Amongst myself and those I have met in my life in the West, little to none ever received any Asian history lessons. China a country which is only recently gaining attention, it is largely due to commercial and political interests that knowledge has begun to expand. Remaining lost to most Westerners is the rich history and culture which have brought China to the place it is today. Vying with with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures for the earliest recorded word, its literature is also amongst the oldest in the world. Included in this is a wealth of storytelling—including works of fantasy. This is not to say the West has been ignorant of the Middle Kingdom, only that such knowledge is passed on by a limited group. Scholarly research and esoteria the norm in which knowledge of China is propagated, the fictional side has received little treatment. But that is not what makes Barry Hughart’s 1984 novel Bridge of Birds so remarkable.
Fully integrating Chinese legend into ‘reality’, the sub-title of the novel spells it out: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was. Hughart one of those few who took the time to seek out knowledge on his own, the book exudes both the joy of storytelling, knowledge of the Middle Kingdom, and the desire to say: ‘Hey, look at this treasure trove of fictional delight just waiting on the other side of the Pacific!’. Never overt, Hughart assimilates street corner myths, novels from the Chinese canon, Chinese culture, as well as bits of Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist philosophy into his first novel, Bridge of Birds. Having lived in China for four years, I can attest to the veracity of the spirit and wisdom of the land placed on the page. Part mystery, part adventure, part ‘historical’ fantasy, and all intelligent fun, Bridge of Birds is one of the most unique works of fantasy ever written—in the West.
Number Ten Ox’s village is truck by a plague of the most strange proportion one day. The silk worms drying up and the children no longer able to converse coherently, it is seeking out a wise man to assist that Number Ten comes upon Li Kao—the man with a slight flaw to his character. An inveterate drunk, Li Kao nevertheless possesses the wisdom of the ages and quickly diagnoses the cure: the Heart of Ginseng must be found. A picaresque tale of the most exotic dimension unfolding in the search for the holiest of holies thereafter, the two quickly find themselves in the thick of trouble as they sleuth and bumble their way from one important clue to the next.
Utilizing the Chinese legend of Cowherd and Weaver Girl, rarely does an author use fantasy to assimilate legend into reailty so effectively. Openly playing with the story rather than incorporating it verbatim, the afore-mentioned sub-title, as well as the inclusion of the definition of ‘prolepsis’ in the prologue, indicate Hughart is aware of his steps and where they are taking the story.
Bridge of Birds fantasy of the purest kind, Number Ten Ox and Li Kao’s adventures take them to places familiar at the core yet wholly outlandish to the Western mind on the exterior. There is a quest to find a numinous object, but that the object is the root of ginseng plant—something which requires an understanding of the cultural mindset to know why it is important. Hughart never once side-stepping into info dump territory, it is instead through humor and indirect phrasing that the importance of the root comes shining through. And the same could be said for all of the strange objects, people, contraptions, and creatures met along the way. Hughart appropriating certain elements of Chinese history and culture for its comical, fantastical, and ultimately informative potential, its near impossible for the story not to leave a mark in the mind, the exoticness that is China bright on the page.
Further singling out Bridge of Birds is its style. Different than 99% of books published, Hughart uses oblique scenes, multi-layered exposition, and the bizarre to tell his story. Take for instance the following which features Li Kao attempting to bargain with One-Eyed Wong and Fat Fu using an earring he has just lopped from the head of a thug still lying on the floor:
‘It is yours for a song,’ said Master Li. “In this case a song means a large purse of fake gold coins, two elegant suits of clothes, the temporary use of a palatial palanquin and suitably attired bearers, a cart of garbage, and a goat.’
One-Eyed Wong did some mental addition.
‘But I must have a goat.’
‘It isn’t that good an earring.’
‘It doesn’t have to be that good a goat.’
‘But you not only get the earring, you also get the ear it is attached to,’ said Master Li.
The proprietor bent over the table and examined the bloody thing with interest.
‘This is not a very good ear,’ sneered One-Eyed Wong.
‘It is a terrible ear,’ sneered Fat Fu.
‘Revolting,’ sneered One-Eyed Wong.
‘Worst ear I ever saw,’ sneered Fat Fu.
‘Besides, what good is it?’ asked One-Eyed Wong.
‘Look at the vile creature it came from, and imagine the filth that has been hissed into it.’ Master Li bent over the table and whispered, ‘Let us assume that you have an enemy.’
‘Enemy,’ said One-Eyed Wong.
‘He is a wealthy man with a country estate.’
‘Estate,’ said Fat Fu.
‘A stream flows through the estate.’
‘Stream,’ said One-Eyed Wong.
‘It is midnight. You climb the fence and cleverly elude the dogs. Silent as a shadow you slip to the top of the stream and peer around slyly. Then you take this revolting ear from your pocket and dip it into the water, and words of such vileness flow out that the fish are poisoned for miles, and your enemy’s cattle drink from the stream and drop dead on the spot, and his lush irrigated fields wither into bleak desolation, and his children splash in their bathing pool and acquire leprosy, and all for the price of a goat.’
Fat Fu buried her hands in her face.
‘Ten thousand blessings upon the mother who brought Li Kao into the world,’ she sobbed, while One-Eyed Wong dabbed at his eyes with a filthy handkerchief and sniffled, ‘Sold.’ (40)
Though this is a small sample, it indicates clear control and awareness of the power of words. Little more could be asked of a writer as craftsman.
Cultural appropriation a fear whenever a book of such premise appears, I can happily state that Hughart has written the novel based on a love affair, personal gain not the primary motivator. The little bits of knowledge which creep into the story show a deeper understanding of China than just any hack looking to make a buck, research and knowledge all present to varying degrees. Thus, the compass, fireworks, dynasties, lohans, and a variety of other well-known aspects of the culture appear in the book, as does a brief scene in which Hughart translates a Chinese tongue-twister into English, utilizing it as a test of a character’s clarity of mind. The translation naturally possessing none of the qualities of the native tongue-twister, Hughart nevertheless tosses it into the text as esoterica, uncaring whether the reader sinks or swims getting their head around it. Having greater presence, however, is knowledge of Chinese literature, poetry, philosophy and fiction. Zhuang Zi, Confucius, A Dream of Red Chambers, Journey to the West, Su Shi, Tao Yuanming, the original Cinderella, and a host of other literature, not to mention the aforementioned legend, are subtly integrated into the text, making it enjoyable education and story.
In the end, Bridge of Birds is a novel different than the overwhelming majority of literature, let alone fantasy. Putting the multiple corners of its foundation in Chinese history, culture, and literature, the tale which results is fast-paced, intelligent picaresque rooted in good storytelling far, far from the mundane. Hughart a skilled writer aware of the rhythm and indirect impetus of story, the legend of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl comes to full, exotic life in an ancient setting “that never was”. Peers, there are none I have yet to come across, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld the closest I’m aware of.