Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Yüan Mei
YÜAN Mei 袁枚 ( 子才, 簡齋, 存齋, 隨園), Mar. 25, 1716–1798, Jan. 3, poet, literary critic, and essayist, was a native of Ch'ien-t'ang (Hangchow). Devoted to literature from childhood, he began to compose verse at the age of nine (sui) and received his hsiu-ts'ai degree at the age of twelve (sui). He was the youngest of the 184 candidates to compete to the po-hsüeh hung-tz'ŭ examination of 1736 (see under Liu Lun), but failed to qualify. In 1739 he became a chin-shih and was selected a bachelor of the Hanlin Academy with assignment, in the following year, to study the Manchu language. But failing to pass the examination on the Manchu language in 1742, he was released from the Academy and was appointed successively magistrate of the following districts in Kiangsu: Li-shui 1742–43, Chiang-p'u 1743, Shu-yang 1743–45, and Chiang-ning 1745–48, in each of which he established a reputation as a capable young official. In 1747 he was recommended by Yin-chi-shan [q. v.] to be department magistrate of Kao-yü, Kiangsu, but was rejected. Resigning (1748) from his post as magistrate of Chiang-ting, he retired (1749) to his newly-acquired "Garden of Contentment", Sui-yüan 隨園 located on an elevation called Hsiao-ts'ang shan 小倉山, about two li southwest of the Drum Tower, Nanking. This garden is alleged to have been built by Ts'ao Yin [q. v.] while he was superintendent of the Imperial Manufactories at Nanking. In 1728 when the latter's son, Ts'ao Fu (see under Ts'ao Yin), was discharged from the post, the garden came into the possession of his successor, Sui Ho-tê 隋赫德, and was thereafter called Sui-yüan 隋園. It is perhaps this connection of the garden with Ts'ao Yin that led Yüan Mei to assert that his Sui-yüan was in fact the Ta-kuan yüan 大觀園 described in Ts'ao Chan's [q. v.] famous novel, Hung-lou mêng. He found the garden in ruins, but reconstructed it into an elaborate and beautiful villa—changing, however, the writing of 隋 to 隨, a word of the same sound but with a more appropriate meaning. This garden became famous and was frequently visited by admirers, but was completely ruined in 1853 by the Taiping rebels. In 1935 the site, covering some two hundred mu, became the subject of a law-suit in the district court of Chinkiang. By decision of that court (1936) the title to the garden was vested in Yüan Mei's great-grandson, Yüan Ch'êng 袁誠 ( 師錦), son of Yüan Tsu-chih (see below).
In 1752 Yüan Mei was summoned to Shênsi as an expectant official, but owing to the death of his father in the autumn of that year he requested leave to attend his widowed mother, and thereafter never resumed political life. In 1755 he moved his entire family, including also several widowed aunts and sisters and their children, into the Sui-yüan and there he led a life of dignity and leisure. He made a good living as a writer, and states in his will that once he received one thousand taels silver for composing a funerary inscription. It is said that envoys from Korea sought his works at high prices. Thus he was able to maintain a large household in comfort and entertain friends with ease and decorum. After the age of sixty he made a number of journeys to Kiangsi, Kwangtung, Kwangsi, Hunan (1784), Fukien (1786) and to some famous places in Kiangsu and Chekiang (1795). During these years, spent in alternate travel and quiet seclusion, he came to be known as one of the most skillful poets of his time. His generous patronage and hospitality brought to him friends and students from all parts of the country, and many of them he elevated to public recognition by commenting on or editing their works. Among his most intimate friends were Chiang Shih-ch'üan whose funerary inscription he wrote, Yao Nai who later composed Yüan Mei's funerary inscription, and Ch'êng Chin-fang [qq. v.]. Upon the death of the last-mentioned Yüan Mei rendered great service to the family, burning a mortgage for five thousand taels silver which the deceased had owed him.
The writings of Yüan Mei show that he had a broad knowledge in various fields of learning, particularly history; that he possessed considerable genius as a poet; and that he took a keen interest in life, which he interpreted with a lightness of touch and a whimsical humor that lend to his writings unusual charm. The collection of his works, entitled Hsiao-ts'ang shan fang ch'üan-chi (房全集, 1775), in 60 chüan, was widely read by foreigners as well as by Chinese. It was steadily enlarged, and now includes forty works under the title Sui-yüan ch'üan-chi (全集, 1931). Included are his poems in 39 chüan, prose-essays in 35 chüan, miscellaneous notes (隨筆) in 28 chüan, letters in 10 chüan, rhythmic prose in 8 chüan, pa-ku essays in 1 chüan, discourses on literary criticism in 26 chüan, short stories comprising 34 chüan, an essay on cooking, Sui-yüan shih-tan (食單), 1 chüan, and some twenty collections of selected verse by his friends, relatives and acquaintances. His discourse on cooking, written in a vein of charming banter, has been translated into several Western languages.
Yüan Mei was a contemporary of Shên Tê-ch'ien [q. v.] whose biography he wrote. The two competed three times in the same examinations and received the chin shih degree in the same year. But they differ greatly, both as men and as poets, and became the exponents of two important schools of literary criticism which in their day frequently stood in opposition to each other. Shên demanded of poetry that it should have a moral purpose and that it should adhere, for the most part, to standard forms. Yüan maintained that the function of poetry is to delight, and that great verse does not depend primarily upon adherence to fixed form, but upon the poet's knowledge, genius, and individuality. He stressed the importance of the free expression of natural emotions in life, and did not hesitate to affirm that sexual love plays an important role.
Yüan Mei demonstrated his liberality and breadth of view in other matters as well. In his attitude toward history and the Classics he was as outspoken as Ts'ui Shu [q. v.], recognizing no authority, even in the most ancient classical tradition, if it seemed to him unfounded. Hence he opposed the tao-t'ung 道統 or "Truth Succession" doctrine of Han Yü (see under Mao Chin) asserting that tao is there and every one may lay hold on it without it having to be transmitted through what Westerners might call the "apostolic succession" of a Confucian school. In his attitude toward women, Yüan Mei broke away from the traditional view that "absence of talent in a woman is synonymous with virtue" (女子無才便是德) and insisted that women should be given opportunity to develop their native intelligence. Disregarding harsh criticism and the epithet "libertine" hurled at him by reactionary scholars and stern moralists, he encouraged many women in their efforts to write poetry. He received them as pupils, and published their works. Thirteen of these students are portrayed in a painting, entitled 十三女弟湖樓請業圖 Shih-san nü-ti hu-lou ch'ing-yeh tu. The best known were Chin I 金逸 ( 纖纖) whom he mentioned in a sheaf of poems, entitled 後知己詩 Hou chih-chi shih, as one of his good friends of later years; and Hsi Pei-lan, wife of Sun Yüan-hsiang [q. v.]. Two of his sisters—Yüan Chi 袁機 ( 素文, 1720–1759) and Yüan Chu 袁杼 ( 靜宜, 綺文)—and a cousin, Yüan T'ang 袁裳 ( 雲扶, 秋卿, 1734–1771), were writers of verse. Yüan Mei encouraged them with his appreciation and published their works. A number of his granddaughters also became well-known in the same field.
A grandson of Yüan Mei, named Yüan Tsu-tê 袁祖惪 ((瑣記), 2 chüan; and a collection of verse, T'an-ying ko shih-kao (閣詩稿), 8 chüan. The verses, divided into four parts, with prefaces dated 1874, 1884, 1887, and 1879, show that he possessed some of the whimsical humor and poise of his grandfather.又村, 1811–1853), was a magistrate of Shanghai who lost his life there (1853) defending the city against the Taiping Rebels. Another grandson, Yüan Tsu-chih 袁祖志 ( 翔甫, 倉山舊主, 1827–1898), was a talented writer in Shanghai in the last quarter of the nineteenth century In 1883 he accompanied T'ang T'ing-shu 唐廷樞 ( 景星) on a tour of Europe; and upon his return, early in the following year, wrote down his observations in a sketch entitled 談瀛錄 T'an-ying lu, 4 chüan. Two other works by him may be mentioned: miscellaneous notes, entitled Sui-yüan so-chi
[1/490/1a; 3/234/21a; 17/6/95a; 20/2/00; Fang Chün-shih 方濬師, Sui-yüan nien-p'u (1872); Yang Hung-lüeh 楊鴻烈, Yüan Mei p'ing-chuan (1927); Imbault-Huart, Camille, "Un Poète chinois du XVIIIe siècle, Yüan Tseu-ts'ai, sa vie et ses oeuvres," Jour. N. China Br. Royal As. Soc. XIX (pt. II) p. 1 ff.; Chu Tung-jun, "Yüan Mei as a Literary Critic "(in Chinese), Wuhan Quart. Jour. of Liberal Arts (Wên-chê chi-k'an) vol. 2, no. 3 (1933); Giles, H. A., A History of Chinese Literature, pp. 405–413; idem "The Art of Dining" and other essays in Gems of Chinese Literature, pp. 254–257; Panking, Livre de cuisine d'un gourmet poète (Le Brillat-Savarin), Peking, 1924; Li Hsüan-po, "The Family of Ts'ao Hsüeh-ch'in, a New Study"(in Chinese), Ku-kung chou-k'an (see under Ts'ao Yin) nos. 84, 85; "Yüan Tsu-chih and the Controversy over the Garden Known as Sui-yüan" (in Chinese), in 中央日報 Chung-yang jih-pao, Dec. 15, 1936].