Culture

Thousands of supporters of former US President Donald Trump listen to local and state politicians speak during a "Save America" rally at York Family Farms on 21 August 2021 in Cullman, Alabama, US. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Pandemic diary (Chapter 6): When democracy is despotic

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. But that is just the outward appearance of calm. Inside, he seethes with indignation as he rues the politics of life and greed, the democracy that politicians tout and the world that will be changed yet oddly stay the same after Covid-19. Have we come to a stage where not even a pandemic can teach us the lessons we need to learn?
A man (left) offers incense sticks to his ancestors at a temple in Hong Kong on 21 August 2021, marking the Hungry Ghost Festival. (Bertha Wang/AFP)

Questions concerning mortality in early China [3 of 3]: The netherworld and the state machine

What did the ancient Chinese think of the netherworld? Why did they take it for granted that there was an afterlife? In this three-part series, academic Poo Mu-chou takes a closer look at the myths and beliefs of death and after-death in Chinese culture. In this third article of the series, he teases out the difference in Chinese notions of happiness compared to other cultures. Rather than a moral code, bureaucracy and social mores have ruled people’s lives. Thus, the living leave practical objects in tombs for the deceased’s sustenance in the Underground, and magic spells to ward off harm against their living kin. In death, one is finally freed from the shackles of life.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to protest Covid-19 vaccination and mask mandates. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

Pandemic diary (Chapter 5): The huge difference between Hong Kong and American societies

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. With all gatherings cancelled, he only had the incessant news on the coronavirus for company. On one occasion, an interview on American television was particularly jarring: someone was lambasting social distancing rules and venting her frustrations at the disruptions to everyday life. Where do people have the gall to blame everyone but themselves? Did the pomposity of their country’s leader rub off on them? Cheng felt the huge difference between American and Hong Kong societies.
A man walks through a cemetery in Diamond Hill in Hong Kong on 14 October 2021, during the Chung Yeung Festival, also known as the Double Ninth Festival, where people honour their ancestors. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

Questions concerning mortality in early China [2 of 3]: The netherworld is closer to us than you might think

What did the ancient Chinese think of the netherworld? Why did they take it for granted that there was an afterlife? In this three-part series, academic Poo Mu-chou takes a closer look at the myths and beliefs of death and after-death in Chinese culture. In this second article of the series, he describes how the ancients prepared the tombs of the deceased: the lavish chambers and paraphernalia thrown in suggest they wanted the dead to be comfortable in their afterlives. Or maybe it was for the living to assure themselves that unfulfilled aspirations in life could be achieved in death?
Often in rural China, a couple would travel far to find work in cities, leaving their offspring behind with their grandparents as pictured here in rural Yunnan.

China’s rural elderly: The disappearing keepers of tradition

The rural elderly are the guardians of local traditions, says Hisham Youssef, an Egyptian-American architect based in Shanghai. On his travels to the Chinese countryside, he sees aged craftsmen labouring quietly, often with no one to pass their skills on to. Will precious culture and traditions disappear without a trace at this rate? How can this group’s life experiences be best harnessed and passed down and the youth attracted to stay or return to carry on family trades?
People look at a billboard showing former US President Donald Trump in Times Square in New York, US, 14 October 2021. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Pandemic diary (Chapter 4): The president who spread a political virus

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. He dwelled in his home in Hong Kong’s Wu Kai Sha, but he was never far from the drama of global Covid-19 news, beamed in from TV and computer screens. The pomposity of one politician stood out — in the face of a life-threatening disease, how could the leader of the world’s largest economy and even the league of nations have set such a poor example and gotten away with it?
People wearing traditional Chinese costumes walk outside the Forbidden City during China's national day in Beijing, China, on 1 October 2021. (Jade Gao/AFP)

US academic: Learning Chinese is another political battleground for China and the US

Harvard University recently announced that it would be relocating its Chinese language summer programme from Beijing to Taiwan. Wu Guo notes the irony that while mainland China has been accused of using Confucius Institutes as propaganda vehicles, Taiwan doesn’t come under similar suspicion as it moves in to fill the gap for Chinese language teaching. Under the current tense milieu, can learning the Chinese language ever be simply just that?
In this elevated view, a man sits on a bench along the flags of the 'In America: Remember' public art installation near the Washington Monument on 19 September 2021 in Washington, DC, US. (Al Drago/Getty Images/AFP)

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: Life and death are predestined, and wealth and poverty are heaven’s arrangement

Like many of us experiencing pandemic days, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai spent the last two years living quietly. Early last year as the pandemic started getting widespread in the US, he mused about the irony of the situation: the ancients were led by the nose by plagues and could only lift their prayers to the gods. Today, medical technology may be more advanced but a cunning coronavirus has once again brought populations into a tailspin. But even as fate plays tricks, politicians still spend their energy mulling over battling the pandemic without bringing down Wall Street. Are humans just cogs in the economy, and even a plague won’t change that?
Priests chant scriptures during a ceremony at a temple in Hong Kong on 21 August 2021, marking the Hungry Ghost Festival. (Bertha Wang/AFP)

Questions concerning mortality in early China [1 of 3]: The idea of the netherworld

What did the ancient Chinese think of the netherworld? Why did they take it for granted that there was an afterlife? In this three-part series, academic Poo Mu-chou takes a closer look at the myths and beliefs of death and after-death in Chinese culture. First, he explores the traditional conception of the netherworld. Was it a physical place, shaped in the earthly world’s image and likeness?