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.
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.
Happy as a pardoned prisoner of war I boarded the boat again, but
now, to my sorrow, it seemed to me that time had begun to run
backwards; that every quarter of an hour took a year to go by.
Reaching home at last, I hurriedly paid my respects to my mother
before rushing to my own room, where Yuen waited to greet me. We clung
to each other, beyond words; wildly excited, one soul in one body;
dizzy with happiness in a world of mist and clouds.
It was then the sixth month; the weather was very sultry and the
whole house was hot and damp. Fortunately, we were living next door to
the Lotus Lover's Retreat of the Ts'ang-lang Pavilion Gardens, which
lay to the west of our courtyards. Across a wooden foot-bridge,
overlooking the canal, stood a small open pavilion called 'My Choice';
the allusion referring to the 'choices' in the ancient lines:
'If the water is clear—wash your cap strings;
If it is muddy—wash your feet.'
Beyond the eaves of 'My Choice' an old tree raised its gnarled trunk;
its branches throwing a dense shade across the windows, dyeing our
faces green. People, in an endless line, passed back and forth along
the opposite bank of the canal, so that my father, when he was
entertaining friends in the pavilion, always lowered the blinds on that
side. After asking my mother's permission, I now moved with Yuen to 'My
Choice', intending to stay there for the rest of the summer.
Because of the extreme heat, Yuen had put her embroidery aside. We
spent the long, hot, summer days together; doing nothing but reading,
discussing the classics, enjoying the moonlight, or idly admiring the
Yuen was not used to drinking, though she could take two or three
cups if she had to, and I would often amuse myself by teaching her to
play various literary games in which the loser must empty a cup of