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Eight Skilled Gentlemen - A Novel of a China That Never Was, but Should Be

Updated on June 6, 2012
(photos public domain)
(photos public domain)
Oh, we forgot! - You won the World Fantasy Award in 1984.
Oh, we forgot! - You won the World Fantasy Award in 1984.
A Death of a Thousand Slices may suffice.
A Death of a Thousand Slices may suffice.

The Game of Twister

Several publishers seemed to play the child's and lovers' game of Twister with Barry Hughart's books and their publication dates. To whit, Mr. Hughart's first novel won a major global award. The publishers were notified first, but did they tell him about it? No. He heard it third-hand.

For another of the only three books (all marvelous) he ever wrote, a publisher released both the hardback and trade paperback versions together - at the same time - limiting sales.

For another of the trio, a publisher released the book a fiscal quarter early and they were sold out by the official release date announced in the media. Reviews had hit the papers and journals and the book was not available. Eager buyers went to the book shops and were frustratingly disappointed for the most part.

Clearly, chiefs and Indians in these publishing houses were possessed with the poisons of the wrong roots and shoots consumed together at a high literary feast. Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu came to them in dreams and warned them not to do so. He appeared at table in the flesh - lots of it - and talked their ears off about it, but did they listen? Hah! Their ears retracted into their skulls in imitation of another Chinese malady involving other, more nether, regions and celebrated in an old phobia - in song as well, I'd presume.

And so it was that the books of Barry Hughart appeared to strangle themselves as did the victims of an enchanting-powder in Eight Skilled Gentlemen that caused such an irritation in the throat that the scratching and clawing of its victims looked like suicide by self-strangulation. Amazing, inhumane, inhuman.

For these sins, the publishers should suffer the Death of a Thousand Cuts, that slow, slashing demise proffered by the professional executioner known as Devil's Hand, who lives seemingly for millennia. Master Li and Number 10 Ox know him well, as do a band of idiots that resemble hyenas, a shamanka, a master puppeteer, and a baboon wearing makeup. These are just a few of the characters that will keep you up at night with the story of capitalism gone bad and bad dreams gone good around 650 AD.

I haven't even gotten to the eight skilled genetlemen - Delicious, and no extra charge!

A Week of Years

Mr. Hughart wrote only from 1984 - 1990 and it is unclear what sort of work he did before or afterward, except that he served in the US Air Force in Korea in the 1950s. He planted explosives along the DMZ and developed a love and fascination for Asia. Thus, read widely and deeply about China and Chinese history. He continued to read about Chinese Communism and the cultural revolution - with all this, I think he was unimpressed, as he describes it as a "powder keg."

After his years at Columbia University, Mr. Hughart began to bring together ideas for a novel based in a fictional China, but with a foundation of actual history, legends, song, literature, and poetry. He added his own twists to some of the rhymes and this is a style that is his hallmark. Even though he has written only three books, they seem like more. Not only is his a China that should be - we wish it were.

Perhaps his followers will write fanzines.


Ancient Chinese Foundations of Detection

There has been much speculation about the year in which detective fiction first was written in the world. Some researchers and hobbyists have written that the first detective fiction occurred in France, years before Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes. However, this is incorrect.

In 1975, archaeologists working in China uncovered bamboo books prepared from 221 to 201 BC that featured detective fiction.

It is shown in these amcient books that the magistrate (judicial authority) of a local area during the era also was the finder of solutions to crime (Reference: Donald F. Lach. Introduction. The Chinese lake Murders by Robert Van Gulik, University of Chicago Press; 1977; p. 5). The local magistrate was Perry Mason with the additional title and authority of Judge Mason. Not only were historical proceedings of criminal investigations made by judges revealed in the bamboo books, but also popular literature was included, based on these events and personages.

Other materials show that such judges were favorite characters in traditional Chinese marionette shows. All of this is delightful, especially the marionette shows. I wonder how much such performances were akin to Clue? - the culprit being Spirit of 10,000 Ostrich Cheeks in the Celestial Inner Court of Chastisement with the Left Upper Quadrant of a Shark's Jaw. Perhaps the Big Reveal was met with applause like the uproar of the Guild of the Legion of Bat Wings. Having no new Hughart to read, I am forced to look into Robert Van Gulik's transations of old Judge Dee stories and into his own stories of Judge Dee, although he lived and wrote only until 1967, dead at age 57. I shall need to read them more than once, interspersed with the Master Li and Number 10 Ox short series. It is all as delightly as one of Sixth Degree Hoisteler Tu's repeated lectures on culinary arts. One never tires of them. Well, Ox does...

What Does It All Mean?

Regardless, the long history of the Chinese detective novel has never been so delightful as in the three books of Barry Hughart. If they cannot be made into films, then perhaps they can be adapted for the marionette show circuit – except a marionette show is highly featured as a major character in the Eight Skilled Gentlemen already. And it is not the Howdy Doody Show.

Not to ruin the puppeteer's story, but at one point the representations of every important figure in town runs naked through the hallways of the largest brothel in town, accompanied by their ladies of the night. Quite humorous. Wholly delightful in human foible-ability.

Some other passages in the Eight Skilled Gentleman are quite profane with expletives and body parts. I can only attribute this barrage as anger arising from the mishandling of the author's fine second novel, The Story of the Stone. In discussing cooking and eating a reptilian official, perhaps it is the publisher that is barbecued in effigy. Perhaps not. In describing high-ranking eunuch officials wearing their severed parts in a pickling brine on a chain around their necks – and then getting perhaps too close and violent a look at them though the glass at one point – perhaps it is a publisher that should be suffering. Maybe not.

Magic Number Three-in-One

The following is an excerpt from an interview with author Barry Hughart, conducted by mail in January and February of 2000, before the Internet exploded into daily use. The Interview was performed by J. Kuntz.

BH: The Master Li books were a tightrope act and hard to write, but not, alas, very remunerative. Still, I would have continued as originally planned if I'd had a supportive publisher: seven novels ending with my heroes' deaths in the battle with the Great White Serpent, and their elevation to the Great River of Stars as minor deities guaranteed to cause the August Personage of Jade almost as much trouble as the Stone Monkey.


I'm disappointed that they will likely be no further adventures of Master Li and Number 10 Ox and the colorful characters that pursue them and that they pursue. One hopes that Mr. Hughart somehow changes his mind and perhaps self publishes in future. For now, we can have the three books together in the omnibus version depicted to the right. It is becoming more difficulty to find The Story of the Stone, the center story in the trio, and I likely shall have to acquire an omnibus myself. It is a collector's item containing another world that welcomes us into a good type of insanity. Delightful!


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Hawkesdream, it took me several years to find the first one, it was great, and so I want everyone to know his writing. I wish he'd write the other four. Between Mr. Hughart and Mr. van Gulik, I've found a China that I want to get to know better.

      Glad you visited!

    • Hawkesdream profile image


      9 years ago from Cornwall

      I am ashamed to say that I have not read any of Barry's books, but after this review....Patty you are a great advocate for his works.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Nolimits Nana! - I look at the Half Price Books store near my house every other day and finally found Eight Skilled Gentlemen. It's a bit different from Bridge of Birds - very substantial in a heavier way, but the laughs are further into the book and are hilarious.

      I MUST have The Story of the Stone. :)

    • profile image

      Nolimits Nana 

      9 years ago

      Barry Hughart! I've read both The Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone (oved them both!), but have never come across Eight Skilled Gentlemen. I'll have to find it!


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