I read this as part of the Sword & Laser online book club. I bought it a while ago on the recommendation of this guy, a member of the online forum. He's one of the reasons I love the internet. So S&L started as a podcast (and it still is) but has also a video show as part of the amazing Geek & Sundry network. The hosts encourage much vier/listener feedback and this guy has become a genius at doing funny little whiteboard animations. He usually sums up an author's work or comments of some aspect of fantasy fiction in a fun and interesting way.
When he did a white board recommending the Bridge of Birds I went out and picked up a copy that weekend.
I was not disappointed. It's everything he says and more. Actually, he didn't say much other than he loved it and considered it one of the best fantasy books ever but that was enough for me.
He did not, however, tell how supremely funny it is, and on many different levels. A word that popped up frequently on the discussion thread was Rablasian. But I am not familiar with Rablais. To me, it was most reminiscent of Candide, Jonathan Swift and a bit of Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. But in ancient mythological China.
In some alternate, magical distant Chinese past, the children of a village are struck by a mysterious illness. Our narrator, Number Ten Ox, is sent to find a wise man to help. He finds the renowned Li Kao, the only wise man crazy enough to work for a pittance. He also, as he likes to remind everyone "has a slight flaw" in his character. It's never made explicit what exactly this particular flaw is.
They set out on a journey for a mysterious Root of Power (like a special magical ginseng root), with the 90-plus-year-old Li Kao leading the way, happily riding the back of our Dr. Watson-like narrator, Number Ten Ox. Their adventures get successively crazier and crazier, but they never lose sight of the importance of helping the children of the village (who unknowingly assist them in finding clues).
If you decide to read this and find it difficult at first, stick with it for a few chapters. For some reason I read many comments about folks having some trouble with the first chapter. But every detail comes into play and every bit comes full circle, so it's all important and pays off. In fact, I was surprised when I found out Hughart went on to write two more books because this one is so complete. I'll have to check out the other two some day.
The children's book closest in tone to this one is Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon which she has since followed up with Starry River of the Sky. Some of the same Chinese myths are repurposed in both Lin and Hughart's tales (but his Old Man of the Moon is scary while hers is cryptic and benign).
There's so much to talk about but there's so much I don't want to give away that I'll leave it here. I may have to get my real world book club to read it next year just to be able to discuss it more.