage, surrounded by veteran singers in their 40s and 50s.

At 15, Yvmvtale Etekul is the youngest "Manas" singer in the performance staged in the culture and art center of Wuqia County, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. He represents the growing number of young learners of the epic, known as the "encyclopedia" of Kirgiz ethnic culture.

"I started to learn Manas at three after I watched a grand Manas performance held in the county. I vaguely remember that I was deeply impressed by the songs," said the Kirgiz student.

At eight, he became an apprentice of Jangnur Turganbay, an accomplished Manas performer who can reportedly sing the epic for over a whole day and night.

"My master will first tell me the stories behind the songs, and then I repeat and recite the lines after him," said Yvmvtale Etekul.

Revolving around the heroic deeds of the eponymous protagonist and his descendants, "Manas" has been passed down orally, from father to son and from teacher to student, since the 16th century. Eighteen times longer than Homer's "Odyssey," the extensive epic has long been troubled by a lack of qualified singers and inheritors.

In 2014, Jusup Mamay, the only person who could sing the full length of the 230,000-line Manas, died at the age of 97. His complete singing was once recorded on 17 cassette tapes in the 1970s.

Efforts to pass down this intangible cultural heritage have since continued. As one of the 40-plus students of Jangnur Turganbay, Yvmvtale Etekul now instructs Manas for more than 40 peer students at the Heiziwei Township Middle School in Wuqia.

The school, where 90 percent of students come from Kirgiz farmer and herdsman families, has set up a special class that teaches Manas twice a week in addition to other compulsory courses.

"The class has 46 students, including six Uygur students and one Han student, who signed up for learning Manas when we divided the classes based on the students' interests," said Turdibek Azizbek, headmaster of the school.

"I joined the class because I was drawn by the school's Manas-learning ambiance," said Zhang Yifan, the only Han student in the class. "Learning is difficult as I don't speak the Kirgiz language, but my Kirgiz classmates will translate the Manas stories to help me learn the songs."

Tohtokul Kurbanali, the musical teacher of the class, started teaching Manas at the school about three years ago. "When I was young, I learned Manas from my father and neighbor. Learning it in school class is something new for this art."

China has, in recent years, heightened efforts to bring traditional Chinese cultures into school campuses and classes, including those of ethnic minority groups, whose preservation has been highlighted on multiple occasions by the central leadership.

Guljamal Mamatturgan, head of the intangible cultural heritage center of Wuqia County, said Manas societies or classes are now commonplace in the county's primary and middle schools.

"It's exciting to see more children start learning Manas. Now, when we organize Manas performances, it's much easier to find minor singers," she said.

(Web editor: Zhang Kaiwei, Liang Jun)


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