Hughart was born in Peoria, Illinois on March 13, 1934. His father, John Harding Page, served as a naval officer. His mother, Veronica (Barry) Hughart, was an architect.
Hughart was educated at Phillips Academy (Andover). After graduating high school, he suffered from undiagnosed depression, which was classified at the time as schizophrenia, and was treated in the Kings County Psychiatric Ward. Following his release he attended Columbia University where he obtained a BA in 1956.
Upon his graduation from Columbia, Hughart joined the United States Air Force and served from 1956 to 1960 where he was involved in laying mines in the Korean DMZ.During Hughart's military service he began to develop his lifelong interest in China that led him to plan a series set in "an Ancient China that never was." His connection to China continued after his military service, as he worked with TechTop, a military surplus company that was based in Asia, from 1960 to 1965.
From 1965 to 1970 Hughart was the manager of the Lenox Hill Book Shop in New York City.
Hughart cites Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain as major influences in his work. Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Arabian Nights are two major works he also states as affecting his own writing.
Bridge of Birds (1984), was the first novel published under Hughart's name. In it, he 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...authentic and imagined, from several eras...with detective fiction and a gentle, ironic humour. Among the genuine myths alluded to in the book is "The story of Cowherd and Weaver Girl", from which the title is derived.
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 had planned a series of seven novels. In the last of these, Li Kao and Number Ten Ox would die facing the Great White Serpent (a conflict alluded to in Bridge of Birds). They would then become minor celestial deities who would continue to cause problems for the August Personage of Jade.
An omnibus edition, The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox (ISBN 0966543610), was published in 1998. It was illustrated by Kaja Foglio. A new omnibus edition was published in October 2008 by Subterranean Press.
These novels are an example of chinoiserie in literature.
Hughart has also written dialogue for the following films:
Devil's Bride (1968)
Honeymoon with a Stranger (1969)
Man on the Move (Jigsaw) (1972)
Welcome Home Johnny Bristol (1972)
The Other Side of Hell (1978)
Special Effects (1984)
Snow Job (1983—1985)
When the Bough Breaks(1986)
Demise of the Master Li and Number Ten Ox series
Hughart has blamed the end of the series on unsympathetic and incompetent publishers. The style of his books made them difficult to classify and he felt his market was restricted by the decision to sell only to SF/fantasy outlets. As an example of publisher incompetence, Hughart notes that his publishers did not notify him of the awards given Bridge of Birds. He also points out that The Story of the Stone was published three months ahead of schedule, so that no purchasable copies were available by the time the scheduled reviews finally appeared; finally, the paperback edition of Eight Skilled Gentlemen was published simultaneously with the hardback edition resulting in few sales of the latter. When his publishers then refused to publish hardback editions of any future books, Hughart stated that he found it impossible to afford to continue writing novels, which brought the series to an end.
More recently, Hughart wrote
Will there be more? I doubt it, and it’s not because of bad sales and worse publishers. It’s simply that I’d taken it as far as I could. ... [N]o matter how well I wrote I’d just be repeating myself.