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.

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.
A man eats Lanzhou-style noodles at a restaurant that once served workers of the now decommissioned Liancheng coal-fired power plant in Heqiao village, Yongdeng county, Gansu province, China, 16 September 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The power of food memories in shaping who we are

Food memories form part of our intangible cultural heritage. To lose them is to lose part of our culture, says cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai. The ancients certainly knew a thing or two when they laid down the golden rules of healthy eating. But they’re not the only bastions of wisdom. Every region, every village with its own terroir, has a unique food culture to pass down for generations to come — if only we’d let them.
Would you rather have a Michelin-starred molecular gastronomy extravaganza or a traditional Hakka feast? (iStock)

Above Michelin: These professors would rather have Hakka pork belly with preserved mustard

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai did not enjoy his taste of molecular gastronomy too much on a recent visit to a high-end restaurant. The experience taught him that there is little point hankering after what everyone supposedly wants. One is better off staying true to himself and savouring something that truly tickles his taste buds.
The great Chinese playwright, Tang Xianzu. (Internet)

In pursuit of ideals and love: The William Shakespeare of Chinese drama, Tang Xianzu

All his life, Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu only wanted to stay true to himself, to do good and to make a mark. In his life as a government official, he sat on the sidelines and saw his ambitions erode with time. But he kept intact his passion for literary writing, gifting the world he left behind with classics such as The Peony Pavilion. Amid brokenness and deceit, he saw only beautiful things that were good and pure. Whether the world he created is a reality to be attained or a mirage...the dream lives on.
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.