An Ancient China that Never Was: a Review of Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds

“O great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!” he bawled.

“Take a large bowl,” I said. “Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei — which means ‘dry cup’— and drink to the dregs.”

Procopius stared at me. “And I will be wise?” he asked.

“Better,” I said. “You will be Chinese.”

I first read Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds when I was still in med school, and I remember loving it—though I seemed to have completely forgotten its plot almost entirely beyond the two main characters, the mysterious plague that only struck children between the ages of 8 and 13, and that the title which references the Chinese folktale of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎織女). Yet, even having forgotten most of it, it remained one of the few books that I would recommend to anyone without reservation, confident that its charm is universal.

Anyway, I re-read Bridge of Birds because I have recently came into the possession of a rare signed and illustrated copy of The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox omnibus, which contains not only Bridge of Birds but also its two sequels: The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen.

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox (1984-1990) by Barry Hughart

The story began in earnest when Lu Yu alias Number Ten Ox traveled to Peking to hire a wise man to help his village deal with a strange plague that had stricken all the local children, but being impoverished, but he could only afford a cut-price one: Li Kao, who had a “slight flaw in his character”. Li Kao is like a hybrid between Sherlock Holmes, and Moriarty, with a smidge of Gandalf thrown in, and he tears through every problem with intelligent sociopathy (with the pure-hearted Lu Yu as his muscle slash Watson by his side). What began as a parochial mystery would unfold across the entire Chinese empire spanning Heaven and Earth, and tying in events that happened hundreds and even thousands of years ago.

It is difficult to describe what sort of story Bridge of Birds is. Genre-wise, it is an equal mix of a mystery, a folk story, and a farce set in “an ancient China that never was”. Hughart, who is very much not Chinese, was reverent to the culture he was writing about but was simultaneously very willing to take liberties and—how do you say—“make shit up” whenever he felt like it. You will never mistake Bridge as a novel written by anyone other than a Westerner thanks to his liberal use of faux poetic Chinese names which are usually found in satirical depictions of Chinese restaurant menus. Normally, the failure of an author to represent a culture accurately annoys me, and yet, Bridge of Birds‘ gleeful and unhinged disregard for factual and historical accuracy is so brazen that I simply could not be mad at it. The novel has a sense of whimsy that rivals (and perhaps surpasses) that of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and an absurdist comic sensibility straight out of Christopher Moore’s Lamb. Bridge of Birds is the closest thing to a literary form of the Looney Tunes I know.

The thug did not approve of Master Li. “You Peking weaklings call these midgets men?” he howled. “Back in Soochow, we grow men so big their heads brush the clouds while their feet are planted upon the ground!”

Indeed? In my humble village,” Master Li said sweetly, “we grow men so big that their upper lips lick the stars, while their lower lips nuzzle the earth.”

The thug thought about it.

“And where are their bodies?”

“They are like you,” said Master Li. “All mouth.”

And either because it was a novel written in the 80’s by a man or that it simply reflects storytelling conventions in the culture he was aping, Bridge of Birds has no real female characters. When they are present, they display little to no agency and function narratively more like objects than people. And there is a lack of gravity to most facets of this book since everything operates with the dream-like detachment of a fairy-tale; where sexual assault, financial ruin, torture, and murder are divested of their dramatic impact. It can be jarring, for example, when you read about how one character gleefully plots the death of his own daughter with two men he just met because he found out that she had committed murder. A typical novel would have the character display the requisite emotional turmoil regardless of how deserving the daughter is of death, but Bridge of Birds do not much care about the conventions of writing (or even the laws of physics, for that matter). In fact, Hughart does a lot of things that one does not associate with good writing—YET, the book works. Somehow.

I am not quite sure what lesson one should glean from Bridge of Birds, or if any was intended at all. I am pretty sure no one becomes a better person after reading it either. What is certain to me is that it is one hell of a story. I got really caught up as Li Kao and Lu Yu races to the end, piling twists upon twists and revelations upon revelations that are both outlandish yet strangely satisfying. And what is surprising to me is that in spite of its comical tone, it manages to achieve some kind of transcendence by the end. It is moved me, and had me reading the last words through a mist of wetness in my eyes.

Anyway, now that I have completed re-reading Bridge of Birds and have gotten myself reacquainted with the characters and story, I am now free to dive into its sequel for the first time. If it is even half as good as its predecessor, I am in for a very good time indeed. You should read Bridge of Birds if you have not. There is no book like it.

Rating: 4.75/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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