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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

Or, the Best Almost-Folk Tale You’ve Never Read, With the Possible Exception of The Princess Bride

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was - Barry Hughart

 

 

 

 

“Nothing on the face of this earth–and I do mean nothing–is half so dangerous as a children’s story that happens to be real, and you and I are wandering blindfolded through a myth devised by a maniac.”

 

 

Bridge of Birds opens on a pastoral setting, a remote unicorn-shaped village in the peaceful valley of Cho in ancient China. Narrated by Yu Lu, also known as Number Ten Ox (the tenth of his father’s sons and as strong as an ox), it begins with a promising silk season coming to an abrupt end. A plague strikes the village’s youth and at the same time decimates the silk harvest. Number Ten Ox volunteers to run to Peking to bring a wise man back to the village. Unfortunately, all of the cosmopolitan wise men laugh at Ox and his mere five thousand copper, all except a hung-over Master Li. “Could this be the great Li Kao… who had been elevated to the highest rank of mandarin, and whose mighty head was now being used as a pillow for drunken flies?”  After a brief restorative, Master Li takes pity on Ox’s plight and determines they need to make haste back to the village. Poor Number Ten Ox. He has never met the likes of Master Li, former first place scholar among all the scholars in China (a mere seventy-eight years ago). But he has a slight flaw in his character.

 

“The abbot paused to consider his words…’You are a good boy, and I would not like to meet the man who can surpass you in physical strength, but you know very little about this wicked world,’ the abbot said slowly. ‘To tell you the truth, I am not so worried about the damage to your body as I am about the damage to your soul. You see, you know nothing whatsoever about men like Master Li… His voice trailed off, and he groped for the proper words. Then he decided that it would take several years to prepare me properly.”

 

What follows is along the lines of traditional folk tales and orphan adventures; the quest to save the children of the village, Ox as the innocent youth and Li as the wise man/guide–except Master Li’s wisdom often comes from knowing the wicked ways of human nature and his own participation in debauchery. He also seems to have read all the great tales, as his solutions sound suspiciously familiar. One of the first chapters is how Master Li tricks a rich miser out of enough gold to finance their trip (and gets Ox a night with the young concubine to boot). Their third or fourth adventure is an exceptional revenge on a selfish princess, and another one a bloody mess. Hughart is able to manage the delicate balance humorous violence requires, perhaps by invoking our earliest folk tales, such as the one where Bluebeard keeps bodies in a locked room, or the version of Little Red where the huntsman hacks open the wolf to free her and grandma. Horrific, but so clearly symbolic, so clearly not real.

 

Their adventures take them throughout China, and from one frying pan to another. There’s ghosts, dungeons, a tricksy duo, an evil duke, a labyrinth, an enormously rich man, a tower, treasure, fond friends, a torture chamber, redemption, gods (and there’s even a little kissing). If it lacks the R.O.U.S., it makes up for it with an invisible hand.

 

“The supernatural can be very annoying until one finds the key that transforms it into science,’ he observed mildly. ‘I’m probably imagining complications that don’t exist. Come on, Ox, let’s go out and get killed.’”

 

Writing is lovely and contains a satisfactory balance of description and action. Gentle humor abounds. There’s a motif where Li and Ox are certain they are going to die and share hopes of what they will be reborn as on the Great Wheel. Li prefers the three-toed-sloth, Ox a cloud. Later, a third company member adds another angle to their bucolic reincarnation. But Master Li is clearly the cynic of the bunch, and his comments usually provide comic relief:

 

“‘Well, it’s an idea, and even a bad idea is better than none,’ said Master Li. ‘Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.’”

 

It’s silly, sweet, subversive and really clever. Ox’s youthful innocence is charming and believable, and while Master Li knows much, he is clearly puzzling his way through the quest as well. The end was a lovely synthesis, satisfying both emotionally and in plotting, both immediate and symbolic. Barry Hughart clearly has a flaw in his character. The world needs more Master Li.

 

“‘O great and might Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!’ he bawled… To my great credit I never batted an eyelash. ‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measure 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.’”