Latin Caesar –> Tibetan Gesar –> Xi Jinpingian Sager

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From Shawn Zhang's Twitter account:

The Epic of King Gesar

The Epic of King Gesar (/ˈɡɛzər/ or /ˈɡɛsər/; Tibetan: གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ་Wylie: ge sar rgyal po, "King Gesar"; Mongolian: Гэсэр Хаан, Geser Khagan, "King Geser", Russian: Гесар-хан or Кесар), also spelled Geser (especially in Mongolian contexts) or Kesar (/ˈkɛzər/ or /ˈkɛsər/), is an epic cycle, believed to date from the 12th century, that relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar,[1] the fearless lord of the legendary kingdom of Ling (Wylie: gling).

Etymology of the name "Gesar"

It has been proposed on the basis of phonetic similarities that the name Gesar reflects the Roman title Caesar, and that the intermediary for the transmission of this imperial title from Rome to Tibet may have been a Turkic language, since kaiser (emperor) entered Turkish through contact with the Byzantine Empire, where Caesar (Καῖσαρ) was an imperial title. Some think the medium for this transmission may have been via Mongolian Kesar. The Mongols were allied with the Byzantines, whose emperor still used the title. Numismatic evidence and some accounts speak of a Bactrian ruler Phrom-kesar, specifically the Kabul Shahi of Gandhara, which was ruled by a Turkish From Kesar ("Caesar of Rome"), who was father-in-law of the king of the Kingdom of Khotan around the middle of the 8th century CE. In early Bon sources, From Kesar is always a place name, and never refers, as it does later, to a ruler. In some Tibetan versions of the epic, a king named Phrom Ge-sar or Khrom Ge-sar figures as one of the kings of the four directions – the name is attested in the 10th century and this Phrom/Khrom preserves an Iranian form (*frōm-hrōm) for Rūm/Rome. This eastern Iranian word lies behind the Middle Chinese word for (Eastern) Rome (拂菻:Fúlǐn), namely Byzantium (phrōm-from<*phywət-lyəm>).

Xi Jinping has misread Gésàěr wáng 格萨尔王("King Gesar") as Sàgéěr wáng 萨格尔王 ("King Sager").

Wanting to make sure that the recording on Shawn Zhang's Twitter hadn't been doctored, I checked the official transcript (via Zhōngguó zhèngfǔ wǎng 中国政府网).  Needless to say, it doesn't register the error:


Well, then, let's check the official video (here's where it gets really, really interesting).  Our paragraph begins at 5:18; the Gesar passage begins at 6:36.  Now, although the rest of the voice recording is crystal clear, the word "Gésàěr wáng 格萨尔王" ("King Gesar") is garbled, as though Xi hiccuped while pronouncing it.  I immediately sensed that they had clumsily patched in the correct reading.  That they did so can be proven by going to the CCTV 13 recording on YouTube (direct link to 1:06):

Perfect!  No glitch, no garble.  Sounds just like the voicing on Shawn Zhang's Twitter video, which (judging from the CCTV logo in the top left, the sign language interpreter in the bottom left, and the position of the delegates in the hall) is identical with the Shawn Zhang Twitter video.

As for the text mentioned by Xi right after his Sager (< Gesar), it is Kyrgyz Epic of Manas:

The Epic of Manas (Kyrgyz: Манас дастаны, ماناس دستانی, Azerbaijani: Manas Dastanı, Turkish: Manas Destanı) is a traditional epic poem dating to the 18th century but claimed by the Kyrgyz people to be much older. This opens the possibility of Manas having spoken a dialect of Turki similar to that of the Kazakhs and Nogay people today. The plot of Manas revolves around a series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the 17th century, primarily the interaction of the Turki-speaking people from the mountains to the south of the Dasht-i Qipchaq and the Oirat Mongols from the bordering area of Jungaria.

Xi Jinping's rendering of "Gesar" as "Sager" reminds me of his famously funny misreading of "agriculture" as "clothing", with salacious undertones:

"Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16)

Chairman Xi has made other such lapsūs linguae, but I won't track all of them down tonight.


"'Manas' Onstage: Ongoing Moves to Sinicize China’s Three Great Oral Epics" (April 12, 2018) by Bruce Humes

[Thanks to Jichang Lulu]


  1. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

    Nearly a month ago, the most popular of a number of fake Communist Youth League Twitter accounts quoted a (seemingly genuine) Communist Youth League Weibo post that claimed the million-verse Gesar epic was one of 18 books Xi Jinping had "recently" read. (Cf. this CDT post by Sandra Severdia.)

    The (Pseudo-)League estimates that Chairman Xi's reading of the Gesar (presumably in Chinese translation) required him to ingest more than 200,000 loaves of Memory Bread / Copy Toast (anki-pan, アンキパン / 暗記パン), a Doraemon gadget.

    Perhaps some of the anki-pan loaves were defective, or had exited the Chairman by the time of the NPC speech, since he failed to recognise the title of the epic.

  2. AntC said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 10:07 pm

    Why is Xi mentioning all these historical/legendary figures? Is he trying to promote himself to Kingly status?

    And why from non-Han cultures? Again is he trying to incorporate Mongol and Central Asian peoples into the Chinese/Xi empire? (One Belt One Road Initiative)

    Would the average Han on the Chongqing omnibus have heard of these figures/know anything of their history/culture/language?

  3. martin schwartz said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 12:22 am

    For all it matters, one may be more precise as to "Iranian" Frôm:
    It starts with West Middle Iranian–Middle Persian and Parthian, where
    Hrôm represents the Greek(early Byzantine) form for Rome, with the obligatory pre-aspirated initial R- (usually quasi-transcribed as Rh-).
    Within colloqiual Parthian, fr- was frequently pronounced as hr-, e.g. hraman alonside framân 'command'. By hypercorrection, other Parthian forms in hr- which are not from *fr, such as the hero-namr
    Hrêdôn, whose OLd Iranian antecedent began with thete followed by r,
    thene became fr- (thus Frêdôn, reflected in Classical Persian as Firêdôn.
    So too Hrôm became Frôm (for boh the Eastern and Western Roman Empires), > Sogdian Frôm and eastward.
    I suppose the Sager-sayer has sufficient Ja-Sager (yeasayer), if I may Germanize.
    Martin Schwartz

  4. Dan said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 3:27 am

    Nice discussion although I had hoped for a little more since there are so many experts out there, and I do love to complicate things. Lacking so far are connections with notions of hair and anthers, and jokes about Julius Caesar's hair since he was probably bald. Have a look at this 7-year-old blog entry for a bit on that. Tibetan does have an ordinary word for 'anther' that is spelled exactly the same as their epic hero: གེ་སར་

    Cheers! D-

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 6:33 am

    The equivalent of Frôm in Chinese is Fúlǐn 拂菻 (Middle Sinitic /pʰɨut̚ liɪmX/ [Baxter-Sagart]).



    Zhengzhang Shangfang /pʰɨut̚/ /liɪmX/

    Pan Wuyun /pʰiut̚/ /limX/

    Shao Rongfen /pʰiuət̚/ /ljemX/

    Edwin Pulleyblank /pʰut̚/ /limX/

    Li Rong /pʰiuət̚/ /liəmX/

    Wang Li /pʰĭuət̚/ /lĭĕmX/

    Bernard Karlgren /pʰi̯uət̚/ /li̯əmX/

    Expected Mandarin Reflex fu lǐn


    A review of the etymological proposals for this word has been written by Zhang Xushan, favoring a derivation from Sogdian [script needed] (frwm /frūm/), [script needed] (βrʾwm /frūm, frōm/, “Rome, Byzantium”) or Chorasmian [script needed] (frōm), which are akin to Parthian frwm (Frōm), Middle Persian ‎ (Hrōm, “Rome; Byzantine”), and Old Armenian Հռովմ (Hṙovm), all of which are ultimately from Ancient Greek Ῥώμη (Rhṓmē).


  6. 申徒嘉 said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 7:53 am

    @AntC Cultural appropriation. Maybe I'm too cynical, but his saying "我国" invented these things, taking for granted and at the same time implying that Tibet has been part of "我国" since the beginning of time (even if he does use "传承" for this sub-group) is probably a preface to some sort of imminent Tibet-related action.

  7. Birdseeding said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    I'm assuming king Sager lives in the Sager Palace.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

    From Peter Golden:

    On 拂菻 Fulin (phrōm-from<*phywət-lyəm>), cf. Old Turkic purum (Kül Tegin Inscription East,4, Bilge Qağan Inscription, East, 5) denoting Byzantium/Constantinople and/or Rome. I am sure that others will have more to say on this.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 6:46 pm

    I agree with 申徒嘉. Xi's slip is emblematic of the situation in China. Even as the propaganda machinery revs up its claims to ownership of the entire cultural legacy of the ethnic minorities, its policies on the ground are quite the opposite, having the aim of extirpating the very languages and cultures it is busy appropriating (except, of course, in Chinese translation, where swapping a 格 and a 萨 in those pesky ethnic names is quite forgivable).

    The current situation in Xinjiang is horrific. The languages of the native inhabitants have been forced out of schools as part of what some benignly term a 'policy of assimilation'. Xinjiang is now virtually a police state. If you have foreign friends you will be forced to remove them from your WeChat account. It is dangerous to have contact with foreigners in Xinjiang: if you don't toe the line the government will go for your family.

    Even friendly Pakistan is not exempt (see

    Discussing the glories of Chinese civilisation is one thing (and it is glorious). Praising China for the great strides it has made in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is entirely in order. But acquiescing in the cultural appropriation and cultural genocide (an ugly term but let's call a spade a spade) that the Chinese state is engaged in is quite another.

  10. Bruce Humes said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 8:09 pm

    @AntC Cultural appropriation and @申徒嘉

    Scholars at the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) have been hard at work for several years now establishing that three classic epics of non-Han peoples — King Gesar (Tibetan), Manas (Kyrgyz) and Janggar (Mongolian) — are part and parcel of China's great ancient culture.

    Contemporary scholarly work on these epics in China often preface their titles with 我国 ("My country's," i.e., "China's"). In a detailed biography of Jusup Mamay (居素普·玛玛依评传), the recently deceased manaschi of Xinjiang, the phrase "China's Epic of Manas" (我国 《玛纳斯史诗》) occurs several dozen times.

    For a detailed look at the "Sinification" of the Epic of Manas — an ancient oral classic in the Kyrgyz language — see:

    Jusup Mamay, Manaschi: A Rehabilitated Rightist and his Turkic Epic

  11. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 9:21 pm

    Shawn Zhang reports Gesar, and especially its Imperial permutation Sager, as censored on Weibo.

  12. martin schwartz said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 12:14 am

    Some interesting and germane remarks on Fromo Kesaro
    (with Bactrian silent -o, by the way) vis-a-vis Phrom Gesar:
    search internet PDF Harmatta Western Türks Unesco Fromo.
    Hello, Peter Golden. We were lecturing at the Collège de France at the same time some years ago, and I heard one of your lectures;
    alas we didn't get a chance to sit down and talk.
    Martin Schwartz

  13. martin schwartz said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 1:39 am

    For the ref. to Harmatta, I should have indicated pp. 379-381.
    Martin Schwartz

  14. Bathrobe said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 5:29 am

    Sorry, I wasn't clear:

    If you are a member of one of the local ethnicities it is not permitted to have foreign friends. As far as I know, this does not apply to the Han Chinese.

  15. Eidolon said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 9:58 pm

    It is interesting that Xi uses "传承" – inherited – to describe the relationship of 我国 "our country" to the epics of Gesar, Manas, and Jangar, but "创作" – created – for the more classically Chinese cultural works of Shijing, Chu Ci, Tang poetry, etc. Even though the inclusion of the minority works is an obvious play at the idea that the cultures of Chinese minorities belong to China, there remains that separation between what Xi views as orthodox Chinese tradition, and what he views as minority traditions.

    It is still cultural appropriation, but it speaks of a more subtle and deeper nuance. Perhaps Xi was just trying to be historically accurate in recognizing that the epics of Gesar, Manas, and Jangar were created by states that were not part of China at the time, and so could not have been created by 我国. But given the habit of the Chinese government to trace their claims of Tibet, Xinjiang, etc. as much back as possible, I'd be surprised to learn that this is what Xi intended. More likely, Xi is drawing his own line at what he considers proper Chinese tradition and what he considers minority contributions; which would resonate with his revival of Confucian ideals and traditional values.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 7:23 am

    From Marcel Erdal:

    The Greek emperor is called φρομο κησαρο in Bactrian, an Iranian language spoken in Northern Afghanistan in the 7th century (the ο at the end of both words has no sound value). At that time, the Western Turk Empire was a powerful factor in that area.

  17. Bathrobe said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 3:54 pm

    That is a very important distinction (传承 vs 创作) that Eidolon has picked up. It's a subtle and very telling word choice. Along with the "Sinification" of Manas discussed above, it paints a revealing picture of the mechanism at work. That is: appropriate the culture of minorities, Sinify it but make sure it stays out of the 'proper tradition', and neutralise its roots. It's step 2 (concern with the 'proper tradition') that Eidolon's astute observation has clarified and it throws an interesting light on the deeper assumptions involved.

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