An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Fusheng liuji 浮生六記

Dec 12, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Fusheng liuji 浮生六記 "Six Chapters of a Floating Life" is a collection of four auto-biographical, biji 筆記-style stories from the life of Shen Fu 沈復 (1763-1825?), courtesy name Sanbai 三白, style Meiyi 梅逸. Shen hailed from Changzhou 長洲 close to Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu, and was a talented poet and painter. Of his life, not much is known. In 1777 he followed his father Shen Jiafu 沈稼夫 to Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang, where he attended school. During the Emperor's southern tour (nanxun 南巡) in 1784, Fu and his father were eyewitnesses of an official reception. Later on he returned to Suzhou, where he lived from selling paintings and wine. He gave up this business after failing to pay back a credit given by a friend, and was thrown out by his own father for his relationship with prostitutes. In 1808 he was part of a mission to the Liuqiu/Ryūkyū Islands 琉球. During that time, he began to write his famous memories Fusheng liuji. Afterwards he lived in Sichuan in the service of a local official.

Shen was befriended to Shi Yunyu 石韞玉 (1755-1837), who wrote a play called Hongloumeng chuanqi 紅樓夢傳奇, which was based on the famous romance Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 "Dream of the Red Chamber". In his later years, Shen Fu became a Daoist adept.

The title of the book is derived from a verse of a poem of Li Bai 李白 (701-762), who compared Heaven and earth with a great guesthouse, in which men were living. All matters of life were just "floating like in a dream" (fu sheng ruo meng 浮生若夢), and therefore not worth many thoughts and regrets.

The four stories of the collection give accounts of the life of the author and his beloved wife, Chen Yun 陳芸 (Yunniang 芸娘, 1763-1803), courtesy name Shuzhen 淑珍 (who was also his cousin). Their relationship stands out against the Confucian background that dominated the society and the contact between men and women during those days. Quite extraordinary is the book itself because it gives insight into the private life of a couple which was unthinkable of in the traditional society.

With lingering thoughts, the author thinks of the general joy the couple had together from the day of their marriage on, for instance, when singing together or writing poems.

Ms Yun died prematurely at the age of forty-one sui, and the written memories of their good days helped Shen Fu to forget his grief. The couple had not just a romantic relation, but their affection was characterized by a deep understanding of the other's soul and thoughts, and respect for each other. Most enlightening for the reader is the way in which Shen and his beloved wife surpassed and blurred the traditional boundaries of the realms of man and woman, for instance, Yun's disguise as a man in order to participate in a feast, her love to a girl, or Fu's intimate friendship with a rustic girl, a "foreign" woman to him. Shen Fu's literary achievements are a deep and serious description of the affects the two persons had to each other, with deep sympathy, refined respect, and the joy when playing music together.

Fusheng liuji might be called one of the best late-Qing period 清 (1644-1911) novellas, and it was often compared with Mao Biqiang's 冒辟疆 (1611-1693) Yingmei'an yiyu 影梅庵憶語 from the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644).

The four chapters are called "Delights of Marriage" (Guifang ji le 閨房記樂, transl. after Sanders), "Charms of Idleness" (Xianqing ji qu 閑情記趣), "Sorrows of Hardship" (Kanke ji chou 坎坷記愁), "Pleasures of Roaming" (Langyou ji kuai 浪游記快).

Some editions (Zuben fusheng liuji 足本浮生六記, series Meihua zhuming congkan 美化著名叢刊, 1935) include two more chapters, but it seems that these were interpolated and do not originate from the brush of Shen Fu. They are called "Experiences of Mt. Zhongshan" (Zhongshan jili 中山記歷) and "Methods of Living" (Yangsheng jiyou 養生記游). Other editions, like that of the reprint series Shuoku 說庫, list the last two chapter titles, but do not include the text.

The book was only published long after Shen's death. Yang Yinchuan 楊引傳 (mid-19th cent.) discovered the manuscript in Suzhou around 1849, and it was first published in 1870 by the Shenbaoguan Press 申報館 in Shanghai. The Fusheng liuji is also part of the reprint series Duwu'an congchao 獨悟庵叢鈔, Yanlaihong congbao 雁來紅叢報, and Shenbaoguan congshu 申報館叢書.

There were numerous editions of the book dating from the Republican period (1912-1949), the most excellent of which is Yu Pingbo's 俞平伯 commented edition (Beijing Pushe 北京樸社) from 1923 (repr. Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1980).

There are several English translations of the book, namely Lin Yutang (1936), Six Chapters of a Floating Life (Shanghai: unknown publisher); Shirley M. Black (1960), Chapters from a Floating Life: The Autobiography of a Chinese Artist (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Leonard Pratt and Chiang Shu-hui (1983), Six Records of a Floating Life (New York: Viking Press; also Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986); and Graham Sanders (2011), Six Records of a Life Adrift (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing).

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Ma, Y.W. (1986). "Fu-sheng liu-chi", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 392-394.
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Zhu Wentong 朱文通 (2017). "Zuben Fusheng liuiji de zuozhe wenti 足本《浮生六记》的作者问题", in Guoxuewang 国学网 (