One of the most romantic books ever written, and one of the very few to depict the everyday lives of people in traditional China. This memoir, written during the Manchu dynasty
in approximately the year 1810
, details the life and travels of one Shen Fu, a singularly unsuccessful yamen
secretary (approximately equivalent to a paralegal
), living in the vicinity of Suzhou, near Shanghai
. It is a story full of interesting detail about such things as travel
, gardens, and some home handicrafts that can still be done today, but more importantly, it is the love story
between he and his wife, the sweet, tragic Yuen.
Yuen is depicted as a slight, graceful girl, with lively eyes, and well-shaped eyebrows. Her only flaw is her slightly buck teeth, a sign of ill-fortune, we are told. They meet at the home of one of Shen Fu's cousins (they are distantly related), and marry in their teens. Unfortunately, she is as much a flop as a daughter-in-law as Fu is as a paralegal, so the bulk of the book is taken up with their slightly off-kilter adventures among the well-read but ill-favored: she dresses as a boy to get into a festival, hires a hot-food stand to keep a party in snacks and warm sake (drinking parties are frequent in this book), and even has a lesbian affair with a sing-song girl in a plot to provide her husband with a concubine (essential as a mark of status, you know).
Sadly, this plot falls through, and her health, never good, worsens. She takes a whole, detailed, heartbreaking chapter to die (of "blood-sickness", the significance of which I don't know), has to leave her children with relatives, and expires sobbing "I'll see you in my next life, maybe..." Her husband is so distraught, he waits on The Day the Spirits Return (a version of All Souls' Day?) to see her ghost, against the better advice of his landlord. While waiting, the candles by her bed shrink to the size of peas, then shoot up, a foot or more, scorching the ceiling. While Fu looks wildly around, they die down, and go out.
The book was originally written in eight chapters, two of which were missing when Lin Yutang discovered it in a junk shop in Shanghai. Translated into English in 1935, and widely reprinted, it remains one of the most loved Chinese books of our times.