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Literature / Bridge of Birds

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Bridge of Birds is the first installment in Barry Hughart's literary trilogy The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. It is a fantasy novel taking place in a version of ancient China wherein the regional folktales 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:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: An in-universe example. Jade Pearl is described in a folk tale as the most beautiful girl in the world who the Star Shepherd falls in love with, but Master Li realizes that a sensible person like the Star Shepherd would have valued a smile that held all the joy and wonder in the world over mere physical beauty. Like, say, Lotus Cloud's.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: All the Dukes of Ch'in. Justified since they are all the same man.
  • Apocalyptic Log: In the city destroyed by The Hand That No One Sees.
  • Asshole Victim: One of Li Kao's plans requires a funeral, and since they're in too much of a hurry to wait for one, he hopes to find someone who deserves to be offed. He does.
    • Really, a lot of the characters are this. The Ancestress is a homicidal Control Freak, her daughters are a pack of spoiled brats, her granddaughter murdered a soldier and his lover due to the soldier picking a commoner over her, and the Duke of Ch'in is a self centered coward in the body of a Tin Tyrant. All of them come to horrific and well deserved ends. Unfortunately averted for Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, who despite deliberately botching the silk harvest, and accidentally poisoning the village's children in the process, get away scot free... unless that last lynching in the finale did the trick.
  • Fake Faint: Fainting Maid, true to her name, uses fake fainting as a frequent tool to manipulate her family. Master Li notes that she gives the exact performance each time, staggering in shock — "two steps backward, six to the left" — before falling to the ground. He turns it against her later, positioning her two steps forward and six to the right of a hidden trap before deliberately provoking her.
  • Genre Savvy: Master Li begins to realize that he and Ox are in a fairy tale.
    Li: 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.
    • Villain example: the Ancestress is the only character in the book savvy enough to see through pretty much all of Master Li's bullshit, and is not fooled by a single one of the cons they try to pull on her. Unfortunately for her, her savviness does not protect her from a henpecked husband with an axe and nothing to lose.
  • Heart Trauma: "A man with no heart likes things cold."
  • Henpecked Husband: The appropriately nicknamed Henpecked Ho. At first, until Li and Ten Ox walk into his life.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Fainting Maid — with Murder the Hypotenuse thrown in for good measure.
  • I See Dead People: A rare case where this is a learned skill. Master Li can do it, and he teaches it to Number Ten Ox. As for the ghosts themselves, they repeat their deaths over and over until either the loop is broken, or their reason for remaining is removed. They wear Jacob Marley Apparel, and it's uncertain whether they know they're dead, though some seem to do.
  • I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Henpecked Ho, poor fella. Also, Number Ten Ox at the end, when he rejects Lotus Cloud's offer to stay with him in favor of restoring her identity as the Princess of Birds, even though it means that he will never see her again.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Number Ten Ox, according to Master Li. "When I run into something that is really foul, I can counter with the potential for foulness that resides in the depths of my soul... You, on the other hand, suffer from an incurable case of purity of heart."
  • Invisible Monsters: The Hand That No One Sees, which turns out to be a Giant Spider.
  • Kavorka Man: Lotus Cloud is one of the ever-elusive female examples of this trope.
  • Lamarck Was Right: The origin of Master Li's "slight flaw." His parents were criminals who robbed the Duke of Ch'in while his mother was pregnant with him, and were caught because of their greedy squabbling. The abbot who raised him had to contend with his nature asserting itself, though Master Li eventually became a reasonably virtuous man on his own. Partly because committing crimes was less exciting than solving them, but baby steps.
  • Land of Dragons: This is "a novel of an ancient China that never was," to which the book blurb adds, "But oh, it should have been!" Gets credit for having a more developed world than the description would imply. And only one dragon, on a little necklace.
  • Long List: What you tend to get if you ask Henpecked Ho a simple question.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Miser Shen began hoarding money so he could afford to revive his dead daughter. The hoarding became a compulsion, and he forgot why he was doing it in the first place.
    • Also subverted: His love for Lotus Cloud later moves him to squander all his wealth on gifts for her, which makes him go sane again, and ultimately results in his happy reunion with his family in the afterlife.
  • Like Father, Unlike Son: Henpecked Ho is a weak-willed but likable and intelligent Nice Guy, to the point of choosing I Want My Beloved to Be Happy in regards to his deceased concubine. All of his daughters are stubborn, self-centered, and stupid, with Fainting Maid murdering a soldier she was attracted to because he chose Ho's concubine over her, much to Ho's disgust.
  • Mad Scientist: Doctor Death is an extremely sympathetic and very kind example.
  • Madness Mantra: "Chop-chop. Chop-chop-chop!"
  • Masochist's Meal: Porcupine meat, if improperly prepared, will supposedly kill you horribly.
  • Meaningful Echo: Number Ten Ox and Fainting Maid's first stroll through the gardens leads to an argument about whether a bird is a cuckoo or a magpie imitating a cuckoo. Later on, when Master Li has exposed Fainting Maid as the murderess of her father's concubine and lover and induced her to faint right into a deep well, he tells her father, "You are perfectly free to hear whatever you choose, but what I hear is a magpie that is imitating the sounds of a scream and a splash."
  • Meaningful Name: Many of them, including Fainting Maid and Lotus Cloud, when you consider that "Lotus" is the flower of forgetfulness and "Cloud" implies obscurity or veiling....
  • Money Fetish:
    • Lotus Cloud is known as the most expensive woman in all of China with good reason, although her greed extends to only pearls and jade. Anything else, and she instantly loses interest. The true reason for her yearning for pearls and jade turns out to not be simple greed, but a subconscious yearning for her true identity named Jade Pearl.
    • Anyone who makes himself invulnerable by removing his heart also acquires an overwhelming lust to obtain and handle "cold things": treasure in all forms.
  • Motive Decay: Surprisingly averted. The Master Li and Number Ten Ox go through many epic adventures, such as becoming the wealthiest men in China and meeting gods in human form, all to save the children of the village.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: There is a slight flaw in Li Kao's character (more than one flaw, actually, if you count "alcoholism" and "willingness to rob and murder people to achieve your goals" as two separate traits), but he's still unquestionably on the side of good, and most of the more morally dubious actions he commits are done to people who thoroughly deserved it.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The Hand That No One Sees. Yes. Start running now.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: Subverted. Master Li thinks that this is what the Duke has done with the girl... when the truth is far simpler and more brilliant.
  • The Nicknamer: Lotus Cloud gives all of her suitors cutesy nicknames like "Boopsie", "Woofie", and "Pooh-Pooh".
  • Old Master: Master Li, in spite of the slight flaws in his character.
  • Plot Coupon: The bell, the ball and the flute, and the parts of the Great Root.
  • Polyamory: Number Ten Ox, Miser Shen, and all of Lotus Cloud's other lovers tend to get along famously, in part because all of them are decent people deep down. Master Li jokes that she ought to build a kennel for them. This is a hint as to her true nature. Li eventually realizes that while this lack of jealousy makes no sense in romantic terms, it makes perfect sense for a goddess. Suitors might be jealous, but worshippers...
  • Psychopathic Manchild: The Duke of Ch'in. For all of his villainy, at heart, he's just a scared little boy utterly unable to accept his own mortality. Master Li notes from all the labyrinths, games, and petty behaviour he indulges in, that Ch'in never really grew up in all the centuries he's been alive.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Several characters, most notably the Duke.
  • Renaissance Man: Master Li knows about topics ranging from chemistry to astronomy to Egyptian mythology. He is also fluent in Latin.
  • Royal Brat: Pretty much all the descendants of the Ancestress. Fainting Maid is the most prominent example.
  • Running Gag: "What have you done with my {precious item}?!"
  • Showy Invincible Hero: It never quite feels like our heroes are in any real danger, but there is great fun in seeing their plans to get out of it.
  • Soft Water: Number Ten Ox and Li Kao manage to survive a suicidal hundred-foot leap at one point by merely landing in a calm pool of water and avoiding a jagged rock in there by six inches.
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: Miser Shen spends years single-mindedly gathering up wealth to try to learn how to bring his daughter back to life from the Old Man of the Mountain, but doing so turns into a compulsion of its own, and he forgets. Losing all his treasure causes him to become sane again, and he resolves to become a better person, which directly leads to a virtuous death in the course of righting a great wrong, and a happy reunion with his family.

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. Played for Laughs as the gang realize, with horror, that this means the influence of the Neo-Confucians has penetrated even Hell.
    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 being 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 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 a 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.