Yuan Mei was born in Qiantang (錢塘, in modern Hangzhou), Zhejiang province, to a cultured family who had never before attained high office. He achieved the degree of jinshi in 1739 at the young age of 23, was immediately appointed to the Hanlin Academy (翰林院). However, he proved unable to do so and failed the language exam. Therefore, he received appointment instead as a provincial magistrate. From 1742 to 1748, Yuan Mei served in four different provinces in Jiangsu. However, in 1748, shortly after being assigned to administer part of Nanjing, he resigned his post and returned to his hometown to pursue his literary interest.
In the decades before his death, Yuan Mei produced a large body of poetry, essays and paintings. His works reflected his interest in Chan Buddhism and the supernatural, at the expense of Daoism and institutional Buddhism - both of which he rejected. Yuan is most famous for his poetry, which have been described as "unusually clear and elegant language". His views on poetry as expressed in the Suiyuan shihua (隨園詩話) stressed the importance of personal feeling and technical perfection. In his later years, Yuan Mei came to be called "Mister Suiyuan" (隨園先生). Among his other collected works are treatises on passing the imperial examinations and food.
Throughout his lifetime, Yuan Mei travelled extensively throughout southern China, visiting Huangshan, Guilin, Tiantai, Wuyi and other famous mountains. On some of those visits, Yuan kept journal entries, representative of which is the You Guilin zhu shan ji ("Record of tours of the mountains of Guilin"). He also accepted students. Since he admired women's poetry, he also took several female students and helped them publish their work under their own names.
In a time when the taste among his contemporaries was for opulence and exotic display, Yuan stood for the "orthodox" style. "Nowadays," he wrote, "at the start of the feast the menu is about a hundred feet long." This is "mere display, not gastronomy." After such a dinner Yuan returned home and cooked congee to appease his hunger. He instructed cooks "do not fuss with the natural state of the food just to show that you are a clever cook. Bird's nest is beautiful -- why shape it into balls?" Yuan criticized his contemporary Li Liweng's magnolia pudding as "created by artifice." Yuan also resented what he regarded as the corruption of Chinese food by Manchu cooks. The appeal of Manchu cooking was in their stews and roasts, while Chinese cooked broths and soups, but when Manchus serve Chinese dinners and Chinese serve Manchu food, "we lose our originality" and we "toady to each other." 
- Arthur Waley. Yuan Mei, Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet. London: Allen & Unwin, 1956
- Mei Yuan, Yingzhong Wang and Yingzhi Wang, eds. 随园食单 (Sui Yuan Shi Dan). Nanjing: Feng huang chubanshe, 2006. ISBN 978-7-80643-493-2.
- J.P. Seaton, Translator, I Don't Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei. Port Townsend, Copper Canyon Press, 1997 ISBN 1-55659-120-9 (PBK)
- Nienhauser, William H. (1985). The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Indiana University Press. pp. 956–957. ISBN 978-0-253-32983-7.
- Dunlop, Fuchsia (November 24, 2008). "Garden of Contentment". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2009-08-04.
- Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, Rev. and enl., 2000): 634. The other three are Su Shi (1037-1101), Ni Zan (1301-74), and Xu Wei (1521-93).
- Hsiang-Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin. Chinese Gastronomy. New York: Hastings House, 1969), 44-45, 47.
- Portions translated in Arthur Waley, Yuan Mei, Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet (London: Allen & Unwin, 1956):196 ff and Lin, Chinese Gastronomy, 45-48.
- Translating the Suiyuan Shidan
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- Works by Yuan Mei at Project Gutenberg
- Jennifer Thome, STRANGE OVERTONES: THE EXPRESSIONS OF RESENTMENT AND COMPASSION IN YUAN MEI’S "WHAT THE MASTER DOES NOT SPEAK OF". M.A. thesis, Arizona State University, 2008.
- 随园食单 (Sui Yuan Shi Dan) Chinese text
- Suiyuan Shidan (隨園食單) English translation