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 delicious bowl of Kunshan Aozao noodles. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

A bowl of Suzhou noodles named by Emperor Qianlong

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is lucky to have tried all ten of the most highly rated noodle dishes in China. Among them, Kunshan Aozao noodles from Suzhou stands out. Best consumed piping hot, this noodle soup served with smoked fish or braised duck leg is steeped in folklore.
A pu-erh cake and cups of pu-erh tea. (iStock)

Pu-erh: The raw, the ripe and the Qing dynasty 'tribute tea' from Yunnan

Cheng Pei-kai recalls the mellow, earthy appeal of aged pu-erh, where tea leaves are compressed into cakes and left to ferment for decades to develop a complex flavour. Recently, he also got the chance to taste a young pu-erh — made with tea leaves from a tree that Qing dynasty soldiers used to guard and which was sent to the emperor as “tribute tea”, no less.
A vendor arranges books at her stall at the Panjiayuan antique market in Beijing, China, on 19 November 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)

Are the Chinese truly collecting art?

With China’s increasing affluence, the nouveau riche are investing in art and cultural artefacts. Wu Zetian’s pleated skirt, exquisite paper from the Southern Tang dynasty, a painting by early 20th century painter Qi Baishi — authentic or not, all are fair game and acquired at the best price. What a shame, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. If only the collector’s hand is not sullied by such commerce.
The charming Master of the Nets Garden in Suzhou. (iStock)

When a professor falls in love with Suzhou during the Cultural Revolution

Like the gentlemen in poems of yore who were love-struck by fair maidens, Cheng Pei-kai falls in love with Suzhou at first sight. His is a cultural love story that has stood the test of time.
Winter warmers: A bowl of rich mutton soup. (iStock)

China's thousand-year-old mutton soup

Northern Chinese mutton soup is rich, hearty and bold-flavoured, standing in sharp contrast to the delicate cuisine of the south. The dish is an emblem of the gruff and big-hearted heroism of civil wars past and the grandeur of the Han and Tang dynasties. Indeed, traces of history are left behind in every drop of a good bowl of mutton soup.
A long-awaited date with hairy crabs. (iStock)

From New York to Suzhou: A professor's guide to eating hairy crabs

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai recalls the very first time he tasted Yangcheng Lake’s famed hairy crabs, not in China, but in New York. Since then, he has been smitten with the Chinese mitten crab, and is in no doubt as to why this delicacy takes pride of place in China’s food heritage.
The Thousand-Foot Precipice of Mount Hua (华山). (iStock)

The backpacker and travel writer from 400 years ago — China's Xu Xiake

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai celebrates the free-spirited explorer Xu Xiake, who roamed the depths of China in the late Ming dynasty. Xu's journeys were hardly glorious forays that forged new paths or alliances. But for the quiet reminder they give to embrace one’s passions and explore the world, Xu will be fondly remembered.
Travel is one way to build critical thinking and identity, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. (iStock)

Woman traveller of the Qing dynasty Qian Shan Shili: Education is the bedrock of a nation

The little-known Qian Shan Shili had the opportunity to travel in the days of upheaval at the end of the Qing dynasty and at the dawn of a new republic. She was the first woman to record her thoughts in two travelogues and felt strongly that China’s new education system paled in comparison with that of other countries such as Japan. She concluded that education should have the aim of building critical-thinking men and women rather than just nurturing a crop of scholars with exceptional talent. After all, she notes, without citizens, how can there be talents? And without citizens, there can certainly be no society. These are wise words, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai, that remain relevant even today.
Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling in a boat on Sun Moon Lake. (Internet)

Chiang Kai-shek and the ‘President’s Fish’ at Sun Moon Lake

Visitors to Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake are often awed by the hulking mountains and pristine waters. But notice a tiny pavilion on the water’s edge and you’d be reminded of the immense history this lake holds as a quiet retreat for the colourful leader Chiang Kai-shek — both to ponder the weighty political affairs and to reminisce about his hometown in mainland China’s Jiangnan region.