'Six Records of a Floating Life' - Book Review

Six Records of a Floating Life is the autobiography of Shen Fu (1763-1825). I read it in the 1983 translation by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui from Penguin Classics. Their introduction is an excellent primer on the period.

The phrase "floating life" comes from a poem, "...The floating life is but as a dream; how much longer can we enjoy our happiness?" Shen Fu was born into a wealthy family, but was a conspicuous failure. Happily for us, his autobiography doesn't appear to gloss over that fact (unless he was actually considerably worse than he was willing portray himself). What makes this most interesting, and historically important, is that he gives a lot of time to the daily details of life in his period - something that has nearly been lost to history with the exception of this book.

The book is divided into four sections:

  • Wedded Bliss
  • The Little Pleasures of Life
  • In Sorrow
  • The Joys of Travel

You were expecting more? There were originally six, but the remaining two have been lost to history. Contrary to most modern autobiographies these chapters aren't sequential, but detail different aspects of the same lifetime. "Wedded Bliss" portrays his very happy relationship with his wife - including her ongoing efforts to get him a concubine. "The Little Pleasures of Life" is much as advertised: I will freely admit I skipped over some parts of the section about how many vases of chrysanthemums were appropriate to place on a table at one time. "In Sorrow" is where we find out about things like his wife's frequent illness and his own stupidity about money. A fine example is his guaranteeing a friend's loan for "50 gold," despite not having anything like that sum of money because he "would have been embarrassed not to." The friend ran off on the loan, leaving Shen Fu on the hook and ultimately causing him and his wife to run away in the middle of the night essentially abandoning their children (arrangements were made, but ...). Another bizarre and dubious moment comes when Shen Fu runs out of money, and is contemplating selling his undergarments. The book has extensive and helpful notes, and in this case it points out "This may sound like an odd operation, but the literature is full of examples of it." Here they cite another book where it happens. "Presumably this is because a gentleman's underwear would have been made of finely woven silk and be worth some money."

I didn't finish the book (I'd kept it too long and had to return it to the library), but will recommend it anyway if you have any interest in Chinese history.