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.

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?
A view of Pingjiang Road in Suzhou, China. (iStock)

Diplomat, book addict, concubine and sage, all in an old alley of Suzhou

In one of his carefree walks down an alleyway in Suzhou, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai discovers the old studio of Huang Pilie, renowned book collector of the Qing dynasty. But that’s not all. The former abodes of diplomats, concubines, academics and many more lie hidden in Xuanqiao Lane and its arteries. What stories will he find with each meander?
My English teacher taught me that one had to change their usual ways of expression when learning a foreign language. (iStock)

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: My English teacher called me Pei-kai Cheng

Unlike the rote-learning of today, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai remembers his English classes to be fun-filled vocabulary “battles” and games. He credits his teacher, Mr Fu Zhou, for teaching his students not to fear a new language but to get comfortable with it, like wearing a second skin.
People walk along an alley in Zhenjiang Xijin Ferry site, said to be the birthplace of Zhenjiang ham jelly. (iStock)

A Chinese deity and a ham jelly with a 300-year-old history

With each bite of Zhenjiang ham jelly, a traditional dish of Jiangsu province, Cheng Pei-kai remembers local folklores and heroes. There was Zhang Guolao, an immortal who dared to try meat accidentally cured with saltpeter, and also national hero Shi Kefa, who defended Yangzhou with his last breath. What would they have thought of today's tourists, nonchalantly trying a slice of ham jelly or two?
A barber in a barbershop.

'Life is indeed like a dream': A cultural historian returns to the barbershop of his childhood

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai visits his hometown in Taiwan, going for a haircut on a whim. He and the barber are lost in their own thoughts as the shaver buzzes on. 40 years have whizzed by since they last met; their memories hang in the silence, like a time capsule frozen in time.
Tea fields in Anxi. (iStock)

Exploring Dehua porcelain and Anxi tea with a Dutchman

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai recalls his study tour in Dehua county sampling tea as he visited dragon kilns and pottery workshops. He was delighted to extend warm hospitality to a Chinese-speaking Dutchman who was there to learn about Dehua porcelain and Anxi tea.
Generous chunks of mutton keep the foodie heart happy and the body warm. (iStock)

Morning call in Zhejiang: Mutton with shaojiu

In Haiyan county, Zhejiang, local fishermen used to down a bowl of piping hot braised mutton with shaojiu before battling the icy winds at sea. Now, local trades dominated by textiles and hardware have moved onto land. But the tradition of rising at dawn for braised mutton and a tipple lives on. 
Songluo tea-making process: an emphasis is placed on picking the right leaves and controlling the fire when roasting and drying the leaves.

Popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties, will Songluo tea make a comeback?

Songluo tea had once found ardent fans in the literati of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. The emphasis on kneading the tea leaves into tiny balls after roasting is the secret to Songluo tea’s rich aroma and highly refreshing taste. Will modern audiences perhaps more familiar with Longjing or pu-erh appreciate this tea’s restrained elegance once more?