Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

by on Aug.08, 2010, under books

Per the suggestion of a friend/colleague, I located and read this first of three books by Barry Hughart in the The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series.  The book and series follow the adventures of a Number Ten Ox, a simple but strong Chinese villager of no particular status, and Master Li, an anciently old and incredibly shrewd sage.  The books very much follow the model of the Sherlock Holmes adventures in that the are from the perspective of the companion to the wiser protagonist.

In this first volume, all of the children between the ages of 8 and 13 in Number Ten Ox’s village seem to befall a plague that puts them into comas.  Seeing as the abbots cannot figure out how a plague could possibly target children of a particular age range, Number Ten Ox is sent to the nearest city to find a wise sage to help shed light on this mystery.  After being rejected by most of the wise men in the city for having such a laughably small amount of coin to secure such services, he finally stumbles upon Master Li Kao – who is old cold, hung over, lean as a bird, and very old.  Ox prepares to leave without bothering him when he discovers that he had once one a prize from the emperor making him one of the wisest men in China at the time.  After sobering him up and getting some food in him, he takes the case.

The root case, as it turns out, is easy to solve – the kids who were afflicted had been eating leaves that were poisoned as they collected them to feed to the silkworms; children under 8 were not used for such tasks and children over 13 refrained from such impulses.  The mystery of the poisoning also was quick to be solved, but the mystery of the cure turned out to be an adventure neither of them could have expected.  With Master Li riding on Number Ten Ox’ back, the pair trek all over China, wend through various labyrinths and face off against monsters, ghosts, immortal dukes and various other characters in their travels, making friends and foes alike.  And in the end they find that their journey is not nearly the serious of random coincidences it initially appears to be.

While this tale incorporates a significantly greater amount of mysticism and magic than one would tend to find in a Sherlock Holmes tale, it certainly makes for a similarly entertaining and brain-teasing adventure.  And the narrative format of being written from the perspective of an ancient Chinese man of humble roots really yields a unique perspective.  Even though there is no cliffhanger to the story – it is well encapsulated – I can easily see myself reading through the second and third books in this series.

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