Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was - Barry Hughart
"My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character."

So the venerable Master Li introduces himself to our narrator, Lu Yu ("not to be confused with the author of The Classic of Tea"), more commonly known as Number Ten Ox.  But despite this "slight flaw," Number Ten Ox has no choice but to trust the crafty old Li: the children of his village have been struck down with a terrible illness and only the Great Root of Power can heal them.


Trickster Tales seem to transcend country, culture, and creed.  From the Coyote of the Great Plains to the Monkey of China to Bre'r Rabbit of the American Deep South to Anansi of Africa to Loki of the Norse to the Appalachian Jack Tales, every society seems to be beguiled by the immortal Trickster.


Bridge of Birds is indeed a triumph of a Trickster Tale.  It is no moralizing Aesop or sappy Disney story; people die--and steal, and decapitate, and poison, and murder--with all of the cheerfully heartless abandon one finds in the older versions of our folktales.  The distancing that this gleeful debauchery causes itself recalls the fairy-stories where chopping off one's toes to fit into a slipper is intended to be a humorous gag.  I personally have a little difficulty with this mindset--one reason why I stopped reading fairy stories.


Because--make  no mistake--Bridge of Birds is a faerie tale.  There is all of the illogic, all of the fantastical concatenation of circumstance, that are beloved by faerie tales.  As Master Li notes,

"If I were to try to count the incredible coincidences of our quest on my fingers, I would wind up with ten badly sprained digits."


I still found it an entirely enjoyable read. There are plenty of shout-outs to other stories--we have the Red Queen ("off with his head!"), the White Rabbit ("oh dear, oh dear, oh dear"), and even a bit of Cupid and Psyche and Sleeping Beauty. There's even a reference to "a girl named Beauty." The stories reminded me most of a childhood favourite, the Jack Tales.  Like Bridge of Birds, the Jack Tales starred a trickster and were told in a picaresque style, each chapter a complete yet interconnected story, but with old enemies and friends repeatedly rejoining the fairy tale.  While I admit I'm not very well-read in the area of Chinese myths, the tone feels both whimsical and authentic; at least to my casual eye, Hughart has captured the style of the Chinese fable. 


While Number Ten Ox remains invariably serious, the story itself is scattered with delightful absurdities.  Take, for instance, Li Kao's commentary on a massive invisible killer spider:

'I suspect that it was simply an oversized relative of the common trapdoor spider,' he said thoughtfully. 'Invisible, because before the eruption it had lived underground, where there is no need for sight perception.'

I can't figure out if he subscribes to the three-year-old's doctrine of "if I can't see you, you can't see me," or he believes visibility was evolved in response to vision, but it's rather adorable in either case.


Or take Master Li's take on the object of Number Ten Ox's wholehearted adoration:

'Pooh-Pooh?' said Master Li. 'Pooh-Pooh? Ox, it may be none of my business, but I must strongly advise you against getting involved with women who call their lovers Boopsie, Woofie, and Pooh-Pooh.'
'She likes to keep pets,' I explained.

Ox's ingenuity means that he also appears to be entirely lacking in a sense of humour; take, for example, his solemn comment on the two village misers, Ma and Fang:

"The abbot used to say that the emotional health of a village depended upon having a man whom everyone loved to hate, and Heaven had blessed us with two of them."

However, his tendency towards obedience means that he falls all too quickly under the sway of Master Li, and Master Li tends to make suggestions like,

"Lord Lu of Yu, incidentally, is a disciple of Chang Chou, who said that he preferred his own cooking, but other peoples' wives."


"If we get out of here alive, we most certainly must take another crack at killing him, purely in the interest of science."

However, I have some issues with the final resolution. While I appreciate it in a symmetry, story-tale way, it seems illogical otherwise.  While it explains details such as how on earth Key Rabbit had the dragon, look at the sheer number of times Key Rabbit humiliates and debases himself. I cannot see this posturing, posing child-man doing so if it were not necessary.  And think of Lotus Cloud. Other than the pleasure he might take in seeing a goddess defiled, can you imagine a man so wrapped up in the possession of precious treasures allowing his wife to couple with any man in the vicinity? And he has the ability to read minds. Why not employ that talent rather sooner?

Yes, yes, I know. It is a fairy-story, and a charming one at that.  But there's a reason why I stopped reading fairy-stories.

(show spoiler)


The story is an achievement, for it is indeed precisely what it set out to be: a lighthearted, entertaining, imaginative story that unites Chinese and European folklore in a delightfully amoral, wistfully imaginative trickster tale.