The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox is a compilation of three novels by Barry Hughart that are set in a sort of Platonic idea of China: a timeless vision of an empire hewn together from a manifold of dynasties and legends and more than a dash of humorous whimsy, that seems to capture a mythic Sinic character without seeming culturally exploitative.
All the stories feature the principal duo, the ancient but spry Master Li Kao, a sage with a slight flaw in his character, as well as Number Ten Ox, a self-deprecating but strong peasant farmer turned Master Li’s assistant. The duo rove around China solving crimes and fixing problems, often of a supernatural character.
Hughart’s China is an eclectic mash of deep history, cultural complexity, and civilisational hubris – a China that still views the outside world as barbarians, who follow codes of behavior and conduct that hew to the most ancient of codices. The ostentatious draperies of a civilisation that is secure in itself gild Hughart’s China. Much of the humor of the books comes from this space – he lyrically and gently lampoons the civilisational tendency to codify its idiosyncrasies in the vestments of tradition and justify its cruelties as being the natural outcomes of an instituted hierarchical order.
And yet, despite the gentle humor throughout, the books don’t seem to have an element of cultural exploitation common in Western depictions of China. I attribute this to the fact that Hughart does not try to institute Western cultural sensibilities and mores as possible alternatives to the idiosyncrasies of his imagined China. There is no semblance of cultural judgement – Hughart accepts the uniqueness of his imagined China wholeheartedly. His narratives operate on a brand of causal logic that derives from the cultural and historical predicates of his vision of China. When Master Li Kao delivers his paeans of insight into a case, for example, he does not do so from a culturally removed place, but rather, he appears to derive them from a deep wellspring of esoterica unique to this version of China.
It’s all probably invented or bastardised or adapted, but it has an air of authenticity because it captures that essence, that feeling that China is a civilisation that has built a vast and validated knowledge base derived from an alternate epistemology. And that base is drawn from actual Chinese legend and myth – the legend of the weaver girl and the cowherd, Qin Shi Huang’s quixotic quest for immortality, dragon boat festivals – which lend that fantasy version of China a kind of chinoiserie feeling, completing the feel.
It’s doubly amusing when one considers that Number Ten Ox is perfectly placed to be our narrator and storyteller. As a peasant, he occupies a lowly but simultaneously lofty place in society as the bedrock of Chinese civilisation – but his erudition as a writer belies the fact that compared to the Li Kaos of this imagined China, he is actually deficient in the knowledge base and customs of this China. As such, he has license have all these things explained to him, and by extension, the reader.
Of the three books in this omnibus, Bridge of Birds is the most well-known and well-regarded, and for good reason – of the three, it is the most whimsical and ribald, the most fantastical, but also the most situated in Chinese culture and myth, and therefore has the most literary and anthropological value as an intertextualization of established Chinese narratives. It also is the most emotionally poignant, with a climax that actually sent frissions down my skin.
The other two books are competent enough romps but that extra zest is missing, because Hughart gets mired too much in crafting his plots and cases in ever-more convoluted webs of imagined-Chinese logic such that the plots lose a bit of their coherence. Much like a Star Trek episode where narrative causal flows are mediated by technobabble, except, in this case, Chinoiserie-babble. The Story of the Stone is better than the Eight Skilled Gentlemen in this regard. And the story beats get a little formulaic by the last entry.
In all, this omnibus is a rare treasure of a series of stories that expertly embrace China in its popular essence while not giving in to the cultural temptation to impose a lens of the cultural Other upon it.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 sacred stones