Culture

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.
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 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.