Top positive review
The Ordinary Life of an Imperfect Man
Reviewed in the United States on October 2, 2019
I am constantly looking for classics of Asian literature to expand my knowledge of this area. Chinese literature, I will admit from the beginning, is not my forte. I have read Mo Yan, Gao Xingjian, Ma Jian, Bei Dao, Lao She, and Lu Xun. The first volume of Cao Xueqin’s _Story of the Stone_ awaits on one of my bookshelves. Penguin has never disappointed me, and so every volume of Asian literature they have published is automatically on my mental list of books to read. This translation of Shen Fu’s early eighteenth-century work _Six Records of a Floating Life_ was first published in 1983, but surprisingly I was not aware of it until I came across a copy at local bookstore. While the book was not exactly what I was expecting, I was pleasantly surprised by these memoirs of a flawed bureaucrat.
So, what *was* I expecting? Judging by the title, which comes from a poem by Li Po, I assumed this was going to be a text of great philosophical depth, a series of meditations on the transitory nature of human life and the passing of things. _Six Records of a Floating Life_ is not contemplative, nor is it narrative. This is, for the most part, a descriptive work. Through the author’s comments on, for instance, the passing of one the people close to him, we get a sense of pathos, but I was expecting more meditative passages. I kept waiting for philosophical insight as I turned the pages. Eventually I stopped fighting the text and adapted to it. Here was a great opportunity, I told myself, to learn what life was like for an eighteen-century Chinese government-office secretary.
Shen Fu does not present his life in chronological order. This may be a challenge or a refreshing variant. The memoirs are divided into four parts, which deal with the married life, leisure, misfortune, and travel, respectively. The complete text of _Six Records of a Floating Life_ has not survived, hence the four sections. As the translators point out in the introduction and the appendices, the two additional chapters “discovered” later and published in the 1930s are literary forgeries.
Parts I and III, on the married life and misfortune, were my favorites. If one reads _Six Records of a Floating Life_ as Shen Fu and his wife Yün’s love story, the first section of the book is of course the most interesting. This is not, however, a typical (Western) romantic story. As the translators discuss in the introduction, Shen Fu was far from perfect as a husband/lover. That is all I will say, so as not to spoil the text for you. The third section is, not surprisingly, the most pathetic in the literal sense of the word: loss and mourning are its main themes. Part II, the shortest section, which begins with a lengthy description of flower arrangement, didn’t really touch me, and part IV is too descriptive for my taste, though the evocations of places are quite vivid.
The introduction and notes by translators Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui are incredibly valuable. I like my introductions brief and to the point. This book’s foreword is only 6 pages long, but it touches upon various topics: the text as a love story, the role of concubines, Shen Fu’s character and shortcomings, the work of the private secretary and specifically what type of secretary Shen Fu was, and the structure of the text. Regarding the notes, there are 101 of them (to a 120-page text), and they provide helpful cultural and historical detail for those who wish to deepen their understanding of the text. The book also includes a chronology, a note on weights and measures, two appendices (on the lost chapters), and four maps (of China, Shen Fu’s travels, and the place where he and Yün lived).
I recommend Shen Fu’s book to those who appreciate descriptive texts, especially those dealing with everyday life in a different epoch, and with travel. When it comes to the latter, the final section of _Six Records of a Floating Life_ reads somewhat like Basho’s _The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches_ (a magnificent little volume, also published by Penguin) minus the poetry. One final suggestion: for best results, do not devour Shen Fu’s book, savor it instead.
My next work of Chinese literature will be either Lao She’s _Mr. Ma and Son_ or Yu Hua’s _To Live_.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!