Bridge of Birds

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, is an unusual fantasy classic in that it takes place in a fantastic pre-modern East:

“My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not
to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea.
Everyone calls me Number Ten Ox.”

“My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao,
and there is a slight flaw in my character,”
he said matter-of-factly. “You got a problem?”

— Number Ten Ox meets Master Li for the first time

Sometimes, superlatives fail us.

There are a great many good books in the world, and even more books that are worth reading for one reason or another. But truly great books are rare; books that, once read, join that permanent shelf of books we read and reread over and over again. Such books are as good a century after first publication as the day they first appeared, as good on the tenth reading as the first. There have only been a handful of them in our genre in the century and a half or so since modern fantasy first appeared, and by almost any standard Bridge of Birds is one of them. I personally rank it among the ten best fantasies ever published.

Like most great books, Bridge of Birds came out of left field; it bore little resemblance to other fantasies published at the time or in the years preceding it (or, despite a few feeble imitations, since). Meeting with instant acclaim, it won the World Fantasy Award — a considerable feat for an author’s first novel[1] — tying with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (a book with a brilliant concept marred by poor execution) for the year’s best novel. The following year, it won the Mythopoeic Award as well. Unfortunately, Hughart’s follow-up, The Story of the Stone (1988), was as bad as Bridge of Birds was good, a tired rehash of themes and motifs from the first book that utterly fails to recapture the spark that made the original stand out. By the time the third book, Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991), appeared and proved Hughart could write a worthy companion to the first book, his popularity had waned and publishers had lost interest. Dancing Girl, the fourth book in the projected seven-book series, was never published and Hughart, who’s now approaching seventy, has abandoned authorship, meaning that the three books already published (collected in 1998 into the three-in-one omnibus The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox) stand as a truncated but completed whole.

“In the carefree days of my youth I once sold [the Emperor]
some shares in a mustard mine.”
We stared at him.
“A mustard mine?” the abbot said weakly.
“I was trying to win a bet concerning the intelligence
of emperors,” [Master Li] explained.


Oriental fantasy, of course, has a long and honored history, dating back to the first stirring of interest in myth and folklore in the 1760s, the reaction against the Age of Reason that would eventually lead to modern fantasy a few generations later. China’s use as an exotic setting for wonder tales goes all the way back to The Arabian Nights (most readers forget that Aladdin is Chinese and ends up marrying the emperor of Cathay’s daughter) and possibly beyond — e.g., the 14th century Travels of Sir John Mandeville (which are pure fantasy but were regarded by some gullible souls as factual) and 13th century Journey of Marco Polo (which, though fact-based, were read as wonder tales by disbelieving Europeans).

Probably the best pre-Hughart example of “Chinoiserie” are Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung stories (The Wallet of Kai Lung, 1900; Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, 1922; Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat, 1928), which employ for humorous effect an ornate, mock-polite language that is deliberately quaint in its tone — as, for example, when a ruthless highwayman takes the storyteller Kai Lung prisoner with these words: “Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon.” Oriental fantasies were so popular in the pulp era, in the hands of writers like E. Hoffman Price (a minor member of the Lovecraft circle), that Weird Tales at one point spun off a sister magazine, Oriental Stories (later renamed Magic Carpet). Fantasies set in China were also popular in children’s literature, in works such as Shen of the Sea (winner of the 1925 Newbery) and the illustrated fable The Five Chinese Brothers (1938).

More popular than any of these, however, were various series that were not fantasies set in China but mysteries with a Chinese hero (or, more often, villain). Foremost among these was the Fu Manchu series by Sax Rohmer (1911ff) and its many imitators, giving vent to “yellow peril” xenophobia by recounting the fiendish plots of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (whose master plan, it turns out, is to replace the British Empire with self-rule by indigenous peoples — something latter-day readers can contemplate without undue horror). Directly opposed to these are the Charlie Chan stories of Earl Derr Biggers (mostly written in the 1920s and inspiring two movie series that spanned the 1930s and 40s), featuring a Chinese-American detective from Honolulu who always sees through the obvious but false to the essential truth beneath. Chan may speak in pidgin-English (“Confucius say . . .”, contrasted with Number One Son’s slangy American), but Biggers leaves no doubt that he’s a brilliant detective — much smarter than the Anglo-Americans surrounding him. Less well remembered, but perhaps the only one of these to exercise an influence on Hughart, is Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series (1950s-60s). Like Hughart’s books, the Judge Dee stories are set in 7th century China during the Tang dynasty, an era later remembered as a golden age; they also share a generally plainstyle dialogue and rather earthy approach toward sex (Master Li from time to time mutters “ah, to be ninety again” when observing Number Ten Ox’s latest female companion), violence, torture, profanity, and so on.

It turned out to be more difficult than he expected…
Master Li… scorched the air with the Sixty Sequential Sacrileges
with which he had won the all-China Freestyle Blasphemy
Competition in Hangchow three years in a row.

An Ancient China That Never Was

One element in Hughart’s success is that his book does not start as fantasy but as a historical novel in a very specific time and place: the village of Ku-fu in the Year of the Tiger (A.D. 639), the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, during the silk harvest.[2] When every child in the village between the ages of eight and thirteen is struck with a strange plague and falls into a coma, our narrator, young Lu Yu (better known as Number Ten Ox) sets out on his nineteenth birthday to find a sage in Peking who can tell them “how a plague learned to count.” The drunken sage he returns with, an ancient little old man of about a hundred and ten named Master Li, quickly works out that only the Great Root of Ginseng can cure the ill children, and so the mismatched pair undertake an epic quest to find the priceless ginseng root.

Unlike so many quests — for revenge, for money, for power — Number Ten Ox’s quest is well-motivated: Whenever he falters, he thinks of the dying children and their grieving parents and presses on, whatever the danger ahead. This adds a very human (or even humane) element to the story and gives it a realism more generic fantasies may lack: The heroes are forced to continue when they might otherwise have turned back because their conscience cannot let them accept the consequences of failure. This is not to say that they are sterling characters. Master Li, after all, has “a slight flaw in his character” and has no hesitation about swindling, forging, stealing, burglary, murder, impersonation, or assassination in a good cause. As he says to Number Ten Ox as they enter one town:

“Unfortunately… we will have to murder somebody
… We must pray that we will find somebody
who thoroughly deserves it.”[3]

— Master Li

Number Ten Ox, by contrast, is relatively innocent when the book starts and remains uncorrupted throughout by his experiences. Huge, gentle, attractive to the ladies, and extraordinarily strong, he is wiser but essentially unchanged in the end. True, he joins in Master Li’s frauds and impersonations and cheerfully beats to death or chops up any number of guards and other malefactors, but this is because his local abbot told him to (“Number Ten Ox, our only hope is Master Li…. You must do as he commands, and I shall be praying for your immortal soul.”). In a brilliant masterstroke, Hughart made Number Ten Ox the story’s narrator and point-of-view character. This not only gives Ox the opportunity to explain things about Chinese culture to Western (“barbarian”) readers but enables us to see the story through the eyes of a normal person, of average intelligence and typical reactions. Master Li is the genius, the Holmes to Ox’s Watson — always remembering that in the original stories Watson is an intelligent man, not the sputtering dunce that later movie adaptations made of him, whose reasonably quick wits serve as a foil for Holmes’ brilliance. As the story develops and they survive increasingly sticky situations, it develops into a kind of buddy movie: the brave, strong, undaunted Ox providing the muscle (and heart) and the clever, ancient, cynical Master Li the brains.

“Master Li, how are we going to murder a man who laughs at axes?” I asked.
“We are going to experiment… Our first order of business will be to find
a deranged alchemist, which should not be very difficult.
China,” said Master Li, “is overstocked with deranged alchemists.”

The Quest for the Great Root of Ginseng

For roughly the first third of the book, the fantasy element is kept to a minimum, but gradually impossible events begin to occur with greater and greater frequency. We get a cursed ghost, forced to reenact her last moments night after night unless the heroes can break the cycle (which leads to the spectacular Sword Dance challenge); a flooded city filled with treasure but guarded by the animated corpses of murdered women; a ruined city in a desert haunted by “The Hand That No One Sees,” a huge invisible monster that silently stalks and destroys any who come there (one of Hughart’s most effective creations); an evil tyrant who has reigned for a thousand years with no one seeing his face, who has removed his heart and hidden it so that he is unfazed by axe-blows, the deadliest poisons, or any other attack; and perhaps most dangerous of all the Old Man of the Mountain, an evil immortal sage who will sell any secret — for a price (the sign outside his cave reads “Here Lives the Old Man of the Mountain./Ring and State your business./His Secrets are not sold cheaply./It is Perilous to waste his time.”), not to mention a dangerous underground labyrinth flooded by the tide at regular intervals (so those trying to navigate its maze have strictly limited time in which to do so before being battered to death or drowned) and the occasional anachronism like the Bamboo Dragonfly (a sort of gunpowder-powered autogyro, useful in escaping from Certain Death).

“I suggest we hurry, because with every passing moment
I grow closer to expiring from old age.”

— Master Li

At the same time, the protagonists and readers are introduced to a memorable array of characters: not just Ox and Master Li but also Miser Shen (who briefly joins them in their quest), Hen-Pecked Ho (the second greatest scholar in China, who eventually becomes a heroic axe-murderer), the Ancestress (horribly bloated, thoroughly evil, and the most dangerous woman in China), Lotus Cloud (open-hearted, promiscuous, and capable of capturing the life-long devotion of any man who sees her), the Key Rabbit (the cowardly and much-put-upon chief henchmen of the evil Duke of Ch’in), Doctor Death (the aforementioned deranged alchemist), and of course the vividly drawn people of Ox’s village. The setting remains exotic, but through the characters Hughart succeeds in the difficult task of making the world of 7th century China come alive and enabling the reader to immerse himself or herself in it, until we think of the characters as real, believable people, just like modern-day folk from our own culture.

[I]t was a relief when the mirages began,
because they gave us something to look at.

— Number Ten Ox

The quest Li and Ox thought they had undertaken becomes entangled with a greater mystery. As the villain of the piece, the Duke of Ch’in, puts it, they have undertaken “the right quest for the wrong reason. You and your antiquated companion have followed paths that cannot be followed, defeated guardians that cannot be defeated, escaped from places where escape was impossible, and you have not had the slightest idea of what you were really doing, or where you were really going, or why!” To the original quest, to save the children of Ku-fu, is added another: to rescue a forgotten goddess, lost for a thousand years. Unfortunately, to do so it is necessary first for them to defeat the greatest tyrant China has ever known, the First Emperor, the man who gave China its name (Ch’in) — an equivalent Western parallel would be for medieval characters (say 8th century A.D.) to be forced to combat an undead Alexander the Great.

Happily Ever After

I suppose there is only a slight chance that a person will be called upon
to rescue a goddess, but the odds will increase dramatically if the person
is as illustrious as my readers, so I will offer two pieces of advice.
Beware her divine light, and take cover.

— Number Ten Ox

What makes Bridge of Birds stand out in the end is its unique mix of the realistic and the fantastic, the funny and the tragic, the grand and the sordid, the epic and the intimate. The seeming anarchy of its endless profusion of invention and wild events suddenly reveals an inner symmetry as all the pieces click together. Hughart’s timing is perfect: Just when the reader is beginning to feel the characters have enjoyed one lucky coincidence too many, Master Li himself voices the same concern and in it discerns divine manipulation forcing our heroes along a specific path. But the epic quest works only because Hughart makes us care deeply for the people met along the way however briefly, as when a dying Miser Shen whispers a prayer to his murdered daughter, dead forty years; or when Number Ten Ox has a touching encounter with the ghost of his childhood love, the girl he would have married had she lived. The book is studded with such moments, hilarious or poignant vignettes that all tie together in the end into one great climax, the purest eucatastrophe[4] known to me in fantasy, where all the threads come together and every single plot point is resolved. There’s really nothing else quite like it in all of fantasy literature.

Bridge of Birds and Your Game

A well-motivated quest. Dozens of vividly drawn, believable characters: heroes and villains and simple ordinary folk. Labyrinths and monsters and treasure, immortal malefactors, and settings both bizarre and memorable — what’s not to like? Bridge of Birds is ready-made as an epic fantasy campaign, and it is beautifully paced with enormous variety. For those not quite ready to abandon their familiar pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe setting for an oriental one, there are still plenty of individual elements worth borrowing. The Hand That No One Sees (which players are liable at first to mistake for a Bigby’s Hand spell that’s gone horribly wrong) has found its way into several of my campaigns. The drowned city and the tide-haunted labyrinth beneath the Duke of Ch’in’s palace are extremely creepy dungeons ready-made for exploring. The Old Man of the Mountains is a fine example of using an evil sage in a campaign — his information is infallible, but will the characters be willing to pay his price? Hughart’s later books in the series also provide wonderful elements for any fantasy roleplaying game, such as the madman called The Laughing Prince and a magnificent and sinister tomb modeled on that of the First Emperor (both from The Story of the Stone), or the mysterious figures from the distant past who give their name to Eight Skilled Gentlemen, a book which also features a memorable shamanka (female shaman) and a truly apocalyptic ending — a case where events of three thousand years before must be discovered and the last achievements of a destroyed civilization repeated if disaster is to be averted. Eight Skilled Gentlemen also contains Hughart’s finest villain, Sixth Degree Hostler Tu, a memorable combination of mass-murderer, serial killer, cannibal, and food-obsessed madman who combines elements of Hannibal Lector with Gollum (the book begins on the day of his execution and ends with his deification) — a worthy foe for any hapless party of adventurers who let their guard down when they come to stay at a nice quiet inn.

Best of all, of course, are Master Li and Number Ten Ox: mismatched partners whose journeys could take them almost anywhere and who might give or need help, calling for a short-term collaboration with your own PCs. Hughart’s book is rich enough that the possibilities are nearly endless; had Bridge of Birds existed when D&D was being created, it’s likely that monks would not have been a discordant element in early editions but that the whole “matter of China” would have been as core to the game as, say, dwarves or berserkers or rangers.

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