Cheng Pei-kai

Cultural Historian

After graduating from National Taiwan University in Western Literature, Professor Pei-kai Cheng obtained his PhD in Chinese Cultural History from Yale University in 1980 and was a John King Fairbank post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University in 1981. He taught at State University of New York at Albany, Yale University and Pace University in New York for 20 years. He later founded the Chinese Civilization Center at City University of Hong Kong in 1998, serving as its director until his retirement in 2013. He has been a visiting professor at Zhejiang University, Peking University and University Professor at Fengjia University in Taiwan. Awarded the Medal of Honor by the Hong Kong government in 2016, he is now chairman of the Hong Kong Intangible Cultural Heritage Consultation Committee. He has published more than 30 books, and edited various series of collections on Chinese history and culture. His research interests cover a wide spectrum of academic subjects on Chinese culture, such as late Ming culture and Tang Xianzu, transcultural aesthetics, tea culture, Chinese export porcelain, and English translation of Chinese classics. He is also the founder of Chinese Culture Quarterly and has been its editor-in-chief since 1986.

In this elevated view, a man sits on a bench along the flags of the 'In America: Remember' public art installation near the Washington Monument on 19 September 2021 in Washington, DC, US. (Al Drago/Getty Images/AFP)

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: Life and death are predestined, and wealth and poverty are heaven’s arrangement

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. Early last year as the pandemic started getting widespread in the US, he mused about the irony of the situation: the ancients were led by the nose by plagues and could only lift their prayers to the gods. Today, medical technology may be more advanced but a cunning coronavirus has once again brought populations into a tailspin. But even as fate plays tricks, politicians still spend their energy mulling over battling the pandemic without bringing down Wall Street. Are humans just cogs in the economy, and even a plague won’t change that?
Visitors walk through a display of lanterns ahead of the mid-autumn festival at Wong Tai Sin temple in Hong Kong on 18 September 2021. (Peter Parks/AFP)

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The power of the individual during a pandemic

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. When the virus was just starting to spread in Wuhan last year, he was in Shenzhen but managed to cross back to Hong Kong before the lockdowns. As he left the material life behind and got into the rhythm of staying at home, he sought solace in books, calligraphy and his beloved Kunqu opera. For all the things that are out of our hands, at least we have gained time for introspection, self-reflection and growth. That much is within our control.
This picture shows messages posted on windows by quarantined guests at a hotel in Hong Kong on 26 September 2021. (Peter Parks/AFP)

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The best antidote for surviving the pandemic

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. There is hardly a stir in his Hong Kong home, but his mind whirs away as an ancient’s phrase here and a poet’s verse there gives meaning to the plight of the times. On this occasion, he muses about quack Covid remedies and a tipple salve recommended in jest. A new take on drowning one’s sorrows?
Feng Chia Night Market, Taiwan's biggest and most popular night market. (iStock)

Cultural historian: How I fled for my life in Taiwan’s Feng Chia Night Market

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai visited Taiwan’s famed Feng Chia Night Market during pre-pandemic days on hearing that it is a must-go attraction with cheap and delicious street food. He did find it teeming with food stalls and activity; the array was so dizzying in fact that he got a bit dizzy...
An ancient town in Suzhou, China. (iStock)

Cultural historian: Could we have eaten this elusive perch of Lake Tai?

Gathering with contemporaries in Nan Shi Pi Ji, a Chinese garden in Suzhou, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is reminded of a rare perch found in the east side of Lake Tai called lugui (鲈鳜). This was the fish that Western Jin dynasty poet Zhang Han and other ancient literati craved when they were away from home. Served raw or in its modern rendition steamed, the delicacy is almost too good to eat. Did Cheng get a chance to taste it?
Renowned American historian and sinologist Yu Ying-shih. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

A tribute to Professor Yu Ying-shih: Remembering the lessons my teacher taught me

Renowned American historian and sinologist Yu Ying-shih passed away on 1 August 2021 aged 91. ThinkChina reproduces this essay which cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai wrote last year to commemorate Professor Yu's 90th birthday. As Cheng's teacher of over 40 years, one of the greatest lessons Professor Yu had taught Cheng was to be a historian with a heart and a sense of sympathy. One must learn to listen to the wind, rain, laughter and crying in human history.
The Nai Chung Pebbles Beach in Ma On Shan, which is on the eastern coast of Tolo Harbour in the New Territories of Hong Kong. (iStock)

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: A half-century journey around the globe to Hong Kong’s Wu Kai Sha

Looking out from his balcony in Hong Kong’s Wu Kai Sha, flanked by the mountains and the sea, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai reflects on the unpredictability of life. Travelling from Shanghai to Taiwan in 1949 as an infant, had he made the journey one day later, he might have perished in the sinking of Chinese steamer Taiping (太平轮). Meanders in Taiwan and the US took him finally to Hong Kong, a place he never thought he’d call home. The wanderer has settled down at last.
A hearty bowl of swamp eel noodle soup.

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The ancients loved a good bowl of swamp eel noodle soup

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai enjoys a refreshing bowl of swamp eel noodle soup in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. He reflects that this local dish continues to be made by nameless chefs in a simple shop frequented by unassuming diners. But there’s nothing simple about that broth — simmered down with generations of humble cooking, it’s nothing short of heavenly.
Children play with a basketball in an alley in Beijing, China on 26 June 2021. (Jade Gao/AFP)

Cultural historian: Why do civilisations pass down their cultures?

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai remembers an email from a Hong Kong secondary student, who wanted a "substantial and authoritative" answer from him about the relationship between civilisations and their cultures. The 16-year-old had asked: What affects the passing down of cultural traditions? Should culture be passed on in its entirety? What role does commercialisation play?