Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu

Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu
Shen Fu.

This is an autobiography by Chinese writer Shen Fu (1763-1825). The wonderfully titled Six Records of a Floating Life ( 浮生六記 in Chinese) was published in 1877 – the manuscript was incomplete by the time of Fu’s death, although it’s clear the four available records were finished circa 1809. After it became a bestseller in China, the two missing extracts were “discovered” in a book shop, but scholars exposed them as fakes.

Whilst essentially a love story, Fu’s work is also an informative look at the Qing Dynasty – in fact, some consider it the definitive document in existence. He lived in what is now Suzhou, until recently known as Soochow (as an aside, that’s where J.G. Ballard’s family were kept as POWs during WWII, immortalised in Empire of the Sun), where he worked as a magistrate’s secretary and painter. His writing is a wistful account of love and life, sprinkled with humour, but also labouring under the issues of his era. It’s a classic historical autobiography.

Six Records of a Floating Life

The four available records make up this short work. They are: Wedded Bliss, the Pleasures of Leisure, the Sorrows of Misfortune, and the Delights of Roaming Afar. Now, despite the eloquence of his writing style, and the beauty of his book’s title, Fu had a difficult life fraught with issues.

Fu wrote this during a period when enormous novels were the norm, so it’s a marked, almost poetic shift in direction. The slight nature of the work would have made it stand out enormously in his day. It’s quite a romantic little number, particularly with the touching account of the love of his life – his wife Chen Yun. Those two hit it off in an era of arranged marriages and she has a minimalistic outlook. She views the simple life as the good life.

Unusually for the era, Fu treats her as his equal, recognising her brilliance as a poet and encouraging her hobbies. In the Pleasures of Leisure, this is taken a step further in how to embrace the world around you (considered further in the fourth record), but the orthodox nature of his era makes up for the bitter Sorrows of Misfortune. It’s here he vents his frustrations at the troubles of his time, mainly brought about due to poverty.

It’s an intimate account of his life. There’s a gentle and lyrical quality to the prose that adds a modern feel to the work. It’s document of one man’s life – the domestic considerations of his day, the economic and political troubles, and China at a key moment in history. With great humility, he even begins the book explaining he’s not a very good writer!

As you spend your time reading this account of his life, you’ll come to realise the opposite. Even though what he covers is fairly simplistic, daily duties and his relationships, it’s that access to a bygone era that remains so fascinating – the historical record of a China from hundreds of years back. Well worth a read, if this sounds like your type of thing.

Qing Dynasty

This Qing Dynasty to which Shen Fu belonged ran from 1644 to 1912. There were 12 emperors during this time, with the last being Puyi (1906-1967) who came to power as a child. The Xinhai Revolution then overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1912, leaving him as ruler of very little indeed, although he continued to live in the Forbidden City for a while as something of a spurned ruler.

World War II shook up his routine further – by the 1950s, when he’d still not brushed his teeth or tied his shoes (having servants for that stuff), he drifted on towards an obscure death. The 1987 film the Last Emperor covered all this. The Hollywood production was a landmark occasion as it allowed Western film crews in to access the Forbidden City, which hadn’t been allowed before. It’s not the best film, but the beautiful opening music above certainly encapsulates the era rather fittingly, we feel.

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