Mongolian Epic Identity: Formulaic Approach to Janggar Epic Singing

By | 2014年4月29日 | 1,351 views


Mongolian oral epic singing has been a vast tradition. Being the most important genre of folk arts, the tradition can be traced back to long ago. Some scholars believe that the Mongolian epic emerged in about Chinghis Khan”s time. And the Mongol steppe aristocracy played a decisive role in supporting, inspiring and transmitting the stories of their heroic deeds and their social ideals.[1] It is fairly hard to tell the exact amount of epic stories, not to mention the epic texts, since it has been a living tradition; some stories die out, while new compositions emerge. Roughly speaking, today, except the huge epic cycles like Jangar and Gesar, more than 550 epics and variants of smail and medium epics have been recorded. They are mostly small-yolume epics that consist of several hundreds of lines in singing, each, however, telling a complete story. Medium-volume epics number in the dozens, each with thousands of lines, and some can have more than ten thousand, in the form of written text. In addition, the large-volume Jangar recorded among the Oirat people in China. Mongolia and Russia consists of 200 cantos, totaling as long as approximately 200,000 lines. Within China, a 12-volume Jangar Material Collection appeared in succession. A photocopy of Jangar manuscripts was published in 1996, and four versions of Chinese translation have been published during the second half of the 20th century. Singer Arimpil’s individual libretto was recorded by the young scholar Taya and printed in 1999. This 17-conto Jangar was another landmark of the tradition, since the Kalmuck singer Eelee Oflaa”s 10-canto Jangar had appeared in St. Petersburg in 1910.
Within China, there are three areas where Mongolian epics flourished, they are: Bargu, Horchin and Oirat[2], and we may say that they represent the three epic evolutional stages respectively. Bargu epics reveal the epic tradition”s infantile stage; they are normally short, with a simple story line. and they are filled with archaic motifs, like family or clan revenge, or bride-capture. The Oirat epics, centered on the famous Jangar, were the mature stage. Highly developed singing skills, large group of professional perforrners, and complicated story structures, all indicate their maturity. As for Horchin epics, they demonstrate the fall of this old singing tradition. The epics changed greatly, they gained features and narrative techniques from other folk genres, like folk tales and folk ode (“Bensen üliger” and “holboo” in Mongolian). The epic singers had to perform other genres to make a living, since the audience changed their interests to” “historic event”——the tradenlark and attraction of the Bensen üliger, rather than the exaggerated description of gigantic heroes. As for the epic distribution, we found the epic Jangar cycle sung only among the Oirat peoples both in tile Tian Shan Mountains in Xinjiang and in Kalmuck Republic on the bank of the Volga River in Russia.
A German traveler Benjamin Bergmann collected the first Jangar in the beginning of the 19th century among the Kalmucks in Russia.[3] There was a tradition to keep and treasure the epic text in written form in Mongolian families, especially in high-ranking families. Still, Mongolian epic singing has been primarily a living tradition. Singers play an extremely important role in its transmission. According to various resources, most of the singers in history were illiterates. They normally were born and grew up in the milieu of epic performing, and took advantage of the privilege to start learning in their childhood. They also were regarded as smart and possessing excellent memory by the society. The skill of performing epic could be their hobby and let them win respect among their community. Some of them, on the other hand, became professional singers and made a living through their singing. A few of those professional singers even won certain titles and were invited to stay in Mongol princes” palaces or yurts. However, the declining process was still underway. There were fewer and fewer singers, and they had fewer skills: so far most of them were not able to play musical instruments like the tobshur and the choor to accompany their singing. And majority of the singing was in prose, instead of the original verse form. During the past two decades, about 80% of the Jangar singers passed away. And the most of the survivals were poorly trained, have limited repertoire, and seldom have the opportunity to polish their singing.


In hearing and reading the Mongolian epic singing, we found that certain expressive units have high a density of recurrence. The epic motifs are organized in certain sequences, the plots have similar resolution, and a large quantity of fixed phrases with certain meaning and rhyming used in wide range of narrative situation. In fact, those fixed units, like the scheme of developing a story, like the common phrases, for instance, ornaments and epithets, were widely shared by signers of different times and different regions. Here we will deal with phrasal formula, so as to make a perspective on the Mongolian epic singer”s rhetorical technique in epic composition. Because of the limit of space here, we will make our analysis very briefly and localized in one canto of one singer”s Jangar. This canto is Hündü Gartai Sahar In Bülüg (Canto of Mighty Arm Sabar). sung by singer Arimpil (1923-1994). The recording was taken in July of 1991 in Xinjiang, China. We all agree with the observation that the more skillful the singer is, the larger amount of formulas he would use in singing. Arimpil was no doubt one of those distinguished performers. Having about 20 cantos of Jangar epic in his repertoire. Arimpil was the most prominent illiterate jangarchi (Jangar singer) in our time.[4]
The following factors should be mentioned before entering the analytical procedure, so as to make a sketch on the Mongolian epic versification: (1) head rhyme; (2) verse line is normally short, with an average of 4 to 5 words in each line, but not strict tetrameter; (3) formulas usually occupy a whole line, if not more lines; (4) if go with other words to form a line, formulas normally at the beginning; (5) enjambement is not used.
Our sample Hündü Gartai Sabar In Bülüg is a 652–line poem. We found that Arimpil used an incredible number of fixed phrases and epithets in depicting characters, steeds, weapons, palace or localities, numerals and directions, and etc and etc. Since we cannot analyze all the formulas, our job will center on epithet. We have three reasons to work on epithet: first, epithets cover 173 lines, which occupy 26.5% of the entire poem. Some of the epithets have the highest recurrence of any formula in the text; second, epithets here have remarkable features that distinguish them from some other epic traditions: third, as far as we know, scholarship on the Mongolian epic epithet still remains a grey area; last, epic epithet was deeply explored by the school of Oral Formulate Theory (or Parry-Lord Theoty) and its followers with different backgrounds, the models and procedures they used inspired us a great deal.
Someone may ask: is the epithet a proper sample for our purpose of demonstrating singers” traditional techniques? We understand that ONE performance is the intertext of the entire singing tradition. We have only two options to make our analysis reasonable, either the examples are infinite, or they are highly molded into typology. Since the singing tradition is enormous, through drawing examples to cover the tradition is in some sense not proper method; on the other hand, they are highly typological, via a sample to make analogy is not only reasonable, but also exercisable.


Arimpil’s epithets are close to the epithets we know in Homer and some epic traditions in Yugoslavia in their nature and function. They are combinations of adjectives and figure”s names. The adjective words or phrase are in connection with the figure’s nature or characteristics. In our text, we have the following epithets:

Epithet in Latin transcription: English translation:
Aldar noyan Janggar Great famed governor Janggar
Dogsin sira manggus hagan Atrocious yellow mangguskhan(monster king)
Asar ulagan Honggor Giant red Honggor
hiindii gartai Sabar Mighty–arm Sabar
Dogsin hara Sanal Atrocious black Sanal
Altan Chegeji Babai Abaga Alatan chegeji babai abaga
Agai Shabdala Gerel hatun Agai Shabdala Gerel noblewoman


underlined parts are figures” names. Manggus hagan (monster king) is not a name. In Jangar tradition, monsters do not usually possess names. Altan chegeji Babai Abaga and Agai Shabdala Gerel hatun are formed with name and honorific titles, abaga used for aged man and hatun for noblewoman. These two epithets are somewhat different from others, but they have highly fixed form. thus can be seen as special epithet.

In this 652–line poem tile epithet “Asar Ulagan Honggor” appeared 33 times! In quite some cases this epithet goes with noun–declension and other grammar appendants. Still, we can see it as whole-line-epithet. And we also found this epithet goes sometimes with another lille to form a “couplet”–

aguu yehe hüchütei very great slrenglh asar ulagalr Honggor giant red Honggor This is not the only case that the epithet takes the form of couplet; the following are other samples with exactly the same structure: Hümün nu nachin (eagle among mass) Hündü gartai Sabar (mighty–arm Sabar) Or: Bolinggar tin hübegün (Bolinggar”s offspring) Dogsin hara Sanal (atrocious black Sanal) We can see the ornamental part (normally the first line) as affiliation, and the line with characters name a core epithet. Thus we have tile following structure:      ornamental affiliation       core epitliet We also noticed that tire affiliation does not always goes with the core. In other words, in the couplet-epithet of Honggor, the core appeared 33 times, while the affiliation appeared 16 times. And in another Couplet-epithet Hümün nu nachin/Hüudü gartai Sathar, the recurrence is 16 versus 23. This feature is common in the tradition. It seems the singer is not satisfied with depicting his hero only in one or two lines, in some cases lie wanted to add a few more lines to stress his hero”s power or strength. Thus we have a group of lines to describe a hero. And the group is also highly fixed and only goes with the couplet epithet. Here are some examples: (A) Ama tai hümün (people who have mouth) Amalaju bolosi ügei (dare not to gossip [about him]) Hele tei yagurna (creatures that have tongues) Helejü bolosi ügei (dare not to talk about [him]) Hümün nu nachin (eagle among mass) Hündü gartai Sabar (mighty–arm Sabar) (B) Irehü yeren yisün jili ([things] of the future 99 years) Ailadchu mededeg (would know by surmise) ?nggeregsen yeren yisün jil i ([things] of the past 99 years) Tagaji mededeg (would know by guess) Altan Chegeji Babai abaga, (Altan Chegeji Babai abaga) (C) agchim tm jaguar du (the moment eyes blinking) arban gurba hubildag (make transfiguration for 13 times) amin beye düni ügei (anima is out of the body) aguu yehe hüchütei (very great strength) asar ulagan Honggor (Giant Red Honggor) In our text, the first four lines of example (A) appeared 4 times, and it goes with the couplet-epithet in each time. In example (B) the first four lines collie only once. But we know that it is a fixed formula, since it appears in Arimpil”s other cantos for many times without changing, and in other singers” texts also, As a matter of fact, this four line is a standard ornament for Janggar”s counselor and brainpower Altan Chegeji Bahai. It is very rare to see this ornament applies to other heroes. In our example (C), the same rule works again, the first three-line ornament conies once here, but it is no doubt a standard ornament for hero Honggor. Now we can conclude that the ornamental group of lines here does not go with the core epithet each time, and it can be applied to other characters in some cases, thus we may name it a semi-dependent ornament. Therefore, we now have the following schcnle: Semi-dependent multi-line ornament Ornamental affiliation Core epithet According to our observation, to bring out a hero, our singer has a few options: in most cases, he only uses the core epithet. Some times he would adopt the form of couplet. In a few cases, he uses a multi-line ornament to fulfill the description. On the other hand, our singer would never allow himself to mention a hero”s name without using any ornament. He would make adjustments, like adding or reducing certain parts of the epithet so as to match the meter. For example, aldar noyan Janggar (great famed governor Janggar) is the basic form of Janggar epithet. But we also have other forms. If we gather all the lines that start with “aldar”, we could then find out that the epithet is not a firmed word combination, but rather a flexible solution, for example: aldar bogda noyan Janggar Great famed Saint governor Janggar aldar noyan Janggar ni tologailagad Great famed governor to be the head aldar Janggar un haihirugsan [when] Great famed dagu ni Janggar”s yell In short, the singer” has privilege to change the epithet, so as to match the narration and melody.


Now we know in part how a traditional singer composes his poem. First, he will repeat ready-made formulas time and again; and those formulas may be used in a large area, and may have a long tradition. When there was a pre-existing formula, he would not trouble himself in creating a new expression instead. Second, when the verse meter needs a shorter or longer metrical arrangement, the singer would make adjustments to meet it. In our examples above, for instance, the singer added bogda (saint) to lengthen the line, or took out noyan (governor) to shorten it, so as to link verbs like tologailagad (to be head), or helegsen dü (when said), so as to fit in with the melody and narration. Third, we could not figure out an approximate epithet density of a specific singer, not to mention of a certain poem, the reason is that we could not tell at what time the singer chooses to introduce a whole set of epithet like “Semi-dependent multi-line ornament + Ornamental affiliation + Core epithet,” or at what time he only uses the core epithet. According to my fieldwork experience and knowledge of the epic singing in the Mongolian world, it depends on the singer”s mood and inspiration at the composing moment, and also depends on the audience”s reaction to his ornamental depicting. The more the audience show their appreciation, like giving him loud applause, the more he will demonstrate his stored formulas, and thus lengthen his performance. We have different “versions” of Arimpil”s certain story. Yes you can tell they are the same ONE story, but on the other hand, they have different beginnings, and some quite different plots, and different formulaic density as well. For this reason, we can hardly tell the normal length for a certain poem as well. The epic density is no doubt high, and also varies widely.
The same rule applies to not only epithet, but to other formulas as well. For instance, when introducing the hero Honggor”s steed, in our text, the singer may say: ochin h?he haljan hülüg (Mars grey steed with white spot on forehead), and he also may say: tonjir ud un üre (accipiter”s descendant) tonggag gegüü ni unagan (the marc”s first pregnancy) naiman minggan aranjai jegerde (eight thousand Aranjal chestnut horses) adugun dotora yabugsan (had been among the herd) agula biJgdi, ireme manggus (the manggus with strength to carry a mount) ugchi gi ergime hurdun (quick move around a hill) ochin hühe haljan hülüg ni (Mars grey steed with white spot on forehead)
It is obviously a whole set of describing Honggor”s steed. But it does not come out each time with the same format. In fact, like what we have seen in epithet, the core ochin hühe haljan hülüg appeared six times, while twice it goes with the neighboring two-line ornament, and one it goes with the whole set. Ornaments of weapon, saddle, flag, and lots of other things share exactly the same rule in the singing. The same rule governs also the narration of a king”s territory, his palace, his maiden, his herds, etc. Through our analysis on syntactic repetition, the formula”s two contrary natures are revealed: it is fixed, in some sense, certain meaning combines with certain rhyming; and it is also flexible, can be lengthened or shortened to meet the meter and melody, and also can be full-loaded or predigested, to meet singer”s own mood, skill and inspiration.


1 B. Ya Vladimistsov, The Oirat-Mongolian Heroic Epic, Mongolian Studies, Journal of the Mongolia Society, Vol. VIII, (1983-84). pp.5-59. Though the time of Mongolian epic”s emergence is still a disputable question, since lacking of direct evidence, his hypothesis, I believe, is still most close to the historical reality. 2 See Rinchindorji, The Development of Mongolian Epic Plot-Structure, Studies of National Literature, (1989:5), P. 11-19. And also Chao Gejin: “Mongolian Oral Epic Poetry: An Overview,” Oral Tradition, Slavica, 12/2, (1997): 322-36. 3 Riga. C. J. G Hartmann Benjamin Bergmann”s nomadische streifereien unter den Kalmuken in den jahren 1802 und 1803. vol 4. ,( 1804-1805). 4 Arimpil was born in 1923 in a family belonged to Torgud Tribe, now the Hobagsair Mongolian Autonomous County of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He had learned epic Jangar singing from famous signers like Bayar and Aliya. With about 20 cantos Jangar in his repertoire, he was the most famous illiterate singer in our time. 5 Manggus: normally means monster, here means with ferocious nature, or with great strength.


Chao Gejin. Mongolian Oral Epic Poetry: An Overview. Oral Tradition, Slavica, 12/2, 1997. Hartmann, Riga. C. J. G. Benjamin Bergmann”s nomadische streifereien unter den Kahnuken in den jahren 1802 und 1803. 1804-1805, vol 4. Rinchindorji. The Development of Mongolian Epic Plot-Structure. Studies of National Literature, 1989:5 Vladimistsov, B. Ya. The Oirat-Mongolian Heroic Epic. Mongolian Studies, Journal of the Mongolia Society, Vol. VIII, 1983-84.