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Kyrgyzstan protests UNESCO's listing of Epic of Manas as Chinese

Beijing claims it applied on behalf of its ethnic Kyrgyz citizens.

By Meri Bekesheva


BISHKEK – Kyrgyzstan is up in arms over what it considers the Chinese theft of a piece of Kyrgyz cultural heritage.

At the October 2009 session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the UN agency added the Epic of Manas to the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage on behalf of the People’s Republic of China.

The epic poem is of unknowable age. The Kyrgyz government proclaimed and celebrated the poem’s 1,000th anniversary in 1995, but the first time the text surfaced was in a 1792-93 Persian manuscript. Dozens of versions exist, with the longest containing about 500,000 lines.

The entry on the UNESCO website says of the poem, “The Kirgiz ethnic minority in China, concentrated in the Xinjiang region in the west, pride themselves on their descent from the hero Manas”.

The decision has led to protests from Kyrgyz officials and poem reciters (called manaschi) alike, since the state has promoted it as an artefact of Kyrgyz nationhood. It chronicles the exploits of Manas and his descendants against the Kitay and Kalmak.

“We read on the UNESCO website that Manas had become one of China's three main epics and were simply shocked”, said Jypar Jeksheyev, former chairman of the Kyrgyz National Commission on UNESCO Affairs. “Neither China’s UNESCO Commission nor the Kyrgyz living in China told us”.

“We demand immediate corrective action ... on behalf of Kyrgyzstan”, Aitysh, a nongovernmental organisation, said in a written appeal. China is saying little in response to Kyrgyz outrage. Its embassy in Bishkek would not answer inquiries from Central Asia Online. A representative of that country’s UNESCO mission, insisting on anonymity, said China nominated the epic on behalf of the 160,000 ethnic Kyrgyz living in western China.

Such statements are arousing jeers in Kyrgyzstan and an effort to – in Bishkek’s view – rectify the matter. UNESCO has given Kyrgyzstan until June this year to prove that the epic is its own.

"If the Kyrgyz Epic of Manas starts being considered a treasure of Chinese civilisation today, then who knows what will happen in 100 or 1,000 years"? political analyst Turat Akimov told Central Asia Online.

He added that China had appropriated “Tibetan values and holy places” and calls Genghis Khan “a great Chinese emperor”.

Attributing the Epic of Manas to China undermines UNESCO's credibility, Akimov said. He recalled that UNESCO officials had attended Kyrgyzstan’s millennial celebration of the poem in 1995. The UN agency listed the storytelling art of manaschi as an item of Kyrgyzstan's Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003.

Political researcher Jyrgalbek Kasabolotov gave two reasons for China’s behaviour: First, it is portraying itself as a protector of minority cultures, and second, it wants documented possession of the Kyrgyz people's cultural property.

“Tomorrow, Turkey will also be able to lay claim to the Epic of Manas, since Kyrgyz live there too”, warned Bakyt Orunbekov, an instructor at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University in Bishkek. “Kyrgyz live in Afghanistan and Russia — they could submit a joint nomination. … Manas should belong only to Kyrgyzstan and to all Kyrgyz around the world”.

But Jeksheyev was pessimistic about Kyrgyzstan's ability to change UNESCO’s mind. “China is not a country that makes concessions easily”, he said. “In Paris, a Chinese representative has a seat on every UNESCO committee.

Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a single one”. One manaschi expressed his dismay at the ruling.

“Manas rallied his scattered people and defeated the people’s principal enemy, the Chinese”, said Samat Kochorbayev, who has won several storytelling contests. “Only the Kyrgyz can understand the essence and idea of Manas. Now I fear that the Chinese ... will start making cartoons and movies about the Epic of Manas”.

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Reader Comments

  • And where have you been, Messrs Kyrgyz scientists?

    December 30, 2013 @ 06:12:13AM манасбай
  • Ooooh, it turns out that the Kyrgyz are not the Kyrgyz, but the Chinese... Who cares, you still look the same. So do not you worry too much that UNESCO switches from one pocket to the other.

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:07:53AM Киргизгой
  • I do not quite understand why UNESCO has made the decision. Are the Chinese not ashamed? After all, why are the Kyrgyz sleeping? Wake up! It's time to fight. Manas is our cultural heritage.

    May 12, 2013 @ 12:05:22PM эльнура
  • When will the government of Kyrgyzstan finally wake up and defend the rights of the Kyrgyz and the MANAS EPIC? Why are they sitting there thinking only of themselves? HOW MUCH LONGER can we be humiliated and dishonored because of the leaders’ deeds? They need to solve global problems of the state and authority, and not to argue with each other and sort things out. Do not DISGRACE yourselves all over the WORLD!! THINK OF THE STATE!

    December 11, 2012 @ 08:12:13AM Сагый
  • i believe that the epic always belongs to Kirgiz people whenever its being registered under the name of China, since it is a great master pieces thats everyone loves it . Your shoube be happy that the epic loved by so many people beyond the country boundries. But one thing I couldnot understand is that as Kirgiz you should not taking my loving from the epic. it is rediculous . You should feel happy about it .

    November 15, 2012 @ 06:11:23AM david
  • How can a state own an epic? How can a country be master of the spirit of an ancient hero? Who is the rightful owner of an ancestor, who inspires artists to create oral performances that warm our hearts?

    April 18, 2012 @ 08:04:39AM Nienke van der Heide
  • The Khans do not only eye modern Kyrgyzstan but also Ene-Syy, Yrkyt, Bay-Kol, Kyzyl-Zhar and the entire Shiber. Read Manas - this is a real story. The Khan is a dangerous enemy for the Kyrgyz. You know Zhungry, Uighurs, Tibetans, Manchurians, etc. The Russians should be vigilant and should tighten their migration policy with regard to the Khans. They are a ticking time bomb.

    August 24, 2011 @ 06:08:00AM Темирбек Усупов
  • How can such an organization as UNESCO, which is trusted across the world, inscribe the Epic of Manas as China's in such a blind manner? This must be verified and studied, if necessary. This is not just a song or some work, this is the history, cultural asset and spirit of the Kyrgyz people. By doing this UNESCO shows its incompetence in this sphere and tarnishes its reputation, or one can suspect UNESCO of corruption. And it is no secret that China always steals others' ideas and histories.

    May 25, 2011 @ 08:05:00AM Aidana
  • I lived in Kyrgyzstan and I know what the epic "Manas" means to the Kyrgyz. China stakes out too many claims. I am a Bashkir and we also have an epic, "Ural-Batyr," and no one dares to take it from us. Are they trying to steal it from you so openly?

    December 21, 2010 @ 09:12:00AM Артур
  • Manas belongs to Kyrgyzstan and to Kyrgyz people only. Neither China nor anyone else can take away our identity and ideology. I am strongly against China`s claim that this epic belongs to them. They have no right for that as well as authority. I don`t care what UNESCO thinks about it. What i can say is that we all know the truth that Manas is a Great Epic depicting Kyrgyz and other people of Central Asia. I am proud to be Kyrgyz and to live in this country and will fight for the better future of our people.

    November 26, 2010 @ 05:11:00AM Aman
  • The epic story of Manas revolves around the hero\'s fight against the Kara Khitais. Kirghiz people call Chinese people Khitai but the Kara Khitais are actually a Mongolian people who inhabited the current Kyrgyzstan after the absorbtion of their empire in Inner Mongolia by the Jurchens (ancestors of the Manchus).

    June 17, 2010 @ 02:06:00PM Truehistory
  • What can we do? Is there a petition going around? Should we call someone? what do we do? I am Kyrgyz so I know that Chinese are just being full of themselves in taking my Manas from my people! Seriosly, people, I am willing to fight for this on any level, until it becomes ours!

    April 16, 2010 @ 08:04:00AM Asel
  • How can we keep on living without Manas. The Kyrgyzs, wake up! Stop sleeping! Because of our sleepy leaders we have been deprived of our valuable things. Akayev sold half of the Manas peak, and now the epic weighs on Bakiyev's conscience. Without Manas, we are not Kyrgyzs, not a nation! All our enemies always killed us off physically, but could not kill our spirit. China is our major enemy, it seeks to destroy our spirit!!! Let's ask our brothers Kazakhs and Uzbeks for help. They know what Manas means to the Kyrgyzs and Kyrgyzstan. Finally, Russia could support us as all, the Manas releases were printed in Russia. The Kyrgyz have always existed and will exist with Manas. Let the spirit of Manas help us!!!

    March 14, 2010 @ 01:03:00AM bakytbay
  • A Kyrgyz without Manas is not a Kyrgyz, we are losing ourselves as a nation, how can authorities ignore it, the issue should be addressed at the governmental level. If the authorities do not need this, as we have understood they have other things to take care of, the public should intervene. We are descendants of Manas and we need to act together.

    March 5, 2010 @ 01:03:00AM
  • It's an informative and topical article. I give it an excellent mark. It is necessary to write about it so that everyone will know about it. The fact is that the three epics Manas, Geseriada and Jangar were put on the UNESCO's list of intangible heritage on behalf of China. Jangar is a Kalmyk epic. The Kalmyks also can protest. But they are part of Russia and do not have such an opportunity as Kyrgyzstan. I hope that UNESCO will make a fair decision despite China's power and might. It will be their conscience barometer.

    February 24, 2010 @ 11:02:00PM Марат
  • An informative and very topical article. This is geopolitics pursued by China. Can Kyrgyzstan stand up to policies of a country as big as China? The more so because people in the world know more about the Chinese than about the Kyrgyzs. And in many years this epic will belong to the Chinese. Who will care by then whether Manas is a Chinese or Kyrgyz epic? Every Kyrgyz flatly opposes the epic being nominated on behalf of China. The Kyrgyz government should withdraw from UNESCO and SCO if UNESCO fails to revise the nomination and change its decision. It is worth fighting for because the Kyrgyzs cannot exist as a nation without Manas. This is more than just an epic. This this a national ideology. This is the most valuable thing the Kyrgyzs have.

    February 24, 2010 @ 01:02:00AM Эля