A Conversation with Professor Pei-kai Cheng
Director of the Chinese Civilisation Centre
Teaching Hong Kong students what it means to be Chinese sounds as ludicrous as teaching birds how to fly. But since 1997, the year that marked the end of 146 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong has been in search of an identity - a Chinese identity, Hong Kong style.
"People from France, Britain, Singapore, and China can tell you what their culture is all about. But what is Hong Kong culture?" This question, posed by Professor Pei-kai Cheng, is one he set out to answer in 1998 when he became the Director of the Chinese Civilsation Centre at City University of Hong Kong.
A cultural historian and poet, Professor Cheng earned a PhD from Yale University in European and Chinese intellectual history and literature. He is a noted authority on the sixteenth-century writer Tang Xianzu, viewed by many as China's greatest playwright, and he previously taught history and directed the East Asian Studies programme at Pace University in New York.
"I moved to the United States in 1970 and thought I was pretty much settled there," explained Professor Cheng. "But the concept of setting up a new Chinese civilisation core course was challenging and exciting, and I knew I could share my appreciation of the diversities of Chinese civilisation with the City University students."
In designing the new course, Professor Cheng followed his vision of how Chinese civilisation should be taught. He felt strongly that conventional teaching methods were no longer appropriate for today's students. Indeed, he advocated an interpretive framework that would allow students to study Chinese culture from different angles, such as regional characteristics, mass culture, and popular culture.
"If we want our students to enjoy learning about Chinese culture, we have to show them how to look at Chinese civilisation from different perspectives," said Professor Cheng. "This way, we can develop the course into a programme that will be both interesting and relevant for students of the twenty-first century."
To make the course more stimulating, students with different interests are able to consult a variety of tutors from different disciplines. In addition, professors at Beijing University were commissioned to compile source materials for the course, drawing on an outline drafted by renowned scholars from Beijing, Taiwan, and the United States. Course materials and self-assessment exercises are available on the Internet. There are also public lectures, field trips, and guided studies. Every element of the course is aimed at encouraging students to develop a critical approach to the evolution of Chinese culture.
"I feel that this is the kind of programme that will help students build their confidence and take pride in their cultural identity," said Professor Cheng. "It is also an ideal model for helping us to develop a vision of how to teach a Chinese civilisation course in the future."