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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”.