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Book Review


Fu, Shen. Six Records of a Floating Life (Penguin Books, 1983, reprint edition). 176 pp, $13.00.

     This slender volume is quick reading for high school and college students alike. Within its pages is the journal of Shen Fu, a middle level bureaucrat in Qing Dynasty China. By reading the thoughts of this man, who failed to passes the imperial exams and became a private secretary instead, we can learn much about China at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Shen Fu discusses family life and structure, the role of women, the duties of imperial administrators and the values and ideals of classical Chinese society. The book is both a record of Shen Fu's difficult life and of his love for his wife, Yun. 1
     The translators have provided the reader with a ten-page introduction that gives some chronology to the narrative which follows. Shen Fu did not intend to write a chronologically arranged narrative, but rather offered his thoughts, or "records" on issues ranging from marriage, leisure, misfortunes, and travel. Unfortunately, the last two sections of the original manuscript which contain the final two "records" have been lost. Each "record" is illustrated with incidents from Shen Fu's life. 2
     When using the book with students, one could assign the entire text, single chapters, or individual anecdotes. The first record, "The Joys of the Wedding Chamber," tells the love story between Shen Fu and his wife, though students might find it a bit odd that Yun was concerned about finding the right concubine for her husband. The second record, "The Pleasures of Leisure," includes both entertainments and the philosophy behind Chinese art and architecture. However, what Shen Fu found "entertaining" is a far cry from what our students consider fun. For example:

With nothing to do in the long summer, we held examination parties. There would be eight people at each party . . . . We would draw lots and the winner would become the examination master . . . . Everyone else became an examination candidate . . . . The examination master would announce two lines of poetry, one of five characters and one of seven characters, and the candidates would then have the time it took a stick of incense to burn in which to write lines rhyming with them. They could walk or stand while thinking, but no one was allowed to talk or exchange ideas. (65)

     Record three, "The Sorrows of Misfortune," tells of the death of Yun and of Shen Fu's constant money problems. As he was trying to live the life of an administrator on the pay of a secretary, he was constantly borrowing money and getting behind on his payments (this would be a good section to use in a discussion of economics). Finally, in "The Joys of Roaming Afar," Shen Fu describes the geography and cultural traits of southern China. 4
     In my AP World History course, I have used a number of selections from the book. Selections from "The Pleasures of Leisure" work well to illustrate how Chinese religion and culture influenced physical geography in the design of Chinese gardens. My students found it interesting that the Chinese had a philosophy of order which even included how to pot and display plants. According to Shen Fu:

When putting chrysanthemums in a vase one should select an odd number of flowers, not an even number. Each vase should contain flowers of only a single colour. The mouths of the vases should be wide so that the flowers can spread out naturally.

     Whether one is displaying five or seven flowers, or thirty or forty flowers, they should rise straight from the mouth of the vase in one mass, neither crowded together nor falling loosely and leaning against the mouth of the vase. This technique is called 'rising tightly.' (57) 6
     Because Shen Fu reflects on many aspects of his life, there are a large number of questions one could ask to stimulate discussion. Why was Shen Fu constantly in debt? How was his concept of his social status in conflict with his financial status? What was the role of Yun within their marriage? 7
     Six Records of a Floating Life gives students a very personal look into Chinese society at a specific moment in time, but it also allows the students to discuss themes which span generations. As the translators state in the introduction, "The troubled black sheep of a declining family, Shen Fu has left us a lively portrait of his era that in places strikes chords which are remarkably resonant with those of our own times." (14) 8
Gary E. McKiddy
St. Charles High School and St. Charles Community College

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