Literati

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?
Famous Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu. (Internet)

Du Fu and tofu are not the same thing

Not sure whether to laugh or cry, Cheng Pei-kai notes that cultural barriers are hard to break, not least when one tries to teach ancient Chinese poetry in English to a group of international students.
West Lake in autumn. (iStock)

Autumn musings by the West Lake

Many an intellectual has been inspired by the legendary West Lake in Hangzhou. Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai is no exception. He reflects on the passage of time as he strolls through the beautiful landscape of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The amount of effort that went into every bowl of crab butter was so unimaginable that, the idea of sampling it wouldn’t even cross a commoner’s mind. (Internet)

Crab Butter Rice

Crab Butter Rice is unlike any other crab dishes: it is a seasonal delicacy that exclusively combines the autumn crab's paste and roe without using any of its meat. Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai shares his experience eating it, and its peculiar and debatable origins from Suzhou brothels.