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.

Tourists taking photos in front of a statue of Deng Xiaoping in Lianhuashan Park, Shenzhen, China. (iStock)

Was Deng Xiaoping Hakka?

The Hakka people, or “guest people”, are Han Chinese who were mostly northerners that migrated to the south of China to provinces such as Fujian, Guangdong and Sichuan. Some say that a common heritage and language, more than a specific region ties them together. Deng Xiaoping from Guang’an, Sichuan was not known to be one of the Hakka people, but arguable bits of history point otherwise, and some continue to insist on his Hakka ancestry.  
Makgeolli, usually served in a shallow bowl and downed with gusto. (iStock)

East Asian literati, Korean rice wine and writhing octopus tentacles

Sampling makgeolli or Korean rice wine with friends from the academic community in Seoul, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is transported back in time to the world of ancient literati in China and Korea — would they also have exchanged a story or two over a bowl of makgeolli?
What image does a balcony conjure up in the minds of ancient Chinese literati? (iStock)

The balcony: A metaphor for eroticism in Chinese literature

A balcony can simply be a perch from which to admire the sea, or for Shakespeare fans, it is associated with a key scene from Romeo and Juliet. For ancient Chinese literati however, it conjures up scenes of forbidden trysts and has been woven into poems by illustrious poets, from Song Yu to Li Bai and many others.
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.