“Don’t be ashamed of reliving your childhood, Ox, because all of us must do it now and then in order to maintain our sanity.”
With that line I officially decided that I liked this month’s Sword and Laser bookclub pick—the 1984 fantasy novel “A Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was” by Barry Hughart. I like it a lot.
“Bridge of Birds” is a fantasy novel set in a grand and fantastical ancient imperial China. The book follows the troubles of a small village where all children between the ages of 8 and 10 are struck down by a mysterious illness following the silk worm festival. The lead character, Lu-Yu known as Number 10 Ox, is a young man who is exceptionally strong though not exceptionally bright. He is sent off to find a wise man to bring back to the village to determine how this plague, which has sent all the children into a comatose state, can learn to count—because it is only a specific age group struck—and to find a cure. Wise men do not come cheap and the best Ox can afford is an old drunk who actually turns out to be one of the wisest men in all of China—Master Li whose wisdom could not save him from a falling of grace due to a “slight flaw of character.” Li quickly unearths what has befallen the children and discovers that the only cure is a rare ginseng plant known as the Great Root of Power. Together Master Li and Ox travel through China, and Chinese folklore, to find this healing root in time to save the village children.
“Take a large bowl. 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….and drink… ‘And I will be wise?’ he asked. ‘Better’ I said ‘You will be Chinese’.”
What I really enjoyed about this book was the interspersing on the main plot with many other stories and samples of ancient China. I’m a self-proclaimed scholar of fairy tales (I took those classes in college that make me an expert after all :P ) but I must admit that my rather expansive expertise largely only covers Western culture. I have some familiarity with Arabian/Middle Eastern tales as well but my knowledge of East Asian culture is embarrassingly lacking. I enjoyed how unfamiliar I was with these stories. So often I get caught up in tellings, re-tellings, re-imaginings of the more traditional European folklore. There’s nothing wrong with knowing what I enjoy but I’m not really expanding or learning anything new when I see Cinderella retold for the umpteenth time. If you have a vested interested in fairytales/folklore/mythology you will enjoy this book. The tales aren’t traditional Chinese folklore but retellings or inspired by more traditional tales. Very clever Hughart, now I have to go out and read MORE so I can compare and fill in my knowledge gaps. Getting me to read, damn you!
The stories follow the Grimm tradition of being almost shockingly violent and bloody at times. The opening of the book focuses so much on children’s rhymes and humor that when the first really violent scene unfolded it caught me off guard. If descriptions of torture and blood are difficult for you there will be sections of this novel that make you queasy. There were moments where I actually had a hard time reading depictions of some ancient Chinese torture techniques—and I can stomach a lot. Two characters in particular, the Duke and the Ancestress, are villains that especially revel in the blood lust. The Ancestress is a bit more comical and I imagined her as a Chinese version at times of the Queen of Hearts from Wonderland; she’s rather fond of decapitation. The violence gets a treatment with some levity at times—one of the good guys runs around with his axe happily shouting “Chop Chop Chop!” with comical emphasis as he hacks and saws apart his enemies. I think the humor actually makes the violence seem more shocking but that could just be me.
My biggest complaint about the book, which has been echoed on boards, is that it starts off pretty slow and has some moments where it meanders. I’ve noticed that is a common problem in quest based stories. It seems like there’s always a point where information gets told rather than shown—and in those moments where the author gets stuck the characters are usually stuck meandering around in the woods somewhere as well. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings…. It happens.
Of course like any good folk tale at the root “The Bridge of Birds” is a love story but you won’t realize that’s what you’re reading until a good third of the way in. I liked that. It was pleasant to go on this journey with the two lead characters and get some genuine surprises along the way. So often I find writing, especially television writing, to be extremely predictable. I’d predicted the outcome of the book before the end but there were still a number of surprises for me and I absolutely LOVED that.
“Ginseng hunters refer to the plan as chang-diang shen, “the root of lightning,” because it is believed that it appears only on the spot where a small mountain spring has been dried up by a lightning bolt. After a life of three hundred years the green juice turns white and the plant acquires a soul. It is then able to take on human form, but it never becomes truly human because ginseng does not know the meaning of selfishness.”
When I wasn’t being grossed out by depictions of body parts oozing and being removed, I was learning a great deal about the medicinal mysticism surrounding ginseng. Most Americans are only exposed to this root as an ingredient in herbal teas. It’s a highly sought after additive and as I discovered at my local Korean market, very expensive when purchased fresh. The list of supposed health benefits is long and largely unverified but there is sufficient correlative data in the medical community for a select few. Ginseng has shown to be a good supplement for your immune system; it seems to boost white blood cell count and immune response—especially in conjunction with vaccinations. It also promotes insulin uptake and therefore makes it a great supplement for those suffering from diabetes. Some more popular, though less supported claims, are that it promotes mental acuity/alertness and is a popular supplement for a certain male specific…dysfunction. It’s no wonder then that this plant has such a huge place in East Asian culture and tradition. It is also similar to mandrake roots in that it is often described as looking human-ish thus inspiring a sort of religious reverence to the plant.
My question in reading was: does ginseng ever get used in food dishes? I am familiar with a South Korean soup called “Samgyetang” which features a chicken stuffed with rice, a bunch of things I was unfamiliar with and ginseng. As it turns out this is a popular soup in Chinese cuisine as well—the Cantonese refer to it as Yun Sum Gai Tong—but since 99.999999% of all Chinese restaurants are American Chinese, you aren’t likely to find it on the menu. Some more authentic Korean spots will have it though but be warned that Ginseng is rather bitter. I tried my hand at making this soup at home inspired by the book and despite my best efforts you just can’t take away that slight bitter bite in the root. On the other hand that’s what means it’s good for you! The soup is supplemented with Jujubes, a sweet red date, ginger, garlic, rice and water chestnuts. I’m so glad I made it too. The weather has been unseasonably warm and over the weekend a cold snap came in to remind everyone that it’s still February and not to get so cavalier about winter ending. The day the cold hit I ran to my kitchen to get to soup making. My poor roommate came down with a fever literally the day after I brewed a batch of this stuff so I’ve been shoving it at him every time he emerges from his bedroom. It’s entirely selfishly motivated—I don’t want to get sick!
Yun Sum Gai Tong
An Olivia Original inspired by “The Bridge of Birds” Read more