Sometime in the seventh or eighth century -- the exact dates are obscure in the foggy confluence of history and myth -- a warrior named Manas united the Kyrgyz tribes in a rebellion against China. The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan hasn't been the same ever since.
The endless battles, embroidered with monsters, magic, and, of course, fair maidens, are chronicled in the heroic epic, Manas. Part history, part foundation myth, part rumination on good and evil, part national liberation tract, the epic defines Kyrgyzstan in a way that no single work of literature dominates the collective psyche of any other country.
Befitting its stature, the epic is long, about 500,000 lines of verse. Kyrgyz students are taught that Manas is longer than other famously voluminous historical epics like Greece's Iliad and Odyssey and India's Mahabharata. For centuries, Manas wasn't written down, existing only in the oral recitations performed by traditional bards. Wearing tall felt hats, these Manaschi speak the lines in a singsong rapping style, and the best are reputed to have committed the whole thing to memory. The bards often trace the origins of their talent to mystical dreams in which Manas himself or his associates offered encouragement.
In one scene, Manas exhorts his followers to reclaim lands that once belonged to their ancestors but are now in the hands of the Chinese, called the Kitai in the poem. He tells his people not to be intimidated by the stronger enemy, and not to fear death -- "There's birth, and there's death," he says.
Trusting in their numbers alone,
How those Kitais make others groan!
You have seen this with your own eyes.
Free your feet from fetters, and rise!
the epic is more than a thousand years old, Manas weaves a web of
immediacy over Kyrgyzstan, whose recent history has seen a staggering
amount of popular rising. Twice in the space of the last five years,
Kyrgyz protesters have overthrown their government by marching,
seemingly oblivious to rocks and bullets, straight into the
presidential palace in the capital city of Bishkek.
Whether guided by Manas or not, this small country of 5 million people has charted an unusual course in post-Soviet Central Asia. While its neighbors live in unchallenged autocracies, Kyrgyzstan practices occasional outbreaks of direct democracy. In a society with weak laws and institutions, these outbreaks result in abrupt regime changes with messy aftermaths. But Kyrgyzstan's tribulations matter beyond Central Asia.