Literature / Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds, the first installment in Barry Hughart's literary trilogy The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, is a fantasy novel taking place in a version of ancient China wherein the regional folk tales and Taoist myths are all true. The gods really do meddle in the affairs of mortals (but subtly, for reasons of etiquette) and minor bits of magic can be found anywhere.

Lu Yu, nicknamed Number Ten Ox because of his birth order and great strength, is a humble peasant living in the village of Ku-fu, content to spend his days farming and assisting with the annual silk harvest...until one year when the abject failure of the harvest coincides with a devastating plague that infects the children—and only the children—of the village. Ox's aunt sends him to Peking with money in order to hire a wise man to solve the mystery, and he winds up with one Li Kao, an antiquated drunkard who keeps company with bandits and thugs. But despite these "slight flaws in his character," Master Li also has a well-developed sense of justice and quite possibly the keenest mind in all China, and he eagerly joins—in fact, he takes command of—Ox's quest to save the children. A quest that ultimately takes them into every conceivable corner of China, into bustling cities and deep caverns and across deserts and mountain ranges, to do business and battle (sometimes simultaneously) with brilliant scholars, horrifying monsters, scheming noblewomen, obsessive businessmen, demigods, and not a few tormented ghosts.

The writing style is lush and poetic yet semi-conversational in tone, featuring devices such as alliteration, humorous exaggeration and understatement, and casual references to Chinese history and folklore. The tone is a wonderful blend of action, drama, comedy, and even romance, along with an engaging theme of mystery and discovery as Ox and Master Li gather and put together the pieces of the puzzle. Although short as fantasy novels go—it clocks in at under 300 pages—it nonetheless contains more story than many a conventional Door Stopper.

Hughart wrote two sequels—The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen—which have been published in an omnibus edition with their precursor.

Bridge of Birds contains examples of:

The Story of the Stone contains examples of:

  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Neo-Confucians are Always Lawful Evil. Not a single one is ever anything less than a complete asshole who feels entitled to treat other people like dirt and expects to be praised for it. The book opens with Master Li lamenting that their hyper-conservative influence is killing China by inches. In the end, however, they are not the main antagonists. The Big Bad is driven, at least partially, by a desire to escape their influence and create art outside their stifling strictures.
  • Author Tract: It's not hard to see where Barry Hughart thought the corruption that destroyed the Tang dynasty came from, in spite of the fact that the first novel took place before the Neo-Confucian movement was anything more than a fringe group!
  • Anything That Moves: Moon Boy. Up to and including a ten-feet-tall demon! He does stick to males, though, much to Grief of Dawn's annoyance. This is probably a side effect of being a reincarnated woman.
  • Arc Words: "Fraud and forgery! Paint slapped over dry rot and gilded with lies!"
  • Amazon Brigade: The barbarian king who collects Moon Boy for his gang of "special people" has one, and he wants Grief of Dawn to join.
  • Artifact of Doom: The titular stone, which tempts men to abuse its miraculous powers. Subverted, in that the stone itself is not evil, but the temptation it offers is too much for most men to take.
  • Band of Brothels: The guildmistress is called the Captain of Prostitutes, and she is the most powerful woman in China.
  • The Caligula: The original Laughing Prince, a monstrous tyrant who became quite rich vivisecting his subjects after working them to death in slave-labor and turning his land into a Polluted Wasteland. His current successor is less overtly-evil, but no less ruthless and mad.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: Hellish bureaucracy in this case.
    Demons bowed to trolls, who bowed to ogres, who bowed to devils.
  • Chinese Vampire: Lurching, strangling, and soul-stealing variety, not the hopping one. The name is transcribed as chiang shih. The final fate of the Laughing Prince's quest for immortality.
  • Circles of Hell: The trip through Hell is essentially a Chinese version of Dante's Inferno.
  • Mad Artist: A rather subdued variety, but the current prince is both a great artist and quite homicidally mad.
  • Noodle Incident: "I tied the other end of a tarred rope around the corpse's legs, and it slid silently beneath the surface and drifted down to join the others." It is mentioned that "the others" are described in lost volumes of Memoirs of Number Ten Ox, which were destroyed by Imperial Censors.
  • Odd Job Gods: The guild of prostitutes even petitions Heaven for a new patron deity, as the current one isn't tough and crafty enough.
  • Really Gets Around: Moon Boy. Although as he is the former goddess of prostitutes, this comes to make more sense.
  • Together in Death: As in the last novel, the final fate of Moon Boy, Grief of Dawn, and the stone is to be taken up into Heaven together.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: The group's trip into Hell is entirely the result of suggestion and hallucination, but all of them agree that they're still in terrible danger.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil:
    • Envy is a cruel, ruthless killer hoping to destroy the universe out of spite, but he is also, as a former cavalier, courteous, brave, and somewhat supportive of Number Ten Ox's relationship with his daughter, in his own way.
    • Sixth Degree Hostler Tu just really, really wants to share the finer points of whatever cuisine pops into his head with you, while murdering you with his hands. He also willingly aides Ox and Li in saving the universe from Envy, pacifies the ancient demon gods of his people from aiding their brother, and ends up becoming a god... all while remaining a crazy murderous bastard.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Neo-Confucians, while the text is a bit subtler about it, are still frequently criticized by the plot, particularly the "ghost scheme" that is attributed to Confucius himself.
  • Cool Old Guy: The Celestial Master, an old friend of Master Li's who makes even him look young, is one of the most brilliant and powerful minds in China, and a stalwart force for good in the face of Neo-Confucian opposition. His later behavior is an indicator that something has gone terribly wrong.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Each of the demonic gods of the aboriginal Chinese specializes in a different bizarre form of murder. Somewhat more down-to-earth is the Imperial Slow-Slash Execution. It turns out Devil's Hand has been Mercy Killing anyone sentenced to it for years, and faked their cries of pain with a pig's bladder.
  • Cute Monster Girl: Envy's daughter madness, the shamaness, is part human and part water-dragon in her true form. She uses this form to save Ox, Li, and the universe from her father, though doing so means leaving the mortal world forever to become a goddess like her mother.
  • Demonic Possession: The Celestial Master is subjected to a gruesome mix between this and Puppeteer Parasite, as Malice possesses him by literally burrowing into his chest cavity and controlling him from within.
  • Divine Date: Long ago, the ever-restless cavalier that would become Envy courted and won the heart of the most dangerous death-goddess in the pantheon, before his wild nature drove him to spurn her. They had two children together first, Madness and Malice, and their double-nature drives part of the story.
  • Driven by Envy: The character Envy. He recounts a famous parable about a cycle of wishes bringing someone right back to where they began to illustrate how his nature drives him, and how he can never, ever rest, be satisfied, or enjoy anything he has.
  • Eat the Evidence: Well, when you really need to get rid of a body, there's always cannibalism.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: The original conspiracy, before the supernatural elements get involved, is being run by the palace eunuchs. Even the ones who aren't criminals are still first-degree jerks. At one point, when Ox and Li are travelling through the palace, they see the sad, sad women whom the Emperor has tired of, forced to live at the eunuchs' whim in the shadow of a a huge pink tower with a brown dome on top, from the tip of which a stream of water filled with white lilies flows. Li comments that any man who thinks that a eunuch's "treatment" makes them more subtle is clearly fooling himself.
  • Food Porn: Sixth-Degree Hosteler Tu expounds on food quite frequently, as it's his second great obsession (the first being murder). Also possibly averted in the sequence where Master Li and Yen Shih prepare The Snake's body into a grand feast for their hosts, depending on your constitution and/or sense of humor. Ox spends the duration trying not to throw up.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Confucius was generally seen as virtuous, if stuffy, teacher in previous books, but in this one the horrible "ghost scheme" to deprive all the poor of China of basic political rights is attributed directly to him.
  • Human Sacrifice: A cornerstone of Envy's plan, to stage what looks like the Celestial Master sacrificing a human being to the gods on the solstice, provoking the August Personage of Jade to rage and leading to mass destruction on Earth.
  • Scooby-Dooby Doors: They feature prominently in the play within the story.