Six Records From a Floating Life

“For in this cosmos we are but soujourners among all things in creation; in time we are but passing travelers through the ages. So in this life adrift as in a dream, how much joy will we find?” – Li Bai[1]

This audio piece is based on a dinner party themed “The Floating Life”, inspired by the memoir of Shen Fu, a Chinese writer of the Qing Dynasty and the song Harlem River by Kevin Morby, an American singer-songwriter. Both of these, for me, seem to capture that particular experience of life as something floating, fleeting, uncertain, suspended, precious, there and gone.

Thank you to the guests: Genevieve, Olivia, Eleanor, Andy, Iante, Majed and Nina

Menu: Hot and Sour Soup, Spicy Garlic Aubergine, Smashed Cucumber Salad, Mapo Tofu, Char Siu Bao, Siu Mai Dim Sum, Shitake mushroom and water chestnut dumplings, Rice

Sounds: Stream in Kerry, Ireland; Harbour sounds in South Africa; Sea in Brighton; Glass harp in Salzburg; River near church ruin in Abkhazia

Photograph by Tako Robakidze

* * *

Around the year 1808, the unsuccessful Chinese civil servant Shen Fu (*1763) wrote an autobiographical text that he called “Six Records of a Floating Life”[2]. The incomplete manuscript was found by chance in a second-hand bookstall on the streets of Suzhou and published in 1877. It became extremely popular and is now considered a classic work of Chinese literature.

Nothing is known of Shen Fu except what he wrote in this memoir. The text is episodic and non-chronological, an intimate record of one man’s thoughts and feelings and a social document of everyday life in the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. It is also a love story full of beautiful descriptions of moments spent with his wife Yün, such as this:

“When the sun was going down, we would climb to the top of the small hill and admire the twilight. We used to make up impromptu poems there, one line of which was, ‘Beast-like-clouds eat the setting sun, the bow-like moon shoots falling stars.’ After a while, when the moonlight fell directly into the pond and the sound of insects came from all around, we would move the bed out beside the fence. The old woman would come to tell us when the wine was warm and the food was hot. We would drink in the moonlight until we were a little tipsy, and then eat. After having a wash, we would fan ourselves with banana leaves, and sit or lie down and listen to our old neighbours telling stories of sin and retribution. At three strokes of the night watch we would go in to sleep feeling cool and refreshed. It was almost like not living in the city at all.”

Shen Fu’s style is concise and poetic, along the lines of the Chinese personal essay style called familiar essay, xiaopinwen, “short pieces expressing the author’s personal views on the interest and charm of living.”[3] This was a popular style for authors who wrote in the xingling school of the Chinese literary tradition, writes Fang Lu in her review of three translations of Six Records of a Floating Life: a school of thought that took the view that “literature is the expression of one’s xingling or personal nature; the more authentic the expression of that nature, with the least obstruction from the forces of tradition and convention, the better the literature will be”[4].

So Shen Fu chose to write in a tradition that took a step back from what was considered conventional tradition: he didn’t write in the vernacular language used for popular novels at the time[5], he didn’t necessarily order events chronologically, he didn’t even construct a coherent narrative. Instead he arranged his records around different themes and atmospheres like little whirlpools, a patterned collage that is much closer to the way memory usually works.[6]

Of the six records of the title, only four were actually written, or survived. They describe different stages of his life, his marriage with Yün, their life together, her sickness and death, his journeys to different places in China. As Fang Lu writes, these stages “remind readers of poetic and musical patterns, which underlie each chapter with their distinct melodic themes and variations. They repeat spirally turn around or inter-echo with each other, and form harmoniously a unified melody.”[7] These changes in mood and atmosphere, along with elements of repetition, overlapping and recurring themes and events create a dreamlike atmosphere and a sense of ‘rhythmic vitality’. Especially this latter quality has made it such an admired work of Chinese literature.

Rhythmic vitality, or qiyun, is a central concept in Chinese painting and calligraphy, but it extends to the notion of art in general. It was first advocated by the 6th century art critic Xie He and influenced Chinese philosophy of art for centuries after. It is a compound of two characters: qi signifies something like ‘breath’, ‘vapour’, ‘spirit’ or ‘vital force’; yun stands for ‘resonance’, ‘rhyme’, ‘harmony’ or ‘consonance’. As Stanley Murashige writes in the Encyclopaedia of Chinese Philosophy:

“In Chinese painting, the fluctuation of line and pattern embodies the meaning and character of the subject, whether the human figure or nature. The world appears as vital rhythms, gestures, actions, and responses signaled by the polyphonic movement of brush strokes and by the temporal play among the forms and objects within an image. Time, and relationships changing in time, impart vitality to the image and reveal the animating power inherent in things. Rhythm is always relational; it consists of a complex of responses that happens in an exchange among relations: qiyun lives in the reflections of things within one another, and in the harmonious responses of different points of view with respect to each other. Qiyun is itself the harmonious rhythm of response. A painter who grasps this principle participates in the vitality of this unfolding rhythm.”[8]

Shen Fu was a writer, but he was also a painter and a calligrapher. The lines between these activities were fluid and they were often intimately connected. They were all ways of perceiving, experiencing and remembering the world, a way of participating in it. Moreover, he did none of these activities ‘professionally’, he never gained any fame or wealth for it. The “playing mood” of the amateur artist, as Fang Lu writes, was an important quality of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

There is a sense of lightness in all of this that links back to the idea of floating and everything we connect with this word in the English language: drifting, gliding, hovering, being suspended, swimming, moving. But it is not just lightness; in the act of writing or painting, in moving the brush, there is also dedication, discipline and devotion.

Traditional Chinese architecture is made of perishable materials, writes Pierre Ryckmans in an article about the Chinese attitude towards the past. It decays quickly and requires frequent rebuilding. Unlike those cultures who aspire to build for eternity by using the strongest possible materials, but in fact just postpone their inevitable defeat, “the Chinese actually transferred the problem – eternity should not inhabit the building, it should inhabit the builder.”[9] It’s a thought worth keeping in mind beyond the construction of buildings.

[1] p.xv in Sanders, Graham ‘Introduction’ in Six Records of a Life Adrift, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2011

[2]Fu sheng liu ji”, as translated by Leonard Pratt and Su-hui Chiang; also translated as Six Chapters of a Floating Life (Lin Yutang) or Six Records of a Life Adrift (Graham Sanders)

[3] p.32 in Fang Lu, The Afterlife of Six Chapters of a Floating Life: Three English Translations of Fu sheng liu ji in Translation Review, published 21 Aug 2012

[4] Hanan in Fang Lu, p.32

[5] p.viii in Sanders

[6] Sanders: Our memories are selective, inconsistent, recursive, colored by mood; we both recall and forget as a way of finding reasons and patterns in the welter of chaotic particulars and emotional associations that are left behind in the wake of our daily experience.” p.xiv

[7] p.32 in Fang Lu

[8] p.513 in Murashige, Stanley “Philosophy of Art” in Cua, Antonio S. (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Chinese Philosophy, Routledge: New York and London, 2003

[9] Ryckmans, Pierre The Chinese attitude towards the Past in China Heritage Quarterly, No. 14, June 2008, http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/articles.php?issue=014&searchterm=014_chineseAttitude.inc

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