"'Oh great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!' he bawled.
[...] To my great credit I never batted an eyelash. 'Take a large bowl,' I said. 'Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilisation, bellow kan pei - which means 'dry cup' - and drink to the dregs.'
Procopius stared at me. 'And I will be wise?' he asked.
'Better,' I said. 'You will be Chinese.'"
This, in a sort of delightfully anarchic nutshell, is Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds (1984). Set in "an ancient China that never was", Hughart's World Fantasy Award-winning novel follows the adventures of drunken sage Master Li and his naive-but-perceptive sidekick, Number Ten Ox. When the children of his village fall prey to a mysterious disease, Number Ten Ox sets out to find a wise man to help cure them. But wise men, he soon finds, don't come cheap. In desperation, he lights upon the famous Master Li, of whom the initial impressions are not encouraging:
Could this be the great Li Kao, whose brain had caused the empire to bow at his feet? Who had been elevated to the highest rank of mandarin, and whose mighty head was now being used a pillow for drunken flies? [...] "My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character."
The exact nature of Li's self-confessed "flaw" is left open to the reader's interpretation (candidates include flexible morals, self-deprecation, a shameless talent for scamming people, and an overdeveloped sense of irony). In any case, Li's flair for elaborate confidence tricks soon wins over the (easily-) bemused Number Ten Ox, and a partnership is formed. Their quest - for a special ginseng root - leads the pair through a series of increasingly outlandish escapades involving evil monks, corrupt nobles, deranged alchemists, a mother-in-law from your deepest nightmares, ghosts and even gods.
I'm not well-read in Chinese mythology or literature, but the style and structure of the novel reminded me very much of Journey to the West in its episodic adventure, highly irreverent tone and the easy mingling of gods and peasants, supernatural and mundane. It's daft, fast and filled with incident, slipping between horror and humour in the space of a paragraph. It usually comes down on the side of the funny:
"Who do you think you are? The Imperial Prick?" the old lady yelled.
(She meant Emperor Wu-ti. After his death his lecherous ghost kept hopping into his concubines' beds, and in desperation they had recruited new brides from all over, and it was not until the total reached five hundred and three that the exhausted spectre finally gave up and crawled back into its tomb.)
But it never ignores China's often-turbulent history, and the sufferings of its people; indeed, the legendary stylings of the foregrounded story are generally anchored, somewhere, in the good and bad deeds of very 'real' people:
Mystery and terror are the bulwarks of tyranny, and for fourteen years China was one vast scream, but then the duke made the mistake of raising taxes to the point where the peasants had to choose between starvation or rebellion. He had confiscated their weapons, but he was not wise enough in the ways of peasants to confiscate their bamboo groves. A sharpened bamboo spear is something to avoid, and when the duke saw several million of them marching in his direction his hastily abandoned the empire and barricaded himself in the Castle of Labyrinth.
Despite its slim page-count and ostensible silliness, Bridge does a brilliant job with its setting, managing to evoke so many of the concerns, concepts and conflicts of ancient China quite simply - through its protagonists' offhand comments, through snippets of legend and historical anecdotes, and the rogues' gallery of characters who pop up along the way, without having to resort to laboured explanatory passages. A personal favourite on the character front is Key Rabbit, mostly for this speech where he falls in love with his own drama:
"I become violently ill in butcher's shops!" he howled. "I faint when I cut my finger! Crimson sunsets make me hide beneath my bed! Bloodhounds drive me into screaming fits! I once threw up over a very distinguished nobleman who introduced me to his blood brother! And now I must witness the bloodiest execution ever invented by man!" wailed Key Rabbit. "Woe! Woe! Woe!"
The novel is suffused with a love of China and its legends, a infectiously-enjoyable celebration of and the power of sheer fable. In the end, the whole thing weaves together beautifully - and movingly - in a way that I wouldn't dream of spoiling. Great fun, and I'll definitely be hunting down the sequels!
May your villages remain ignorant of tax collectors, and may your sons be many and ugly and strong and willing workers, and may your daughters be few and beautiful and excellent providers of love gifts from eminent families that live very far away, and may your lives be blessed by the beauty that has touched mine.