Literati

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?
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.
An ancient town in Suzhou, China. (iStock)

Cultural historian: Could we have eaten this elusive perch of Lake Tai?

Gathering with contemporaries in Nan Shi Pi Ji, a Chinese garden in Suzhou, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is reminded of a rare perch found in the east side of Lake Tai called lugui (鲈鳜). This was the fish that Western Jin dynasty poet Zhang Han and other ancient literati craved when they were away from home. Served raw or in its modern rendition steamed, the delicacy is almost too good to eat. Did Cheng get a chance to taste it?
The silver grey skies of Chishang.

Taiwanese art historian: 'Severing all ties’ in a pandemic

Cloistered in Chishang township in Taiwan’s Huadong Valley for the past four months, Chiang Hsun has no choice but to face himself in all its foibles. At peace with himself, he is at peace with the world. He revels in beautiful sights, as if he’s the only one let in on nature’s little secret. Just as he readies to leave, tourists trickle back into Chishang, bringing a bit of a bustle with them. May their hearts be still, says Chiang, to see the beauty that lies before them.
Songluo tea-making process: an emphasis is placed on picking the right leaves and controlling the fire when roasting and drying the leaves.

Popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties, will Songluo tea make a comeback?

Songluo tea had once found ardent fans in the literati of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. The emphasis on kneading the tea leaves into tiny balls after roasting is the secret to Songluo tea’s rich aroma and highly refreshing taste. Will modern audiences perhaps more familiar with Longjing or pu-erh appreciate this tea’s restrained elegance once more?
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.