• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Sometimes the oAgora—like the eAgora—presents us with puzzling phenomena that seem to defy ready explanation. Often the puzzle stems not from the phenomenon itself but from a misguided reflex. We try and fail to fit the new reality into our default frame of reference, based as it almost always is (for this historical moment, at least) on the deeply embedded ideology of the tAgora. Sometimes, in other words, we encounter an event or situation that doesn’t match our entrenched cognitive predispositions. We may be fascinated by the collision, or we may experience a mild case of culture shock. Either way, the initially mystifying experience can eventually prove educational.

An anecdote

The real-life setting for the following anecdote, the story of just such a media-collision, was a conversation with Dr. Chao Gejin, Director of the Minority Literatures section of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who was organizing a special issue of our journal Oral Tradition on the theme of minority traditions in China. His method consisted first of arranging for contributions on Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, Yi, and other traditions, and then of commissioning the translation of these articles into English. Naturally, the translations required some editing, and so he and I sat together at my desk in Missouri’s Center for Studies in Oral Tradition for many afternoons, he with the original-language texts in his lap and I with the English renderings in mine. Our joint aim was to make these rare and precious insights into sometimes little-known oral traditions as clear and understandable as possible for an external audience. In other words, we were trying to help potential readers find their way past both linguistic and cultural barriers, and they turned out to be barriers of imposing magnitude, as we were soon to discover.

A buried idiom

Within this general context we one day encountered the term “excavating” as applied by Zhambei Gyaltsho to a Tibetan bard’s performance of an oral epic poem. Not illogically, I had flagged the several occurrences of this curious term, assuming a misfire in translation and explaining to Dr. Chao that in English we’d probably say something like “delving into his heart or mind for the story.” No, my colleague replied, the bard in fact excavated his orally performed epic. Presuming that we were now dealing with a disconnect in English idiom (as well as my own ignorance of Mandarin), I then offered a brief and homemade semantics lesson on the specific connotations of the term “excavation” in English—digging something out of the ground, disinterring it, as with a shovel. To avoid any possible misconstrual, I tried to distinguish this narrow and literal meaning from more metaphorical terminology for performance (“reaching deep inside” or “searching his inmost thoughts,” for example). But my best efforts fell short of the mark. My colleague remained unmoved, insisting that the oral singer was in fact excavating the epic.

So there we sat, at a stubborn linguistic impasse with no obvious prospects for resolving the problem—that is, until Dr. Chao came to the rescue by providing a mini-ethnography of the larger process that the article’s author had described only telegraphically. And here’s where the story gets interesting and educational, as well as reveals an unexpected dimension of verbal commerce in the oAgora.


Remarkably for us citizens of the tAgora, what the Tibetan oral poet actually does is to make his way to a cave in the wilderness and physically dig up a tangible text. That’s right; he disinters a manuscript—takes it out of the ground—as a formal, culturally idiomatic prelude to orally performing the epic. That text doesn’t serve as a prompt-book or even as a skeletal aide-mémoire, never mind a full-blown script. It amounts instead to a ritual object, a talisman or charm, used to initiate the act of performance, much like the always-unread text that helps create the performance arena for Mexican folk drama. So against all odds (not to mention against all our default assumptions within the tAgora), the original term turns out to be absolutely accurate. The bard really does excavate the epic.

When a page isn’t a text

Just in case we might be tempted to regard this phenomenon as a unique aberration, a far-out exception to otherwise universal rules about texts and performance, consider another type of oral epic poet in Tibet: the so-called “paper-singer” who performs while staring intently at a white sheet of paper.

Grags-pa seng-ge, Tibetan paper-singer
Photo by Dr. Yang Enhong, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Before you jump to conclusions, let me caution that field research has established a disarming and remarkable fact: the paper is absolutely blank. And when no blank paper is easily available, the paper-singer resorts to a sheet of newsprint. It doesn’t matter because he can’t read anyway.

When asked about what he was doing, Grags-pa seng-ge, a paper-singer interviewed by Yang Enhong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, responded that he watches the action of his story dynamically taking shape on the paper as he sings it into existence, apparently much as we view a film projected on a screen (with the difference that we aren’t also creating the film as we watch!). 

In effect, his “reading” of the “non-text” amounts to assuming the roles of screenwriter, director, cinematographer, and audience all at once. He (re-)creates the script, puts the actors through their paces, frames the visually realized story, and watches and listens to his original yet traditional work. In so doing he offers us another glimpse of the radical otherness of the oAgora.

The upshot

So what’s the moral of these stories? Well, whether excavating or paper-projecting their epics, these two types of Tibetan bards have a lot to tell us about the oAgora. First, the process of creating and receiving is anything but textual—at least according to our customary understanding of what a text is and how it’s used. Second, oAgora reality can seem counter-intuitive when perceived against our ingrained (and unexamined) set of default cognitive categories.

To put things another way, the oAgora proves virtual, rather than tidily enclosed in brick-and-mortar textuality. Like internet-surfers, these epic singers are navigating through a web of possibilities, a contingent universe that they help to bring into being. They find their way with great accuracy, but without the familiar matrix of right-justified pages, indented paragraphs, dust-jacketed books, and static eFiles on which we’ve come to depend as the necessary support for so many of our activities. 

Both of these Tibetan oral poets are surfing pathways, branching this way and that, remaking experience by varying within idiomatic limits. They’re not thumbing through pages or in any other way subscribing to the ideology of the book. They are citizens in good standing of the oAgora, not—all appearances to the contrary—of the tAgora.

No mistranslation here

In the end, then, the so-called problem in translation to “excavating” proved no problem at all, except within my own tAgora frame of reference. Still a prisoner of textual predisposition at some level, I simply got it wrong.

Default expectations aside, some preliterate bards actually dig up texts only so they can then perform non-textually. Others actually hold a blank sheet of paper before their eyes only so they can watch the story they’re singing onto it themselves. The oAgora houses idiosyncratic and sometimes surprising performance arenas.