Yüan Mei

Yüan Mei (1716-1798), Chinese author, was one of the great poets of the Ch'ing dynasty. He is especially noted for his cultivation of naturalness and individuality in his poetry and criticism as well as in his life.

Anative of Hangchow, Chekiang, Yüan Mei was a precocious boy who earned his hsiu-ts'ai degree at the age of eleven. He received his chin-shih, the highest academic degree, at 23 and was retained in the imperial Hanlin Academy. But failing to pass the examination on the Manchu language, which was his assigned subject of study, he was released from the academy in 1742 and successively appointed to several districts in Kiangsu province as magistrate.

In 1748 Yüan retired from government service and in the next year moved to his newly acquired garden in Nanking known as Sui-yüan, the "Garden of Contentment." The garden was once owned by the wealthy Ts'ao family, and the novelist Ts'ao family, and the novelist Ts'ao Hsüehch'in, Yüan Mei's contemporary, wrote about it in his novel Hunglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). By 1755 Yüan had abandoned all thoughts of an official career and moved his large family to his garden. He commanded high fees for such things as funerary inscriptions and thus lived in comfort and style. After the age of 60 he made journeys to various provinces and scenic spots in China and came to be known as a leading poet of his time.

Yüan Mei was a hedonist and something of a romantic, and with all his wide-ranging learning and curiosity, he celebrated in his poetry and prose primarily the joy of being alive and being receptive to all the sensuous pleasures. Arthur Waley, his biographer in the Western world, has aptly described him as "a writer of poetry that even at its lightest always had an undertone of deep feeling and at its saddest may at any moment light a sudden spark of fun." Yüan was above all an individualist and the reverse of a Confucian did acticist, believing that it is the poet's business to express his nature and feelings and these could be shared by all.

For a student of Chinese literature, Yüan Mei's poetic criticism is perhaps even more important than his poetry because it represents a full-bodied affirmation of what one could call the individualist view of poetry as self-expression. "Poetry Talks" (shih-hua) had been written by Chinese poets since the Sung dynasty; most of these are short collections of random observations and anecdotes. Yüan Mei's jottings, entitled Sui-yüan shih-hua, are bulkier than most and also far more unified in expressing a consistent point of view.

Among Yüan Mei's voluminous writings are a book of ghost stories and a cookbook entitled Sui-yüan shih-tan (Sui-yüan's Menu). The latter interest indicates a Chinese hedonist's unashamed delight in good food. Similarly, Yüan Mei was fond of female company, and in his old age he was surrounded by female disciples. Though he courted notoriety in his time by his sponsorship of female poetic talent, he was a humane person who believed that women as well as men should develop their sensibility and intellect to the full for the enrichment of society and culture.

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Further Reading on Yüan Mei

The standard biography in English is Arthur Waley, Yüan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet (1956), which contains many examples of Yüan's poetry and prose in translation. James J. Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry (1962), gives a good exposition of Yüan Mei's poetic theories.