Literati

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?
An aerial shot of people walking through the Zhuyuwan Scenic Area and admiring the blooming flowers in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, China, 21 February 2021. (Xinhua)

Qing dynasty ‘eccentric’ painter Zheng Banqiao: Art is commodity and beauty is physical

From a laser-etched calligraphy in a restaurant, art historian Chiang Hsun delves into the writings of Qing dynasty painter and calligrapher Zheng Xie, better known as Zheng Banqiao. Zheng was part of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” group of painters who had wealthy businessmen patrons and developed an aesthetic grounded in the material and secular. Bright and colourful scenes of mirth were common — unlike the Song and Yuan dynasty literati before them who indulged in melancholic musings above worldly concerns. Contemporary ink artists may want to get some inspiration from Zheng's works, and boldly declare the feelings and observations of the times.
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 cluster of white azaleas. (Facebook/蔣勳)

Taiwanese art historian: The colour white in Chinese aesthetics and in life

If white could be a state of being, it would be yourself, says Chiang Hsun. Under light and shadow, its true shade sometimes becomes blurry, but it never loses its essence. With that confidence, white in art or in life also means negative space — the void that is at ease when it is not filled, the voice that gives itself the freedom to just be.
People wearing face masks walk along a shopping centre in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on 1 January 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP)

'Perhaps we are from the same hometown?': A reflection on human relations throughout Chinese history

In this life, are we journeying together or just passing ships in the night? Chiang Hsun ponders the degrees of separation between people who share the same earth. What keeps us walking in parallel, never breaking down customary barriers?
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.
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.
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.
The entrance of Yuelu Academy.

Yuelu: 40 years of longing for a thousand-year-old Chinese academy

The cultural revolution had just ended when Cheng Pei-kai found himself in the chaotic streets of Changsha, with posters criticising Lin Biao, Confucius and even Deng Xiaoping plastered everywhere. He wanted to visit Yuelu Academy but his request was unfulfilled. More than forty years later, he finally made a visit. This institution that is regarded as one of the four great academies in ancient China ⁠— where exactly lies its charm?