It is seventh-century China and all is not well. The reigning emperor reigns only after a violent and bloody succession of predecessors. The violent, regicidal turnover has been caused by a power-grasping concubine known only as the Ancestress, who became effectual leader of China with the emperor as puppet-ruler. When the emperor was slain, the Ancestress quietly (and wisely) withdrew to save herself, and the grasping for the throne began.
Amid this political instability are the powerful Dukes of Ch'in, from whose name comes the Anglo title for the Middle Kingdom of Chung-kuo. A potentate unto himself, each Duke of Ch'in has been mighty and despotic, ruling by fear and intimidation and taxing his people literally to death.
This, however, is just the background for Barry Hughart's award-winning Bridge of Birds. The book itself follows the adventures of Lu Yu (not, as he reminds us, the author of The Classic of Tea), who being the tenth son of his father and of large build is known as Number Ten Ox.
Number Ten Ox lives in a village in rural China where the peasants follow the cyclical agricultural calendar. Very little changes. One year, however, the village's money-hungry pawn brokers decide that they can make money by rigging the annual silk harvest. But they inadvertently end up poisoning the village children near unto death. Number Ten Ox is sent into the booming metropolis of medieval Peking to find someone who can cure the children. There he comes across Li Kao, the wisest man of China, who is possessor of "a slight flaw in his character." Master Li quickly figures out how the children were poisoned and how to cure them.
The antidote, however, lies in a root that is so rare there is only one known to be in existence, the Great Root of Power. Master Li sets off on the back of Number Ten Ox to find the Great Root of Power, and so their adventures begin. Before the book is completed, Master Li and Number Ten Ox will have restored celestial order, while granting peace to many anguished souls.
Along the way, though, Master Li and Number Ten Ox have a series of rollicking, bawdy, and witty adventures, as they encounter ghosts, giant spiders, and other demons. Their adventures transpire mostly because of the slight flaw in Master Li's character, which is that he is unscrupulous, willing to do anything (especially if it involves deception) to achieve his ends.
As I mentioned above, Bridge of Birds when it was first published won a number of awards, including the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. The book surely deserves such awards. When approaching the matter of China, Hughart could have gone all mystical and created a China where the folklore becomes almost a religion in and of itself, where we become all too aware of the author having a great reverence for his subject to the point of losing objectivity. However, Hughart instead follows the tone of much folk literature and keeps a wry attitude toward all he surveys. Number Ten Ox may start out as a na´ve narrator, but we quickly learn that he is an astute judge of character, showing us the great sagacity and great folly that exist within most of the hoi polloi.
For example, one of the recurring jokes throughout the book is Master Li's great age, which we are given to understand is in excess of one hundred years. Whenever a task of great virility or strength is needed, Master Li laments that he would be able to do it "were I only ninety again." Number Ten Ox delivers the line without any "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" to let us know a joke is being told.
There is also the aforementioned flaw in Master Li's character. Indeed, Master Li introduces himself with the almost mantric "My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character." As readers, we are allowed to take it either exactly at face value, assuming that Master Li is deadly serious, or we can read irony into it, with Master Li having a bit of fun with the people he meets.
However, Bridge of Birds does become a fantasy by story's end, when we discover how all the various plots and characters tie together for a truly cosmic conclusion. Hughart manages to bring these two disparate threads together through Number Ten Ox's narrative voice, which is that of a simple peasant who finds all of life a joy to be experienced, even when those experiences are fraught with mortal peril (usually due to Master Li's plans not going exactly as conceived). There is much irony, both intentional and unintentional, in the narrative voice as Number Ten Ox shows us a world that is both foreign and familiar.
This is not the book that I was expecting to read. It is much more disarming in its ability to laugh at itself while still telling its serious stories of murder, rape, and intrigue. Hughart could easily have bitten off more than he could chew, but in the end, Bridge of Birds manages an amazing feat: to be two books at once, neither one suffering in the process.