The Old Man of the Moon


Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life was written at the beginning of the 19th century but not published until 1877. It is an autobiographical work which focuses largely on Shen Fu’s devotion to his wife, Yun. The Old Man of the Moon is extracted from this longer work but is not one of the four ‘records’ (two are either missing or unfinished). This presumably means that its shape has been created either by the translators, Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui, or, more likely, by an unnamed editor for this volume.

I was unaware of this as I read it, and it no doubt explains my sense that this was very much a story of two parts. The first part tells of the narrator and Yun falling in love and marrying, and the early years of their marriage which seem blissfully happy. When Shen must leave Yun shortly after they are married in order to study, he laments, “Our separation of three months seemed as if it were ten years long.” The moment they are reunited is described as follows:

“She held my hands without saying a word. Our souls became smoke and mist. I thought I heard something, but it was as if my body had ceased to exist.”

Not only do we learn of their early happiness but we are assured that they remain close throughout their marriage:

“We lived together with the greatest mutual respect for three and twenty years, and as the years passed we grew ever closer.”

We also have early warning that Yun will die before Shen at a relatively young age.

The turning point in their life is Yun’s attempt to engage a concubine for Shen. Though Shen chooses the young woman, Han-yuan, it is Yun who is most insistent, even when Shen advises against it:

“But we’re not a rich family…We can’t afford to keep someone like that.”

Yun, rather than Shen, seems to become infatuated by Han-yuan, declaring her to be like a sister (which does not go down well with her in-laws). I was also surprised at the idea that they weren’t wealthy (there are previous references to servants, very few to working) but as the story progresses they are increasingly short of money until, as Yun falls ill and Shen seeks financial help, it becomes as heart-breaking as an 18th century Chinese I, Daniel Blake.

The Old Man of the Moon (the title comes from the idea that the Old Man of the Moon arranges marriages by pulling couples together) was a surprisingly moving tale, though, like some film trailers, it does leave me wondering if I have already experienced the highlights of Six Records of a Floating Life and have little to gain from the full feature.

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7 Responses to “The Old Man of the Moon”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I am loving your reviews of these stories, Grant!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I read this a while back and like you found it very moving – though I agree, I did find myself wondering if a longer book with more of the same might be less successful.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I reviewed the whole book at mine. I suspect you have the best of it here from what you describe, but I did love the whole thing and it easily made my end of year list. I do think it’s worth considering the whole.

    It still generates a surprising amount of hits for me for some reason, perhaps it’s on a syllabus somewhere.

    • 1streading Says:

      Just read your review (thanks for filling in so many of the blanks!) I suspect I should have started with Six Records of a Floating Life which sounds well worth reading, though is probably diminished by having read the extracts.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I’d give it a while certainly. The whole book is delightful so it is worth reading still, but I’d leave it a year or so otherwise this bit would be too fresh and I think would diminish it.

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