Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

Yuan Mei: Qing Dynasty writer and fancier of young males

Yuan MeiYuan Mei:

Eighteenth-Century Chinese Poet

by Arthur Waley

Published by Routledge (reprint)

First published in 1956
Reprint ed. published May 14, 2011
History (biography)
232 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

May 15, 1994.

In my opinion,  Arthur Waley (1899–1966) was one of the two translators whose work I consider masterpieces of literature in English (C. K. Scott Moncrieff is the other).

waley_In 1956, Waley published a biography/anthology of Yuan Mei (1716–1798), a prolific Chinese poet and collector of tales of the extraordinary, and a fancier of young male as well as of female beauty.

Besides actors who played female parts, he had a peacock-like beautiful protégé, Liu Chih-Peng.

I find Yuan’s skeptical, very this-worldly hedonism (anti-puritan and unconstrained by canons of respectability for subjects of writing) appealing.

In Yuan Mei’s view it is the highest duty of the poet to preserve the truth, to show all things, himself included, as they really are… To have hushed up certain aspects of his life might have seemed to imply that he was ashamed of them; and he was not… Finally, there was undoubtedly a streak of impishness, even of impudence [trés gay!] in him (204).


Via Waley’s selection and translation, Yuan sounds almost Japanese in focusing on evanescence, especially his own, and romantic (in the European sense) in celebrating what orthodox Confucians considered “frivolity.” (Waley also translated literature from Japan.)

Like his friend Lu Wen-Chao, I feel that when I read, the book benefits from my comments. (“Most people read books for their own advantage, but, when you read, the book benefits as well.” I find this ironic but not sarcastic, as Waley claims.)

written 15  May 1994 • posted for a short time on the defunct Bubblews
©1994, 2016, Stephen O. Murray


About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.