XINING, Sept. 14 -- Dawa Zhagba can chant hours on end without faltering or stopping for a drink, and lines from the world's longest epic, "King Gesar," seem to pour out on their own.
The 36-year-old ballad singer appears in golden armor and a crown as he chants for crowds of avid listeners in a pasture in the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province.
King Gesar is a ballad about a half-human, half-god 11th Century Tibetan king who conquered the devils of other tribes and sought to help ordinary people.
Like all of the epic's singers, Dawa Zhagba claimed he learned the lines in a mysterious way.
"I was herding cattle on the pasture at the foot of a mountain one day when I was 13. I leaned against a rock to rest but fell asleep," he told Xinhua in an interview.
"In my dream, an old man told me that I had a special mission and would be endowed with supernatural power," he said. "I was to choose between the ability to communicate with all animals and the power to tell King Gesar's story."
Without hesitation, young Dawa Zhagba chose the latter.
After he woke up, he fell ill with a high fever for three days.
When he recovered, he found he could magically recite the epic, telling King Gesar's story and mimicking the dialogue of different roles without having to think.
"I knew immediately I had acquired the supernatural power the old man spoke of in my dream, and I had become one of the 'God-taught singers,'" he said.
Since then, Dawa Zhagba has traveled across China's Tibetan-inhabited areas to chant the epic for his devoted audience. He sings for free, except when he's invited by individuals or businesses to perform on special occasions.
Wangzhag, a Gesar researcher based in Yushu, said the Tibetans believed all the God-taught ballad singers' fortunes lay in their ability to pass on King Gesar's legend.
"Nearly all the bards were vagrants and lived in poverty throughout their lives," said Wangzhag.
In recent years, however, the impact of modernization has changed the mindset of some epic singers.
Sonam Norbu, one of the best-known singers in Yushu's Zhidoi County during the 1990s, gave up his God-taught profession and became a businessman.
"It's a pity that when he died, he didn't leave behind any recordings or texts of the epic he once sang so well," said Wangzhag.
The 1,000-year-old epic of King Gesar, with more than 120 episodes, is considered the crowning masterpiece of Tibetan folk literature.
Only about 130 Gesar singers are alive today, and they include Tibetans, Mongolians and some from the Tu ethnic group. Most are illiterate herders or peasants from Tibet, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia.
All the singers claim they were suddenly able to sing the ballad after a strange dream or a serious disease.
Dawa Zhagba said he was blessed to become a King Gesar singer and is ready to devote his life to singing the epic.
"I'm lucky to be singing at a time of economic boom -- a time when a plane can take me to where my ancestors could never get even if they had walked all their lives," he said.
New technologies have spread King Gesar's legend to a larger audience, with MP3 and CD versions of the epic available in faraway cities.
Dawa Zhagba has sung more than 100 episodes and his singing has been recorded into 28 audio publications. Meanwhile, he has helped compile seven volumes of King Gesar texts, four of which have been published.
"I hope my son will become a King Gesar researcher if he's not a God-taught singer like me," he said.
The boy, 11, is particularly interested in the epic and enjoys his father's singing.
Dawa Zhagba is one of 12 God-taught epic singers in Yushu prefecture. They receive 1,000 yuan each as a monthly subsidy from the local government.
"It's essential to preserve the cultural heritage in its original form. Otherwise, it will one day exist only in text format at museums," said Wangzhag.
China, in its three-decade campaign to preserve the 1-million-line epic, has recorded 5,000 hours of singing and compiled 36 publications. The millennium-old epic has also given rise to a whole field of study referred to as "Gesarology."
Artists have also worked the ancient epic into symphonies, musicals and dramas.
"We can expect King Gesar to be a familiar icon on the international stage in the near future," said Yi Na, a cultural researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.