Li Keqiang

Cheng Hong, wife of Li Keqiang, a low-profile scholar

Cheng Hong, a leading expert on American nature writing, no longer teaches students

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 4:06am


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Like many who lived through the Cultural Revolution, Cheng Hong felt she'd had enough excitement to last a lifetime. It was in 1995, while she was a visiting scholar in the United States at Brown University, Rhode Island, that these thoughts crystallised.

Cheng, wife of premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang , revealed how she developed her interest in writings on nature and ecology during her stay in New England in her book Tranquillity Is Beyond Price, published a decade later.

It perhaps helps explain why Cheng, a professor of English at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, remains little known among ordinary Chinese. Even among the generally low-profile wives of China's elite, Cheng stands out as something of a recluse.

"Cheng comes back to our university on an extremely rare basis, and most our staff members are not in contact with her," said a professor from the same English department. "She was still teaching English and American literature for postgraduate students when her husband was the top leader of Liaoning province. But ever since Li Keqiang assumed his role inside the central Politburo, she has given up any course workloads."

Three professors from the department confirmed that Cheng had rarely been seen on campus since the early 2000s. The university, established in 1956, is considered to be among the second tier of higher-education institutes in the capital, ranking behind more famous universities.

It has become almost routine for relatives of top leaders to become very wealthy during their family members' leadership. But people interviewed by the Post say Cheng is a serious scholar with no business interests.

One professor said Cheng was once put forward by university officials to become dean of the department, but she refused. "Cheng is a dedicated scholar who prefers to concentrate on her work. She treats others with sincerity and courtesy," said the professor, who also teaches English literature in the department.

The university website lists Cheng as one of its "renowned scholars" and says she is a member of the institute's academic committee.

One graduate of the English department described Cheng as a strong competent teacher of English literature and a researcher who has made an impact in her chosen field.

She is also considered one of the leading Chinese scholars of American nature writing, having published two books on the subject and translated several books from English to Chinese.

"Her studies definitely played a role in popularising nature literature in China," said one literary critic based in Guangzhou. "None of the wives of high-level officials have such English ability and writing skills. Cheng's books are beautifully written".

American author Terry Tempest Williams praised Cheng, translator of her Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Cheng "represents [my] vision through her translation with great beauty. Refuge is ultimately, a project of peace. I understand that her translation of Refuge is a translation of great care, insight and sensitivity to both the language and spirit of my book", Williams said.

In Tranquillity Is Beyond Price, Cheng writes about the 19th century naturist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, paying tribute to his best-known book, Walden, a reflection on the tranquillity of living amid nature, based on Thoreau's experience of living for two years in a cabin he built in rural Massachusetts.

Cheng twice visited Walden Pond, where Thoreau built his cabin. The first time was in 2000, as she was about to finish her doctorate at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It proved disappointing, as the site was overrun by tourists. But after a second visit, on a still autumn day with the tourists gone, she wrote: "When the original nature and the simple happiness are gradually gone, it seems Thoreau is even more remembered by many, and people want to follow his steps, to pursue pristine nature, a free mind, and a sound mind and body."

She did not discuss another of Thoreau's works: his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.

Additional Reporting by Wei Hanyang