The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Bridge of Birds

My sister in law (LS - little sister) is coming from Sierra Vista Az on Thanksgiving. She’s a great cook. I wanted to tell her about this book but decided on a couple of excerpts, thought I’d share them here for anyone who enjoys a good fantasy.

LS - I hope that you can come before Thanksgiving - and stay for awhile afterwards. It would be a real treat.

I’ve been reading a wonderful wonderful book - did I mention it’s wonderful? Full of wonder and life, it takes place in China around 700 A.D. It is a ‘fantasy’ but at a high level of artistry and it’s really fun.

I wanted to provide an excerpt, but the whole book is so good I’m having trouble deciding. Well here is a paragraph with a taste of the sensual language:

“A Spring wind is like wine,” wrote Chang Chou, “a summer wind is like tea, an autumn wind is like smoke, and a winter wind is like ginger.” The breeze that blew through Peking was tea touched with smoke, and spiced with the fragrance of plum, poppy, peony, plane trees, lotus, narcissus, orchid, wild rose and the sweet-smelling leaves of banana and bamboo. The breeze was also pungent with pork fat, perspiration, sour wine, and the bewildering odors of more people than I had dreamed there were in the whole world.

The first time I was there I had been too intent upon reaching the Street of Eyes to pay much attention the Moon Festival, but now I gaped at the jugglers and acrobats who were filling the air with clubs and bodies, and at girls who were as tiny and delicate as porcelain dolls, and who danced on the tips of the toes upon enormous artificial lotus blossoms. The palanquins and carriages of the nobility moved grandly through the streets, and men and women laughed and wept in open-air theatres, and gamblers screamed and swore around dice games and cricket fights. I envied the elegance and assurance of the gentlemen who basked in the practiced admirations of sing-song girls - or tiptoed into the Alley of Four Hundred Forbidden Delights if they wanted more action. The most beautiful young women that I had ever seen were pounding drums in brightly painted tents as they sang and chanted the Flower Drum Songs. On almost every corner I saw old ladies with twinkling eyes who sold soft drinks and candied fruits while they cried “Aileee! Aileee! Come closer, my children! Spread ears like elephants, and I shall tell you the tale of the great Ehr-Lang, and of the time when he was devoured by the hideous Transcendent Pig!”

Ok one more - this one also appeals to all the senses. I can hear the rain, see the mist, see the young girl in the river, hear bells- like so:

"I awoke on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, which happened to be my nineteenth birthday, to sound of a soft pattering rain. The clouds were beginning to lift, a soft mist drifted across the fields like smoke. In the distance I could see the hazy outline of Dragon’s Pillow, and nearby on the riverbank some boys were teasing Fang’s Fawn (Fang’s youngest daughter) who was riding a water buffalo. I decided that the boys were following her around because the rain had plastered her tunic around small shapely breasts that the pretty little girl didn’t have a month ago, and Fawn was enjoying the attention immensely. Bells were ringing from the monastery upon the hill. "

Ah well, the book is full of that sensuous detail - by that I mean attending to the senses - and the plot is full of life and Chinese custom and peasant humor as well as danger. You would like it I think, and I could be persuaded to let you read it if you come and create a pie!!

It’s called “Bridge of Birds” by Barry Hughart.

A sample of the humor follows; the speaker is Li Kao, a ‘sage with a slight flaw in his character’, also a raconteur of the first rank - telling of a time when he had to train a ‘barbarian’ leader named Procopius:

"Before sailing away, their leader came to see me. He was an oaf named Procopius, and much wine had not improved his appearance. "O great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!’ he bawled. A silly smile was sliding down the side of his face like a dripping water-color, and his eyeballs resembled a pair of pink pigeon eggs that were gently bouncing in saucers of yellow wonton soup.

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 civilization, bellow Kan Pei - which means “dry cup” - and drink to the dregs.’

“And will I be wise?” he asked.

“Better,” I said. “You will be Chinese.”

I finished the book and I’m happy to have read it. It’s kind of a Chinese Hobbit type of thing.
No book in my mind is deeper and richer than the Silmarillion, and this book does not even compare, but it doesn’t fail at being the Silmarillion, it succeeds at its own thing: it’s language is luminous at times, and it is good natured and humorous, with a few moments that border on the numinous. The ending is nothing short of spectacular.