Qing-dynasty poet and essayist, he was born in Qiantang, in modern Hangzhou region, Zhejiang province. Yüan Mei passed the jinshi examinations at a young age and was forthwith appointed to the Hanlin Academy to learn Manchu.
Failing miserably at this, he received several successive appointments as a magistrate but resigned in 1748 in order to write and teach. He wrote many poems in what has been described as "unusually clear and elegant language", and he took an interest in a great many things, including food, the fostering of the literary talents of young women , and ghost stories
His views on poetry as expressed in the Suiyuan shihua (Poetry talks from the Sui Garden) stressed the importance of personal feeling and technical perfection.
He wore many hats, having been a successful official, a writer of how-to books for the civil service exams, a compiler and editor of volumes of supernatural tales, and a successful landscape artist. Yuan embraced the spirit of Zen, but strongly rejected both folk Taoism and formalized Buddhism, which he saw as a tool of the corrupt Neo-Confucian upper class.
The witty literate Yüan Mei exalted the promiscuity of young men in his era in a sardonic epigram -
The duke of Zhou canonized the rituals.
How powerful and wonderful these established meanings are!
There were only shrines to virtuous women,
But no temples to chaste boys.
The author refers to the legendary establishment of proper rituals and ceremonies by the ancient paragon of rectitude, the duke of Zhou - and thereby justifies his own preference for young men. Yüan Mei's irrepressible wit led him flippantly to mock the roots of the revered Confucian tradition by humorously linking the duke of Zhou to sex, so enraging the dour historian Zhang Xuecheng with his unrepentant heresy that Zhang angrily denounced Yuan Mei and called for his execution.
But the more tolerant majority of officialdom ignored, or perhaps enjoyed, Yuan's audacious joke.
Many of the young men in Qing society referred to in Yüan Mei's controversial epigram were prostitutes, whose sexual skills earned them such epithets as "little hand".