He was born in Peoria, Illinois and developed a lifelong interest in China that led him to plan a series set in "an Ancient China that never was". This began with Bridge of Birds (published 1984), which introduced Li Kao, an ancient sage and scholar with "a slight flaw in his character", and his client, later assistant, the immensely strong peasant Number Ten Ox, who narrates the story.
The book blended Chinese mythology - real and made-up, from a variety of eras - with detective fiction and a gentle, occasionally ironic humour. One version of this myth is recounted under Milky Way:Mythology.
Bridge of Birds shared the 1985 World Fantasy Award for best novel and won the 1986 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. It was followed by The Story of the Stone (1988), and Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1990). No further books followed, although Hughart's intention was for a series of seven novels, in the last of which Li Kao and Number Ten Ox would die facing the Great White Serpent (a conflict alluded to in Bridge of Birds), but would become minor deities, continuing to cause problems for the August Personage of Jade.
An omnibus edition entitled The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox (ISBN 0-9665436-0-2) was published in 1998. It was illustrated by Kaja Foglio.
Hughart has blamed the end of his writing career on unsympathetic and incompetent publishers. The style of his books made him difficult to classify and he felt his market was restricted by the decision to sell only to SF/Fantasy outlets. His publishers did not notify him of the awards given Bridge of Birds, and published The Story of the Stone three months ahead of schedule, so that no copies were available when the scheduled reviews appeared, whilst the paperback of Eight Skilled Gentlemen was published simultaneously with the hardback. When his publishers then refused to publish hardback editions of any future books, Hughart found it impossible to afford to continue writing, bringing the series to an end.
At last report he lived in Tucson, Arizona.
See also: Chinoiserie