Master Li & №10 Ox v1 The Bridge of Birds - A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart.pdf

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Caveat Oriens
(prō lep' sis),
n., pl.
the anticipation of possible
objections in order to answer them in advance.
the assigning of a person, event,
etc., to a period earlier than the actual one.
The Random House Dictionary of the
English Language
Caveat Occidens
To stand still. To gallop at full speed.
A small mouth. Some say a large mouth.
Devoid of intelligence, deficiency of wit, silly, idiotic. Also used for
borrowing and returning books.
A dog under the table.
A dog with short legs.
A short-headed dog.
Maou Tsaou.
A scholar not succeeding and giving himself over to liquor.
— The Chinese Unicorn, edited, from Chinese-English
dictionaries, by Thomas Rowe; printed for Robert
Gilkey (private circulation).
Part One
Master Li
The Village of Ku-fu
I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world.
My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be
confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite
undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father's sons and rather strong I
am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox. My father died when I was eight. A
year later my mother followed him to the Yellow Springs Beneath the Earth, and
since then I have lived with Uncle Nung and Auntie Hua in the village of Ku-fu
in the valley of Cho. We take great pride in our landmarks. Until recently we also
took great pride in two gentlemen who were such perfect specimens that people
used to come from miles around just to stare at them, so perhaps I should begin a
description of my village with a couple of classics.
When Pawnbroker Fang approached Ma the Grub with the idea of joining
forces he opened negotiations by presenting Ma's wife with the picture of a small
fish drawn upon a piece of cheap paper. Ma's wife accepted the magnificent gift,
and in return she extended her right hand and made a circle with the thumb and
forefinger. At that point the door crashed open and Ma the Grub charged inside
and screamed: "Woman, would you ruin me? Half of a pie would have been
That may not be literally true, but the abbot of our monastery always said
that fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can.
Pawnbroker Fang's ability to guess the lowest possible amount that a
person would accept for a pawned item was so unerring that I had concluded that
it was supernatural, but then the abbot took me aside and explained that Fang
wasn't guessing at all. There was always some smooth shiny object lying on top
of his desk in the front room of Ma the Grub's warehouse, and it was used as a
mirror that would reflect the eyes of the victim.
"Cheap, very cheap," Fang would sneer, turning the object in his hands.
"No more than two hundred cash."
His eyes would drop to the shiny object, and if the pupils of the reflected
eyes constricted too sharply he would try again.
"Well, the workmanship isn't too bad, in a crude peasant fashion. Make it
The reflected pupils would dilate, but perhaps not quite far enough.
"It is the anniversary of my poor wife's untimely demise, the thought of
which always destroys my business judgment," Fang would whimper, in a voice
clotted with tears. "Three hundred cash, but not one penny more!"
Actually no money would change hands because ours is a barter economy.
The victim would take a credit slip through the door to the warehouse, and Ma
the Grub would stare at it in disbelief and scream out to Fang: "Madman! Your
lunatic generosity will drive us into bankruptcy! Who will feed your starving
brats when we are reduced to tattered cloaks and begging bowls?" Then he would
honor the credit slip with goods that had been marked up by 600 percent.
Pawnbroker Fang was a widower with two children, a pretty little daughter
we called Fang's Fawn and a younger son that we called Fang's Flea. Ma the
Grub was childless, and when his wife ran off with a rug peddler his household
expenses were cut in half and his happiness was doubled. The happiest time of all
for the team of Ma and Fang was our annual silk harvest, because silkworm eggs
could only be purchased with money and they had all the money. Ma the Grub
would buy the eggs and hand them out to each family in exchange for lOUs that
were to be redeemed with silk, and since Pawnbroker Fang was the only qualified
appraiser of silk for miles around they were able to take two-thirds of our crop to
Peking and return with bulging bags of coins, which they buried in their gardens
on moonless midnights.
The abbot used to say that the emotional health of a village depended upon
having a man whom everyone loved to hate, and Heaven had blessed us with two
of them.
Our landmarks are our lake and our wall, and both of them are the result of
the superstition and mythology of ancient times. When our ancestors arrived in
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