Barry Hughart,
Bridge of Birds
(Ballantine Books, 1984)

Imagine, if you will, a comfortable little village, filled with peasants trying to get by on the little they earn from raising silkworms and other odd jobs. The streets and hillsides are filled with peasant children, happily playing together, their days filled with rhymes, dances, and other ritualized games children play. The birds sing, the waters roll, and the days are happy. Then imagine that those children are suddenly silenced. This is precisely what the village of Ku-Fu faces in Bridge of Birds.

The sleepy Chinese village where this story begins gives no clue to the exotic, outrageous adventures to which it leads. With the children of the village poisoned beyond hope of recovery without obtaining a magic root, an unlikely hero emerges; Number Ten Ox, a strong youth of little talent. His quest for a wise man to guide them leads him to another unlikely hero, Li Kao. Self-described as "having a slight flaw in my character," Li Kao is willing to do whatever it takes to reach his goal. Thus an elderly man-of-the-world and a strong, na•ve youth set out on a quest for the magical great root of power, to save the children of the village. Together, the two embark on an unlikely journey filled with mystical legends, great gods, misers, ghosts, puzzles, monsters, and other exciting elements of great fiction.

This is truly a Chinese story, from the get-go. Beyond the intricate histories that go with the names of the characters, towns, and buildings, there are bigger-than-life gods that walk the earth. This tale includes the legendary sword dance, a grand ceremonial dance that begins with slow and precise strikes with a sword, and builds to the competitors fighting while flying through the air, with ferocious yet beautiful strokes of the sword. It also describes in great detail the exact way to prepare porcupine such that it is not a fatally poisonous dish. Hughart describes these details with great passion, breathing life into every word.

Number Ten Ox's strength, paired with Li Kao's brains and fathomless knowledge, become the power team for the humble village of Ku-Fu, and ultimately all of China. In the process, they deal with a wide variety of memorable characters, including the greedy and unscrupulous Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, the perpetually terrified Key Rabbit, the most lovable girl in the world, Jade Pearl, and the evil Duke of Ch'in, who takes great pleasure in deadly games. The Duke sends them searching through his elaborate labyrinth, where they come across mysterious ancient stories that lead them further and further on their quest. Their search for the magic root leads them into a deeper and greater mystery of their culture, where folk tales cross the line into reality, and the happiness of many in Heaven depends on their solving the riddle. Their discoveries will astonish and delight the reader.

If you have seen and liked Big Trouble in Little China, this book is for you! Filled with fantastic Chinese figures, stories and mythos, this book will capture the imagination of any fan of Chinese folklore. Both more outrageous and more believable than Big Trouble, this is a crowning achievement in Chinese mythic literature. Barry Hughart writes with an easy brilliance not matched by many others. His style captures the Chinese essence and serves it on a platter for the English-speaking reader. The result is not to be missed!

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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