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.

People tour the Autumn Moon on a Quiet Lake (平湖秋月), known as one of the “ten scenes of West Lake”, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, 2 May 2022. (CNS)

Cultural historian: Fish as large as submarines in Hangzhou?

On a walk in the deserted Lingfeng Temple near Yuquan Botanical Garden in Hangzhou, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai muses that peace and quiet is a blessing but a kiss of death for small teahouses trying to make a living. Also, memories of days gone by may be blurry over time. Either that or things have really changed, and one must face the sad reality that the good old days can never be brought back.
A couple takes their wedding photographs on West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, 13 December 2021. (CNS)

My longing for the elusive fish of spring

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai was looking forward to sampling seasonal dishes during his recent visit to Hangzhou. Alas, not all restaurants are well prepared enough to serve up every seasonal dish a diner desires. Better luck next time.
Lion Rock in Hong Kong at sunset. (Photo: Nhk9/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cultural historian: A woman swinging on a branch and an abused tree

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai remembers the days when he lived at the foot of a hill in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district. He enjoyed the serene calm and respected nature’s bounty, but he can’t say the same for some hill visitors who would ”abuse” the trees and take them for granted. Even giving trees will one day be worn out.
American poet Marianne Moore. Photograph by George Platt Lynes. (United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division)

On the dentist’s chair: American poet Marianne Moore’s scalpel

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai had an uncanny stroke of poetic inspiration or even possession, when he hazily “composed” American poet Marianne Moore’s works after a visit to the dentist. Might the gods have cast a spell on him and given him an experience of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream?
Japanese Macaques, also known as Snow Monkeys, gather to soak in a hot spring at Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan, 14 January 2022, in this photo taken by Kyodo. (Kyodo via Reuters)

More than a bath: From hot springs in ancient China to onsens in Japan

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai recalls relaxing jaunts to the hot springs of Taiwan’s Beitou District and later Hokkaido. He muses that the hot spring’s power to rejuvenate and heal were appreciated and documented by Chinese ancients long before it was thought to be a Japanese domain.
Jonathan Spence (1936-2021), master storyteller of Chinese history. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

Jonathan Spence: A Western historian's search for modern China

Professor Jonathan Spence (1936-2021) was a prolific historian who deepened Western readers’ understanding of China’s history and culture through his artful mastery of narrative history grounded in rigorous research. From the inner world of Emperor Kangxi to Jesuit missionaries' voyage to China, to the plight of Chinese intellectuals and literati and the arduous mission of reform and opening up, Spence’s unique writing style brought to life the complex historical figures and events of China. Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai, one of his earliest students, and translation academic Jackie Yan pay tribute to Spence and his contribution to the study of Chinese history through this preface to a collection of Spence's translated works published by the Guangxi Normal University Press.
A wintry scene of a snow-clad landscape. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

What does Zhuangzi have to do with goldfish in a Suzhou winter pond?

Wintry scenes of snow-clad landscapes make one in the mood for poetry. One look at Suzhou’s Tiger Hill Pagoda or the Humble Administrator’s Garden blanketed in snow and ancient poets would have been lost in their reverie, producing great works. Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai remembers the year 2018 when there was heavy snow in China's southern Jiangnan region.
A calligrapher writes blessing ornaments to mark the coming Lunar New Year in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan area on 15 January 2022. (Bertha Wang/AFP)

When the cultural historian forgot about Chinese New Year

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai recalls that it was hard to remember when Chinese New Year was when he lived in the US. In contrast, even though Hong Kong has modernised and appears to have lost many vestiges of past traditions, at the very least, it would be hard to miss the raucous festivities.
People dining al fresco in the Soho district of central London, 20 December 2021. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Snazzy mod-British cuisine to go with Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu

Contrary to stereotypical pronouncements of British cuisine as unappetising and boring, modern British fare is often delicious, featuring seasonal produce cooked to perfection, finds cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. On a starry night, these dishes make a good accompaniment to chats on Shakespeare and Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu.