While he lived, Yuan Mei 袁枚 (1717–1797) was China’s most important literary figure; more than 200 years after his death, he is still considered one of the two or three greatest poets of the eighteenth century. In China, where poetry has traditionally been the most exalted literary form, this is fame of a high order. Yet outside China, he is popularly known not for his poetry but for authoring a seminal work on Chinese food, which is revered by Chinese chefs, but has never, until now, been published in English.
It may seem odd that a celebrity poet and Qing dynasty bureaucrat ended up producing China’s greatest food classic, but Yuan Mei was an obsessive and fanatical diner. He lived by his profound belief that life’s sensual pleasures—including food—were gifts of nature, meant to be fully enjoyed and appreciated, and that to disdain such gifts was an affront to heaven. So throughout his life, whenever he tasted a standout dish at someone else’s home, he sent his cook over to learn how to make it, and then recorded the procedure, alongside his thoughts. He spent years organizing this material into a book, working on it “in the intervals of writing poetry” (Waley 1956, 195), as he put it, circulating the manuscript among his friends. It was finally completed and printed in 1797, the year before he died—a systematic and fairly comprehensive guide to preparing a wide range of foods, spiced with Yuan’s delightfully opinionated asides.
No such food book had ever been widely circulated in China. Chinese cookery was historically taught through apprenticeship rather than books, and since the position of a cook in feudal China, whether in a restaurant or private home, was a lowly one, many were illiterate. Naturally that did not stop men of letters (such as Lu Yu 陸羽, Su Dongpo 蘇東坡, and Li Liweng李笠翁) ¹ from writing about how food, wine, and tea should be appreciated, any more than it stopped dedicated foodies (such as Yuan Mei) from sitting down in their homes and organizing all they had learned about cooking into a book. Multiple such family cookbooks survive, one of the oldest being Madame Wu’s Song dynasty compilation, A Housewife’s Handbook, roughly a thousand years old. So Yuan Mei was not the only Chinese thinker to obsess about food for a lifetime and then write down his findings and opinions. But such was his talent and celebrity, so sterling were his tastes and standards—indeed, his admonitions against dining as a display of wealth seem more relevant than ever today—that the Suiyuan Shidan endured. It has been widely accepted as the first great gathering of Chinese culinary knowledge.
It was not the last, however. In researching my novel The Last Chinese Chef, which contains a faux Chinese food classic, I was thrilled by later books which genuinely deepened and expanded Yuan Mei’s accomplishment—notably, in English, the magisterial Chinese Gastronomy (1969) by Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin. Still, the Suiyuan Shidan is the classic, and two centuries later, it still sparkles with Yuan’s irascible charm, his epic passion for food, and his near-religious devotion to the pleasures of the senses.
One might almost say that the veneration of earthly pleasures is the closest thing Yuan Mei had to a religion. Without doubt, he had little time for Buddhism, which taught that sensual joys were dissolute; neither did he respond to Confucianism, which dictated that poetry should be for moral instruction, not personal expression—the opposite of his own ideas. In a similar vein, Yuan did not enjoy bureaucracy, and although as a jinshi degree-holder and member of the elite Hanlin Academy he was obliged to hold a series of posts (eventually landing him in Nanjing), he chafed at the official life. In his early thirties, he decided to leave his post permanently, retire, and give his life over to poetry and food. “All I ask for is a village of some ten houses where I could live exactly as I chose, and rule the people merely by chanting to them the Way of the Former Kings; then I could end my days there in perfect contentment, even though I only ranked as a village constable…all I ask for is to be able to take such a rest, and you ought not to blame me” (Waley, 47).
Now that he’d given up his job with its official residence, Yuan needed a new home. To his joy he found a steep, uneven, wildly overgrown piece of land that had been deserted for years, except for one building having been used as a tavern. Yuan fell in love with it. He paid 300 ounces of silver for it, named it the Suiyuan (Garden of Contentment), built his home there, and remained for the rest of his life. It was his anchor and his refuge. Along with his near-spiritual passion for food, the garden itself was the other creative force behind the Shidan.
The place needed a tremendous amount of work, but he was in no hurry and besides, he wanted to help re-fashion the grounds himself:
The work on my garden may never be finished, my expenditure on it may well prove beyond my means. Very well then; some things that are lacking will have to wait till they can be supplied; some things that are broken will have to wait until they can be repaired. There is no fixed time by which anything has to be done. Whatever happens I shall be better off than in old days when I had to be all the time bowing and scraping to jacks-in-office. I am just thirty-seven. I am determined to settle here. Whether I can make something of this place and live in it permanently only the future can decide. (Waley, 69)
When he was done, his home boasted twenty-four pavilions, and a miniature replica of the famous West Lake of Hangzhou (his birthplace), complete with a causeway and small arched bridges.
But to produce the food of Yuan Mei’s dreams, his home needed a master cook, and fate complied by sending him the extraordinary Wang Xiaoyu 王小余. This was a remarkable man, and Yuan’s prose shows it:
When he first came, and asked what was to be the menu for the day, I feared that he had grand ideas, and I explained to him that I came of a family that was far from rich and that we were not in the habit of spending a fortune for every meal. “Very good,” he said, laughing, and presently produced a vegetable soup that was so good that one went on and on taking it till one really felt one needed nothing more…He insisted on doing all the marketing himself, saying, “I must see things in their natural state before I can decide whether I can apply my art to them.” At the stove, he capered like a sparrow, but never took his eyes off it for a moment, and if when anything was coming to boil someone called out to him, he took not the slightest notice, and did not even seem to hear…I once asked him why, when he could easily have got a job in some affluent household, he had preferred to stay all these years with me in the Sui Garden. “To find an employer who appreciates one is not easy,” he said, “but to find one who understands anything about cookery is harder still. The ordinary hard-drinking revelers at a fashionable dinner party would be equally happy to gulp down any stinking mess. You, on the contrary, continually criticize me, abuse me, fly into a rage with me, but on every such occasion make me aware of some real defect; so that I would a thousand times rather listen to your bitter admonitions than to the sweetest praise…Say no more! I mean to stay on here.” (Waley, 52–53)
This conversation exposes one of the fascinating linchpins of Chinese gastronomy: the gourmet is as important as the chef. At its highest levels, Chinese cuisine is so subtle and so resonant that an aware and receptive diner is absolutely critical to the exchange—so that in China, it is actually possible for a gourmet to be as renowned as a chef. Without question Yuan Mei was one of the premier gourmets in Chinese history, and Wang Xiaoyu, for the ten years they had together before Wang died, was his culinary soulmate.
But Yuan Mei’s friends were also part of his lifelong food quest, since he traveled extensively with them, memorializing great meals along the way, and also dined—and collected recipes, as these pages attest—in their homes. He had many friends; on his eightieth birthday, he received over 3,000 letters and poems of congratulation. He also seems to have been a great friend himself—generous, lovable, steadfast, smart, and fun. Witness this description of a typical evening with Jiang Hening 蔣和寧 (1709–1768), his friend for fifty years: “We were neither of us drinkers and both of us were fond of talking about the past. We trimmed the candles and sat opposite one another, discussing the ups and downs of national affairs during the last three thousand years, appraising all the outstanding figures and, when we found ourselves in particularly close agreement on some disputed point, thumping on our stools and shouting with delight, even more pleased with each other than before” (Waley, 26).
Throughout his life Yuan Mei was so alive to the pleasures of the mind, of poetry, of cuisine…could a man like him possibly say no to love, that other sublime gift of nature? Certainly not. He had a reputation. His older friend and mentor Shi Yizhi 史貽直 (1682–1763) wrote to him, “I hear that you have been doing very well in your post at Nanjing, but that you do not ‘avoid the frivolity of Tu [Du] Mu.’” A poet of the Tang dynasty, Du Mu杜牧 (803–852) loved his concubines and singing girls, as did Yuan Mei (Waley, 60).
He had a wife, multiple concubines, and written sources document at least one waiting-her-time-girl (a female child acquired to become a concubine later). He once married as concubine a friend’s servant girl, after their eyes met in a certain way. On observing it, the friend made Yuan Mei a gift of the girl. Along these same lines, don’t miss his enthusiasm for “Xiao the beauty,” a street vendor, in this book’s section on appetizers.
Crazy about women, Yuan also had deep relationships with men. He maintained bromances for decades, going on long journeys of many months with his companions, and keeping up literary and personal exchanges with them throughout his life. And though he was never interested in men to the exclusion of women, he did have an eye for good-looking young male actors. His account of the time he spent at age twenty-three with the handsome boy actor –Xu Yunting, to whom he later addressed oblique poems, illuminates his omnivorous nature:
All the Hanlin scholars were crazy about him and clubbed together to pay for theatricals in which he appeared. I was young and good-looking, but I was so poorly accoutred that I did not think Yun-t’ing [Yunting] could possibly find me worth cultivating. But I noticed on one occasion that he often glanced my way and smiled, quite with the air of indicating that he had taken a fancy to me. I hardly dared to believe this and did not try to get in touch with him. However, very early next day I heard a knock at my door. There he was; and we were soon on the most affectionate terms—a state of affairs all the more delightful, because it far exceeded anything I had expected. (Waley, 27)
By midlife, Yuan was well off; he could earn as much as a thousand ounces of silver for a single tomb inscription, though his usual pay was about half that, still a rich income. In position to do what he liked, and perhaps feeling he had not yet done enough to rattle straight-laced society, he started teaching poetry to women. Soon he had a long line of beautiful, intelligent students he called his “moth-eyebrow academy.” Teaching females to read and write was actually not outrageous in eighteenth-century China, for many members of the intelligentsia supported women and girls learning—so long as they were tutored privately, at home, as was proper. But Yuan, a famous poet known as a ladies’ man and all-around scamp, was having them come to his house. He even published a book of poems by his lady students.
By now, Yuan’s devout, religious friends had probably given up on saving him. He had always said he found the study of sutras boring (“…alas, before I had finished a chapter, I found myself yawning and stretching, and thinking of bed” [Waley, 80].) His especially pious friend Peng Shaosheng 彭紹升 (1740–1796) begged him to reconsider: “Surely,” he wrote, “where we came from when we were born and where we shall go when we die are questions of the utmost importance, and cannot be simply ignored.” Yuan Mei wrote back, “I think they can” (Waley, 81).
On this subject, he remained obstinate up to the moment he wrote his will.
As for recitation of Scriptures, chanting liturgies and entertainment of monks on the seventh days—these are things I have always detested. You may tell your sisters to come and make an offering to me, in which case I shall certainly accept it; or to come once and wail; at which I shall be deeply moved. But if monks come to the door, at the first sound of their wooden clappers, my divine soul will stop up its ears and run away, which I am sure you would not like. (Waley, 202)
He also asked his heirs to keep the house and garden the same, with everything intact as it was in his lifetime. “If that can be kept up for thirty years, I shall rest contented in my grave. Of any longer period it is useless to think” (Waley, 200). His descendants actually preserved everything in place until 1853, when the property was destroyed in the Taiping Rebellion. The Sui Garden is now a symbol, a memory, and over 200 years later, nowhere is the place more vividly recalled than in the world of Chinese food. Chinese chefs today still proudly present dishes from this book, which is a tribute to the enduring and prismatic depth of Yuan’s contribution: he saw perfected cuisine not just as the ultimate attainment of sensory pleasure, but as art, as philosophy, and as a matter of principle.
Before he died, he ordered his tomb inscribed with these words: “Tomb of Yuan, of the Sui Yuan, Qing Dynasty. For a thousand autumns and ten thousand generations, there will certainly be those who will appreciate me” (Waley, 201).
I am one. And now you will be, too.
Nicole MONES, Author of The Last Chinese Chef
1 Lu Yu (733–804) is the author of the Tang dynasty book The Classic of Tea 茶經. Su Dongpo (1037–1101), also known as Su Shi 蘇軾, was a Song dynasty writer, poet, and gastronome. Li Liweng (1611–1680) was a Qing dynasty writer and publisher, well-known for his novel The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rou putuan 肉蒲團). Besides these famous figures, Yuan Mei also refers to Ni Zan 倪瓚 (1301–1374) and Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521–1593), two gastronomes from Yuan and Ming dynasties respectively.
Lin, Hsiang Ju; & Lin, Tsuifeng. (1969). Chinese Gastronomy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Mones, Nicole. (2007). The Last Chinese Chef. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Waley, Arthur. (1956). Yuan Mei. Eighteenth century Chinese poet. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Yuan Mei袁枚. (2009). Chuzhe Wang Xiaoyu zhuan 厨者王小余传 [Biography of Chef Wang Xiaoyu]. In Li Mengsheng (Ed.) Yuan Mei sanwen xuan ji 袁枚散文选集 [Selected Essays of Yuan Mei]. Tianjin: Baihua wenyi chubanshe. (Original work published in 18th century)
Mengsheng (Ed.) Yuan Mei sanwen xuan ji 袁枚散文选集 [Selected Essays of Yuan Mei]. Tianjin: Baihua wenyi chubanshe. (Original work published in 18th century)