Chapters From A Floating Life - Shen Fu - ebook

Shen Fu, writer and painter, who was a native of Soochow, was born in 1763 and died sometime alter 1809. His father was by profession a secretary to magistrates, and Shen Fu was apprenticed in the same profession. Shen held various posts as a secretary, but he also worked by turns as a teacher and merchant. Although he had a studio in Soochow for a time he found that he could not make a living out of his paintings and for much of his life was miserably poor. He was sustained by his beloved wife Ch'en Yun, who died in 1803 after twenty-three years of marriage, and he movingly commemorates their mutual devotion in his enchanting biography.

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Table of Contents
Chapters From A Floating Life

Chapters From A Floating Life

Shen Fu

This page copyright © 2006 Silk Pagoda.

Translated from the Chinese by Shirley M. Black, Poems by Tu Fu and Li Po Translated by S. M. B.


Shen Fu, writer and painter, who was a native of Soochow, was born in 1763 and died sometime alter 1809. His father was by profession a secretary to magistrates, and Shen Fu was apprenticed in the same profession. Shen held various posts as a secretary, but he also worked by turns as a teacher and merchant. Although he had a studio in Soochow for a time he found that he could not make a living out of his paintings and for much of his life was miserably poor. He was sustained by his beloved wife Ch'en Yun, who died in 1803 after twenty-three years of marriage, and he movingly commemorates their mutual devotion in his enchanting biography.

Chapters from a Floating Life, now most sympathetically translated by Mrs. Shirley M. Black, has long been a classic in China. The autobiography was originally written in six parts, but the two last were unfortunately lost. Mrs. Black has transposed several incidents, and abridged the whole somewhat, especially the fourth part, in the interest of the general western reader. She has selected the illustrations from paintings which might have influenced Shen Fu, and which reflect the spirit and delicacy of his writing.




I WAS born in 1763, at a time of peace and unusual prosperity, in the reign of the Emperor Ch'ien Lung, on the twenty-second day of the eleventh month, in the winter of the year of the sheep. Mine was a full-dress family, one of scholars and gentle-people, who lived near the gardens of the Ts'ang-lang Pavilion, in the city of Soochow.

The gods, I should say, have always been more than generous to me; but, as the poet Su Tung-p'o wrote:


'Life is like a spring dream

which ends—and leaves no traces.'


By setting down this story of my life, then, I hope to show my gratitude for Heaven's many favours.

The first of the three hundred poems in the Classic of Poetry is a wedding song and I too shall begin with memories of my married life, letting other events follow as they may. My only regret is that as a boy I neglected my studies and acquired such a superficial education that now I find it impossible to do more than record the bare facts of my life as I remember them. Examining my work for elegance of style, therefore, would be like expecting brilliance from a tarnished mirror.

I remember that when I was a small boy I could stare into the sun with wide-open eyes. I remember, too, that I could see very clearly such minute autumn hairs as the down on plants and the markings on the tiniest insects. I loved to look closely at anything delicate or small; examining the grains of pieces of wood, the veins and patterns of leaves or the streaks and lines on some insignificant trifle, gave me an almost magical delight.

In summer when the mosquitoes were buzzing like thunder, I used to pretend they were a company of cranes dancing in the air. My imagination transformed them into real birds, into hundreds and thousands of actual cranes; and I would keep my eyes on them, entranced, until I had a crick in my neck from looking upwards so intently. Once I trapped some mosquitoes behind a thin white curtain and carefully blew smoke around them until their humming became the crying of the cranes and I could see the white birds flying through the azure clouds of highest heaven. How happy I was at that moment!

I often used to crouch in the hollow of a ruined wall or squat on my heels beside one of the raised flower terraces, my eyes on a level with the plants and grasses, and with rapt attention stare at some minute object until, in my mind, I had transformed the grass into a dense forest and the insects and ants into wild beasts. With my spirit wandering happily in this world of my imagination I would then see the small stones as towering mountains, the slight depressions in the earth as deep ravines.

One day, as I watched two insects fighting in the grass, a huge and terrible monster burst upon the scene, toppling the mountains and flattening the trees as it came. Suddenly, I saw it swallow the fighting insects with one flick of its enormous tongue! And so far away was my childish spirit at that moment that I failed to recognize the monster as just an ordinary toad. I opened my mouth and screamed with terror. When I finally came to my senses, seeing then that it was nothing but a toad, I picked the animal up, beat it several tens of times and chased it off the terrace.

Years later, in thinking of this incident, I realized that the two insects had not been fighting but that I had been witness to an act of rape. The ancient proverb says: 'Destruction follows fornication.' This would seem to apply to insects also!

Another time, while I was enjoying a secret pleasure in the garden, my egg (we call the male organ an 'egg' in Soochow slang), was nipped by an earthworm and soon became so badly swollen that I could not urinate. After a duck had been caught for the purpose, a servant was told to hold the animal so that the saliva from its open mouth would drip onto my swollen egg. When the girl carelessly loosened her grip on its neck for a moment, the duck tried to swallow my egg, and I—scared out of my senses—set up a tremendous hullabaloo. Tongues wagged over all this, you may be sure.

Such were the idle pastimes of my childhood.


When I was still a small boy I became engaged to a daughter of the Yu family of Chin-sha; but, as the little girl died before her eighth birthday, I eventually married one of my cousins, the daughter of my mother's brother Ch'en Hsin-yu. My wife's intimate name was Yuen, meaning Fragrant Herb. Her literary name, by which we often called her, was Shu-chen, Precious Virtue.

Even as a baby Yuen had shown signs of unusual intelligence and understanding. Not long after she had learned to talk her parents taught her to recite Po Chu-i's long narrative poem 'The Song of the Lute'. After hearing it once or twice, the child could repeat the whole poem from beginning to end, word for word, without making a single mistake.

Yuen's father died when she was four years old, leaving his family—wife, son, and daughter—with nothing but the four bare walls of an empty house. But as she grew up the girl became a skilful needlewoman, able to fill three mouths from the work of her ten clever fingers, and to pay the school fees for her brother, K'e-chang, when he commenced to study with a tutor. One day, in a waste-paper basket, Yuen found a copy of The Song of the Lute. From the tattered pages of the discarded book, with her memory of the words of the poem to guide her, she learned to recognize the characters and in this way taught herself to read. Stealing moments now and then from her embroidery, she not only learned to read poetry but soon began writing verses herself. I have always particularly liked these two lines from one of her early poems:


'Invaded by autumn, men are lean as shadows;

Fattening on frost, chrysanthemums grow lush.'


When I was thirteen I went with my mother to visit the home of her parents and there I met my cousin Yuen for the first time. Two equally ingenuous children, we were drawn to each other at once. Yuen trusted me enough, from the beginning, to show me the poems she had written. Reading them, I realized that hers was a very unusual talent, but the knowledge made me afraid that, in this world, such a clever girl would be neither happy nor fortunate.

After I returned to my own home, finding that I could not put my cousin out of my mind or my heart, I decided to talk to my mother about her.

'In case you are thinking of choosing a wife for me soon,' I said, 'I must tell you that I cannot marry anyone but my cousin Shu-chen.'

Fortunately for me, my mother had also grown fond of her niece. Yuen's grace and beauty and the gentleness of her manner had so pleased my mother that she now took off her own gold wedding-ring and decided to send it to my cousin as a token of our engagement. This took place in 1775, on the sixteenth day of the seventh month of the year of the sheep.

Some months later, in the winter of that same year, when one of my girl cousins was about to be married, I once again accompanied my mother to her family home for the wedding celebrations.

Now that we were together again, Yuen and I continued to call one another 'Younger Brother' and 'Elder Sister Precious', just as we had done before, although my cousin was only ten months my elder.

The house was gay, on this ceremonious occasion, with the rainbow-hued new robes of the family and the wedding guests. Yuen alone, looked her quiet, simple self, having added nothing to her everyday dress but a pair of bright new shoes. When I had admired the artistry of their embroidery and learned that she had made the shoes herself, I began to understand that Yuen was extremely capable and practical; that reading, writing, and composing poetry were only a few of her many accomplishments.

The simplicity of her robe seemed to accentuate her fragile beauty and the slenderness of her graceful figure, with its sloping shoulders and long, delicate neck. Her eyes looked very dark beneath the curving wings of her brows. Her glance sparkled with intelligence and humour, and I could find no flaw in her loveliness except that her two front teeth sloped forward ever so slightly under short upper lip; an unimportant defect, but one that was regarded as a sign of bad luck. Above all else, a clinging softness in her manner, an indefinable air of tenderness and vulnerability about her, touched my heart deeply, making me wish to stay forever by her side.

I had asked Yuen to let me read the rough drafts of her latest poems, but found, when she gave me the manuscript, that most of the verses were unfinished, being couplets, or at most, stanzas of only three or four lines.

'Why do you never finish them, Sister Shu?' I asked her.

'Without a teacher, I have never learned to finish them correctly,' she answered. 'I wish I had an intimate friend who would also be my teacher and help me with my poetry.'

Taking the book of poems from her hand I playfully wrote on the label:


'Beautiful Lines in a Brocade Cover.'


I could not know, then, that hidden within those covers were the reasons for her early death!

That evening I formally escorted the bridal party to a celebration outside the city walls and before I reached home again the watchman at the water-clock had called the third watch of the night. I was feeling very hungry. Entering the house, I called a servant and asked her to bring me some meat dumplings, but the old woman came back with some dates and dried meats from the wedding feast, sweets which I do not like and will not eat.

Yuen heard my voice. She came out and pulled me by the sleeve, motioning me to follow her to her room, where I was delighted to find that she had hidden some rice-gruel and vegetables for my supper. I was raising the chop-sticks to my mouth, when I heard Yuen's cousin, Yu-heng, calling:

'Sister Shu. Sister Shu. Come quickly.' Yuen rose at once and shut the door.

'I'm very tired,' she called to Yu-heng. 'I was just going to bed.'

Yu-heng pushed hard against the door and managed to squeeze into the room. When he saw me, chop-sticks in air, he grinned at Yuen and laughed maliciously.

'A little while ago I asked you to bring me some congee,' he said, 'but you told me it was all gone. But now I see that you were saving it to serve to your husband!'

Tearful and embarrassed, Yuen looked as if she wanted to run away and hide. A crowd of relatives and servants, attracted by Yu-heng's noisy laughter, began crowding into the room, joining in the fun at Yuen's expense. I too became very excited and upset. I called my personal servant and left for my own home at once, in a very bad humour. After this distressing incident, Yuen tried to avoid me whenever I visited her home, but I understood that she was keeping out of my way because she dreaded being ridiculed again on my account.



Five years were to pass before our wedding candles burned, at dusk, on the twenty-second day of the first month of the year of the rat—1780. As Yuen stepped from her bridal chair I saw at once that she had not changed, that hers was still the same delicate, sensitive figure I knew so well in my dreams. When, at last, she raised the wedding veil which had hidden her face, we looked at one another long and steadily; then Yuen smiled at me—and I found her as enchanting as before.

After drinking together from the ceremonial nuptial cup, we took our places side by side at the wedding banquet. I felt for Yuen's wrist, under the table, then closed my hand over her slender fingers. The touch of her smooth skin, so warm and soft, made my head swim and my heart beat violently.

I begged her to begin eating but she whispered that she was keeping a vegetarian fast, and had eaten no meat for several years. When I questioned her, she told me shyly that she had begun her secret fast at the time when I had smallpox.

'But Sister Shu,' I said teasingly, 'now that my face is clear and smooth again, without a single scar, won't you please break your fast?' Yuen's eyes smiled into mine as she nodded her head.

One of my sisters was to be married on the twenty-fourth, but, as the twenty-third was a day of national mourning when no music could be played, her wedding banquet, also, took place on my wedding night. While Yuen watched my sister's entertainment in the banquet hall I was playing the guess-fingers game with the bride's attendant in my bridal chamber.

As penalty for shouting a wrong number in this fast guessing game, the loser is required to drink a cup of wine. Being consistently defeated, drinking cup after cup of wine, I was soon so very drunk that I collapsed on the floor in a stupor. Before I was sober enough to open my eyes again, my wedding night had passed; dawn was whitening the window and Yuen was nearly dressed.

We spent the long day entertaining relatives and friends, who kept coming and going, in a continuous stream, until after the lamps had been lighted and the musicians were again permitted to play. Soon after midnight, on the morning of the twenty-fourth, in my ceremonial capacity as brother of the bride, I formally escorted my sister to her new husband's home. Returning about three o'clock, I found the courtyards deserted and silent. The last guest had gone home. The last candles were flickering out.

Quietly, I entered my bridal chamber, where the bride's attendant lay dozing on the floor. Yuen, who had taken off her wedding finery, was not yet in bed. She was sitting, in the light from a pair of tall silver candles, with her delicate white neck bent over a book, so completely absorbed in her reading that she was unaware I had come into the room.

I put my hand on her shoulder.

'The past few days have been tiring and difficult for you, Sister,' I said. 'Why are you still reading? Aren't you worn out?'

Quickly raising her head, Yuen rose respectfully to her feet.

'I was ready to go to bed when I went to the cupboard and picked out this book,' she explained. 'As soon as I started to read it I forgot how exhausted I was. For years I have been hearing about The West Chamber, but this is the first time I have ever really seen a copy. The author was certainly a genius—though I find his style a little too biting, too satirical.'

'But only a writer who is really a genius can write good satire,' I answered.

The bride's attendant interrupted, yawning, to suggest that it was time we went to bed. When I told her to leave us, she went out and closed the door behind her. Left alone for the first time, Yuen and I stood side by side, laughing softly, feeling as excited as two old friends who meet again after a long separation. Playfully, I put my hand on her breast and felt the wild beating of her heart. Bending close, I whispered softly,

'Shu-chen, why does your heart beat like this?' Yuen's eyes smiled into mine, and in that moment our souls were closely bound with the silken strands of love; our quivering bodies knew the intensity of desire.

So, at last, I led her to the bed, nor were we aware when dawn began to whiten the horizon.

Though she was at first reserved and silent, Yuen, as a young bride, was never angry nor sullen. She was respectful to her elders and treated her inferiors with gentle kindness, nor could the slightest fault be found with the work she did in the household. Every morning, as the sun sent its first rays through the window, Yuen would get out of bed, hastily putting on her clothes as if she heard someone ordering her to do so.

'You are a married woman now,' I laughed at her. 'Your position is very different from the time when I ate your congee. Why are you still so afraid of being criticized?'

'When I hid the rice-gruel for you, I really did give cause for gossip,' she answered. 'Now, although I am no longer afraid at being laughed at, I don't want to give your parents any occasion to think I am lazy or careless.'

I wanted to make love to her again; to hold her in my arms a little longer; yet I had such respect for her strength of character that I made myself get out of bed as soon as she did, so that all through the day we were inseparable, heads together, as close as a man and his shadow. Words cannot describe the depth of our emotions, the joy we shared, the love and passion we felt for each other. But joy and pleasure make time fly all too swiftly and, in what seemed no more than a flutter of the eyelashes, the month of our honeymoon had passed.

My father, who was then secretary to a high official at Kuei-ch'i, now sent a yamen constable to fetch me back with him, as I was still, at that time, a pupil of the tutor Mr. Chao Sheng-chai of Wu-lin. (It is entirely due to the efforts of this Mr. Chao, a talented and conscientious teacher, that I am literate at all today.) Although I had known all along that after the wedding I should have to return to my studies, the arrival of my father's message disturbed and depressed me and my heart sank at the thought that Yuen might break into tears at the news of my going.

But Yuen, to my surprise, presented a cheerful face. She tried to encourage me in my plans and started at once to pack my boxes for the journey to Kuei-ch'i. It was not until evening that I became aware of her unnatural, set expression and realized that she was not her usual self. As I was about to leave she came close to me and whispered:

'Now you will have no one to take care of you; please try to be careful, and look after yourself.'

The hawser was cast off as soon as I boarded the boat. Along the banks of the canal the peach and plum trees were in full bloom, the sight of their fragile beauty filling my heart with loneliness and desolation. Confused as a forest bird that has lost the flock, I felt that Heaven and earth alike were menacing and strange.

Immediately after arriving at Kuei-ch'i, I had to say goodbye to my father who was about to cross the river on an official journey to an eastern part of the country. The next three months, as I dragged my way through them, felt like ten years of unendurable separation. Letters from Yuen arrived regularly enough, although for two of mine I received only one in reply; but of these, half were filled with words of caution or encouragement, the rest with mere frivolous conventionalities.

Sadness and dejection filled my heart. Every time the wind rustled the bamboos in my courtyard or the moon silvered the leaves of the banana trees beside my window, I remembered other moons and other nights until my soul became entranced with an unreal world of dreams and fancies. My tutor, becoming aware of my condition, wrote at once to my father, saying that he intended to assign me ten themes for composition before sending me back to my wife for the time being.