Yuan Mei

Yuan Mei, the eighteenth-century Chinese poet, is uncannily reminiscent of fith-century Chinese poet Tao Chien (about whom see Hermitary article). Both were recluses from government service, both characterisitic recluses “with family,” that is, married and with children but separating themselves from society by living near small farming villages. Both wrote eloquently about daily life and simple values. Yuan Mei held an income from teaching and writing that included selling funerary inscriptions. Both men are model householders but ultimately recluses.

Both write of mountains, waterfalls, clouds, of paintings and flowers and their love of books. For example, Yuan Mei relates how his wife had to get him to stop reading and get to sleep:

Cold night, reading,
forgetting sleepp.
The embroidered coverlet has lost its fragrance,
and the brazier is cold.
My lady swallows her anger, but
snatches the lamp away,
and and tells me: Do you know what time it is?

When it comes to books, Yuan Mei admits that

Of ten I read, I might remember one,
So much the worse that in a thousand years
there will be more books, no end …

Every word that is written
I want to read each one, that’s all.

There is no philosophizing about the vanity of knowledge here. Tao Chien used similar images, as when he ended a day’s work in the field early, washed up, and had time to spend poring over his books. This is a practical simplicity that socializes with sages of the past, not gossipers of the present.

On a trip somewhere, Yuan Mei notices a little village that inspires his reclusive ideal:

There’s a stream, and bamboo,
mulberry and hemp.
Mist-hid and clouded village,
Mild and tranquil place.
A few tilled acres,
a few tiled roofs.
How many lives would I have to live,
to get that simple?

Then there is a passage most reminiscent of Tao Chien, the recluse with family:

At last to lead
my wife, my children, by the hand,
into some wilderness
to till my own small kingdom.