Culture

A reunion dinner spread with wishes for all things in the new year to be yuan yuan man man (圆圆满满, good and well). (iStock)

Full Circle: Ruminating on the round in Chinese New Year dining

As Chinese around the world celebrate the Lunar New Year, it is almost taken for granted that the round is auspicious and preferred. What is this fascination with the perfect circle, and how does it present itself in the dining traditions and dishes of the season? For ThinkChina's Charlene Chow, the circular jogs the memory of the beautiful things in life.
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.
A woman wearing a face mask works at a fish stall in a market in Taipei, Taiwan, 26 November 2021. (Annabelle Chih/Reuters)

My childhood days in Xiamen Street, Taiwan: Of invisible warriors, string puppets and spring pancakes

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai recalls with fondness Xiamen Street where he had stayed as a child, a thoroughfare with plenty to explore. Fishmongers deft with their knives, puppeteers recreating mammoth duels, pushcart hawkers with irresistible snacks, stationmasters holding fort at the train station — these characters made youngsters' lives outside the classroom full of colour and life.
A woman walks past a tree on a street in Beijing on 23 November 2021. (Jade Gao/AFP)

Cultural historian: How the art of flattery in ancient China has endured the test of time

A young teacher is disillusioned by the instances of pai ma pi (lit. patting a horse’s butt) he sees at work. Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai, who has seen some of such behaviour in academia, commiserates with him, noting that the practice of flattery and fawning over higher-ups has a place in Chinese history. Generations of ancients indulged in such behaviour, sometimes for survival and sometimes to get ahead. Centuries of practice later, they became very good at it indeed.
A couple poses during a pre-wedding photo session on the promenade on the Bund along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China, on 24 September 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

The crux of gender inequality is that men have always objectified women

Rather than addressing the symptoms of gender inequality such as restrictions on career prospects and freedom, says Cheng Pei-kai, we need to look at the deeper issue of the objectification of women. Chinese history and literature texts are replete with examples of this tendency. Mindful reading of the classics and an awareness that women are still objectified in modern life will go some way in changing mindsets. Whether in art or life, women are complex like anyone else and their characters and emotions need to be fleshed out before they can be truly seen for who they are.
A digital recreation of the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河图, Qingming Shanghe Tu) is seen on display at the exhibition, A Moving Masterpiece: The Song Dynasty As Living Art, at the Singapore Expo Convention and Exhibition Centre, Singapore. (SPH)

Copying is a virtue in Chinese ink painting

Temporary orders to halt the KAWS public art installation exhibition led Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre CEO Low Sze Wee to ponder the copyright issues of Chinese ink paintings. He notes that many of Singapore’s first-generation artists like Chen Wen Hsi and Fan Chang Tien were educated in Shanghai in the 1920s and were deeply influenced by the Shanghai School. Copying was a common mode of learning, and students like Henri Chen Kezhan and Chua Ek Kay did their best to copy the works of their teachers. While they eventually developed their own styles over time, Low says it could be argued that their achievements were made possible by their formative years spent on copying.
In this file photo taken on 6 March 2021, demonstrators throw masks into a fire during a mask burning event to protest Covid-19 restrictions, at the Idaho Statehouse in Boise, US. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images North America/AFP)

How the pandemic overturned my understanding of Americans

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. Even now, scenes on television are rife with pandemic news in the US. Watching health workers refusing to get vaccinated or the population spurning masks in defence of their freedoms, Cheng wonders why some people are willing to be “martyrs” for the cause they believe in. Or worse, are they just foolishly courting the virus? Maybe this really shows a great gulf in attitudes between the East and West.
Renowned Chinese philosopher Li Zehou. (Weibo)

Growing up (and old) with Chinese philosopher Li Zehou

Think of how the switching between languages, cultures and epistemologies can itself be an integral part of reading and writing, and extend this to a thinker’s broadest philosophical opus, in concepts, articulations and communications — that is the work of Chinese philosophy great Li Zehou (1930-2021), says former Singapore Art Museum director, Kwok Kian Chow.