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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

East Asian Studies
Professor of Modern Chinese History
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Fellow of: 
St Catharine's College
Director of Studies at: 
St Catharine's College

I still don't have a very good answer as to why studying Chinese history has become my life passion. When I decided to learn Chinese in high school, I knew little about China, the Chinese language, or the country’s history. But somehow I have never been tempted to do something else. Part of the reason is because the path on which this one unconsidered decision put me opened up all kinds of great opportunities: long periods in China and Taiwan, study with some wonderful teachers, and some ten years in the US where I met my wife and made many good friends. But also, Chinese history has always proved fascinating. I am at my happiest sitting in an archive or library in China, travelling through the country trying to learn more about a place important in my research, or talking about Chinese history with colleagues and friends at a university in China. And there is something very special to see former students build up lives focussed on China.

Following my undergraduate studies in Sinology at Leiden University, I went to Harvard University to study modern Chinese history. Seven years later I had a Ph.D. and went to UC Berkeley as a Postdoctoral Fellow. The rest of my career has been spent at Cambridge University. My first book From Friend to Comrade: the Founding of the Chinese Communist Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) was awarded the Philip Lilienthal Prize of the University of California Press for best first book in Asian Studies.

Like all academics, I have enjoyed my sabbaticals. A British Academy Research Readership made it possible for me to spend three years away from teaching. One of these I spent as a Visiting Scholar at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. More recently I have been a Fellow for a year at the Johns Hopkins – Nanjing University Center for US-China Cultural Exchange. I am also a Guest Professor at the Department of History of Nanjing University. I am a Fellow of the British Academy.

Teaching responsibilities: 

Prof van de Ven teaches undergraduate courses in Chinese history

Supervision information: 

Prof van de Ven is happy to supervise graduate students in a range of topics relating to modern Chinese history. He is interested in the history of war, the history of the Chinese Communist Party, and economic and political history. 

Prof van de Ven is not currently taking any MPhil students.

Research interests: 

History of the Chinese Communist Party before 1949; the history of warfare in modern China from the Taiping Rebellion to the Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists; the history of Chinese globalization in the 1850-1950 period.

Current PhD students

James Dawson: Third Front Construction
Christoph Hess : Institutions and Small-Scale Industry in China: War, Revolution and Reform
Tsz Ki Christy Liu: Nationalism, Morality and Accommodating the Enemy: Food Access in Central China during the Second World War

Research Projects


The Chinese Communist Party: a Century in Ten Lives Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2021)
China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China, 1937 - 1945 London: Profile (2017)
Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China Columbia University Press (2014)
Negotiating China’s Destiny in WWII Stanford: Stanford University Press (2014)
The Battle for China Stanford: Stanford University Press (2010)

Articles, Book Chapters etc

'Imperium in Imperio': The 1911 Revolution, Bond Markets, and the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (1895-1928) Lü Fangshan (ed.) Huimu Shiji Lu (Looking Back over a Century) (2012)
The Maritime Customs in World War Two: A Stubborn Anomaly in a Nationalist Time Studies on Republican China, vol. 17 pp. 182-212 (2010)

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