Cheng Pei-kai

Cultural Historian

Prof. Pei-kai Cheng, graduated from National Taiwan University in Western Literature, Yale Ph.D in history, taught at State University of New York, Yale, and Pace University for 20 years before founding Chinese Civilization Center at City University of Hong Kong in 1998 and serving as its director until retirement in 2013. He has been a visiting professor at Zhejiang University, Peking University and University Professor at Fengjia University in Taiwan. Awarded Merit of Honor by Hong Kong government in 2016, he is now Chairman of 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 and Editor-in-chief of Chinese Culture Quarterly since 1986.

Suzhou Museum, a masterpiece of world-renowned architect I.M. Pei. (Suzhou Museum official website)

Suzhou Museum: Why I.M. Pei failed to learn the lessons of the ancient Chinese

The building and landscape architecture of Suzhou Museum has been lauded for its intricate blend of old and new. Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is in awe of the late architect I.M. Pei, but sees at the same time, the need for man-made landscapes to blend into their natural environment. Otherwise, the handprints of their maker will all be too visible and the result far from the scenes of nature it was precisely trying to capture.
Proverbs encapsulate profound life experiences and reveal a culture's thoughts and way of life. (iStock)

Proverbs and sayings: Understanding a culture's biases, thoughts and way of life

Proverbs and sayings are not just traditional phrases handed down from generation to generation, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. Dissected, they reveal a culture’s biases, thoughts and way of life. Understanding a country’s proverbs is understanding the people that use them.
The delectable miantuo liuyuehuang dish. (Internet)

Remembering a mother’s beautiful smile and Suzhou's ‘Sixth Moon yellow’ crabs

Every autumn, what a treat it is to savour hairy crabs, or Chinese mitten crabs as they are also known. Better yet if you can catch that tiny window in late summer when the mignon “Sixth Moon yellow” crabs from Yangcheng Lake in China’s Jiangsu province are in season. Harvested when they are on the cusp of adulthood, these crustaceans’ sweetness and vitality are a spitting image of carefree summer days of our youth.
How do the ancient Chinese drink tea? (iStock)

How to drink tea like an ancient Chinese

Smoked bean tea, ghee tea or jade porcelain ground tea, anyone? Cheng Pei-kai turns tea-drinking conventions on their head as he shows that in history, tea appreciation was not just the domain of the sophisticated or the elegant. Common folk throughout the dynasties found innovative ways to have a cuppa, often with more than a few surprises tossed in.
Television series The Empress of China starring Fan Bingbing as Wu Zetian. (Internet)

Tang dynasty's Wu Zetian: Was she a wise emperor or did she ruin the country?

A television series about Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history, has Cheng Pei-kai reflecting about the semantics (read: politics) involved in the title bestowed on this charismatic figure. Did she live up to her many labels, or even more powerfully yet, was she really a character that defied any labels? History refuses to make a definite call.
Taiwan's carabet cuisine represents Taiwan's nostalgic flavours and can be regarded as an intangible cultural heritage. (iStock)

Taiwan’s nostalgic flavours, the glitterati and the kamikaze

As a child, Cheng Pei-kai believed that cabaret cuisine was forbidden food, due to the unsavoury reputations of the cabarets and clubs that served it. In the present, tasting the last vestiges of cabaret cuisine in Taiwan only reminds him to treasure them as part of an intangible cultural heritage. In a time long past, high society and average Joes alike partied with abandon and in some cases, had their last hurrah.
Imperial painter, Emperor Kangxi in his casual outfit at his writing desk (《康熙帝便装写字像》), partial, The Palace Museum. (Internet)

Beautiful or outdated? The journey of Chinese characters through the ages

Cheng Pei-kai reflects on what a blessing it is that Chinese characters have evolved yet stayed intact through the years and writers can still use them to create works of literature that stir the heart, mind and soul. The fact that Chinese characters work auditory and visual muscles all at once have more than a little to do with it.
A scene from Pai Hsien-yung's youth edition of The Peony Pavilion as performed in Esplanade, Singapore, in May 2009. (SPH)

Professor Littlewood and his love for Chinese opera

Cheng Pei-kai’s heart is gladdened when he witnesses his British friend’s pure fascination with Kunqu, the art of Chinese opera.
The entrance of Yuelu Academy.

Yuelu: 40 years of longing for a thousand-year-old Chinese academy

The cultural revolution had just ended when Cheng Pei-kai found himself in the chaotic streets of Changsha, with posters criticising Lin Biao, Confucius and even Deng Xiaoping plastered everywhere. He wanted to visit Yuelu Academy but his request was unfulfilled. More than forty years later, he finally made a visit. This institution that is regarded as one of the four great academies in ancient China ⁠— where exactly lies its charm?