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Prof. Roel Sterckx FBA

Classical and literary Chinese language and philology; cultural history of pre-imperial and early imperial China; text and manuscript studies
Prof. Roel Sterckx, FBA

Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History, Science and Civilization

Fellow of Clare College

Office Phone: 01223 335137


I read sinology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) where I also took a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Agrégation). I then moved to Taiwan for further studies in classical Chinese and philosophy at National Taiwan University. I came to Cambridge for my MPhil (1993) and PhD (1997) at this faculty, then known as Faculty of Oriental Studies. After a research fellowship at Wolfson College Oxford, I taught briefly at the University of Arizona until 2002, when I returned to Cambridge to take up a university lectureship. I was appointed to the Chair of Chinese in 2007. I have served as chair of the Department of East Asian Studies (2007-10; 2014-17), am a trustee of the Needham Research Institute, and a Fellow of Clare College. In 2013 I was elected Fellow of the British Academy. In Chinese publications I am known as Hu Side 胡司德.

Research Interests

Classical and literary Chinese language and philology; the cultural history, religion and thought of pre-imperial and early imperial China; text and manuscript studies (Warring States, Qin, and Han periods). My work is inspired to some degree by questions raised in the history of science and anthropology. I have an ongoing interest in forms of knowledge about the natural world in pre-modern China (cultural ecology, agricultural thought, natural history) and am currently working on a book provisionally entitled Thinking through Agriculture in Early China. I have also worked on food and dietary culture in Chinese philosophy and religion. Another area of interest is the interplay between moral and material values in Chinese thought. More specifically I hope to learn more about early China's religious economy, gift culture, and ideas about wealth creation, poverty, and the role of the professions (merchants, peasants) during the formation of empire.  I very much welcome proposals for graduate work in any of the above fields and/or period(s). In recent years, topics my graduate students have worked on include rhetoric and persuasion during the Chunqiu period, technical studies of texts such as the Rites of Zhou, Huainanzi, and the Confucian Analects, concepts of labour in early China, the Han apocrypha, and Han perceptions of the south.

Past and current graduate students include Mark Metcalf, Oliver Weingarten, Hajni Elias, Kiri Stromberg, Yang Fu, Avital Rom.

Please note that I am currently on research leave and unable to take new graduate students for 2018-19; I very much welcome inquiries for entry in October 2019.

Roel Sterckx Research Team 2016

Key Publications

Chinese Thought (London: Penguin, 2019).

"Mercantile Ideologies in Western Han," in Elisa Sabattini and Christian Schwermann eds., Between Command and Market: Economic Thought and Practice in Early China. Leiden: Brill (forthcoming).

Animals Through Chinese History: Earliest times to 1911. Editor with Dagmar Schaefer and Martina Siebert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

"Animal to Edible: The Ritualization of Animals in Early China," in Animals Through Chinese History: Earliest times to 1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), chapter 2.

"Food and Agriculture" in Paul R. Goldin ed., Routledge Handbook of Early Chinese History (London & New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 306-324.

"Agronomy and philosophy in early China," Renwen xueheng 人文学衡 1 (2018).

"The Limits of Illustration: Animalia and Pharmacopeia from Guo Pu to  Bencao Gangmu," in Vivienne Lo and Penelope Barrett eds.,  Imagining Chinese Medicine (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2018).

"Ritual, Mimesis, and the Animal World in Early China," in Morley, I., Renfrew, C. & Boyd, M. eds, From Play to Faith: Ritual, Play and Belief in Early Human Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp.170-86.

古代中国的动物与灵异. 胡司德著,蓝旭译. 南京: 江苏人民出版社, 2016. [ related podcast - in Chinese ]

"Ideologies of the peasant and merchant in Warring States China," In Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China: Studies in Early Chinese Political Thought, ed. Yuri Pines, Paul Rakita Goldin, and Martin Kern (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2015), pp.211-248. 

"Alcohol and historiography in early China," Global Food History 1.1 (2015), 13-32.

"Mozi 31: Explaining Ghosts, again", in Carine Defoort and Nicolas Standaert eds., The Mozi as an Evolving Text: Different Voices in early Chinese Thought (Leiden:  E.J. Brill, 2013), pp.96-141. 

Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011 (Paperback edition, 2015).

De l'Esprit aux Esprits: Enquête sur la notion de shen en Chine (Saint-Denis: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 2007), co-edited with Romain Graziani.

Of Tripod and Palate. Food, Politics, and Religion in Traditional China (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)(edited volume)

The Animal and the Daemon in Early China (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002).