Yuan Mei

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Have you ever thought about making your voice heard by concealing social critique in some common, everyday thing, like food? 

That's how the poet and gastronome, Yuan Mei, found a way to criticize the anti-intellectualism of a haughty, deceitful, and unjust government.

Born in 1716 in Hangzhou, China, the son of a poor clerk, Yuan Mei was raised by his aunt, who taught him to read poetry. He became so obsessed with words and books, he'd idle outside of book shops just to be near them. But he had no money to buy them. Mei worked very hard at school. So hard, in fact, that he was able to pass his national exam at the age of 11 -- a test that many 17-year olds repeatedly failed. This allowed him to go on to higher education.

Starting in primary school, Mei saved every poem he ever wrote. They told the story of his life. By the time he died, at the age of 82, he had amassed several thousand poems. They still survive today. But writing poetry was no way to make a living in the China of his day. After finishing school, Mei spent all his time tutoring to make ends meet. His ambition was to win a position as a government official. In 1743, Mei finally gained a job as a Prefect to the city of Nanjing. For the next fifteen years, he worked in various government positions, gaining wealth and prestige as an insightful and caring governor of his people. However, he found little fulfillment in his work. 

In the 1750s, China was ruled by the Manchus, a foreign dynasty that sought to repress all ideas and art that they found seditious. The Manchu Qianlong Emperor banned any book that questioned the legitimacy of his government, or strayed from the orthodox philosophy taught in the Chinese capital, then in Beijing. He ordered that all works written by Westerners be destroyed rather than translated; he had 250,000 books burned, and hundreds of scholars tortured and killed. The poet Cai Xian was beheaded simply for writing a poem that praised the color red -- a symbol of the previous Ming Dynasty. 


Mei was horrified by the literary purges. In 1759, he retired so as not to support the witch hunt. He was then 53. For the rest of his life, he sat in his garden, writing books and composing poems. As writing about politics, even indirectly, guaranteed a death sentence, Mei instead write about travel and food, cleverly hiding his criticism of Chinese officials within his gastronomic highlights.

For example, Mei's Shih Tan, which translates as The Garden, ridiculed Manchu officials for eating pretentious, expensive foods like bird-nest soup, which cost many talents of silver to prepare. These foods were eaten not because they were delicious, but to impress guests at lavish banquets with their cost. Discerning visitors avoided being invited to these dinners, because they would be expected to devour these inedible dishes or risk insulting their hosts!

Mei advocated eating simple dishes of rice gruel, sweet wine, pork, and duck, in what became one of the first cookbooks ever published. The Chinese had enjoyed these simple foods for millennia. Through the point of view of food, Mei struck back at the anti-intellectualism and materialism that resulted from the burning of the worlds best books. No one could could accuse Mei of sedition for publishing a recipe for Dim Sum. Yet the Shih Tan was a critique of the culture of that the literary purges had created.

When Mei died in 1798, his collected writings stretched to 64 volumes, all of which were eventually published. Mei's cleverness and honesty meant that his work survived. In modern China, Mei is now considered one of the finest poets and cultural critics who ever lived.

Yuan Mei changed the way that a nation approached and understood their identity through food. Brandishing a pair of chopsticks, he rallied his people to experience and share around the dinner table the voices and memories of those who'd been silenced. Plus, like Yuan Mei, we love books and food. So that's why he's an obvious Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.

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