skip to content

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

East Asian Studies
Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History, Science and Civilization
Email address: 
+44 (0)1223 335137
Fellow of: 
Clare College
Director of Studies at: 
Clare College

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.

I enjoy supervising graduate students on work relating to my research.  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.


Teaching responsibilities: 

Professor Sterckx is on sabbatical

Supervision information: 

Professor Sterckx welcomes proposals for graduate work in fields relating to his research into Classical and literary Chinese language, and pre-imperial and early imperial cultural history and manuscript studies.

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. 

Current PhD students

Mrs Hajnalka Elias: Sichuan in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 C.E.): A Study of Regional Identity and Memory in Material Culture and Textual Sources
Mr Ashton Ng: Foreknowledge in Ancient China
Ms Avital Rom: Polyphonic Thinking: A Rereading of Early Chinese Texts Through the Lens of Music


Chinese Thought: from Confucius to Cook Ding Pelican Books (2019)
Ways of Heaven: an Introduction to Chinese Thought Basic Books (forthcoming) (2019)
Animals through Chinese History: Earliest times to 1911 Cambridge University Press (2018)
Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China New York: Cambridge University Press (2011)
De l'Esprit aux Esprits: Enquête sur la notion de shen en Chine Saint-Denis: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes (2007)
Of Tripod and Palate: Food, Politics, and Religion in Traditional China Palgrave Macmillan US. (2005)
The Animal and the Daemon in Early China Albany, NY: State University of New York Press (2002)

Articles, Book Chapters etc

The Limits of Illustration: Animalia and Pharmacopeia from Guo Pu to Bencao Gangmu Vivienne Lo (ed.) & Penelope Barrett (ed.) Imagining Chinese Medicine (2018)
Agronomy and philosophy in early China Renwen xueheng 人文学衡 1 (2018)
Mercantile Ideologies in Western Han Elisa Sabattini (ed.) & Christian Schwermann (ed.) Between Command and Market: Economic Thought and Practice in Early China (2018)
Food and Agriculture Paul R. Goldin (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Early Chinese History pp. 306-324 (2018)
Alcohol and historiography in early China Global Food History 1.1 pp. 13-32 (2015)
Ideologies of the peasant and merchant in Warring States China Yuri Pines (ed.) & Paul Rakita Goldin (ed.) & Martin Kern (ed.) Ideology of Power and Power of Ideology in Early China: Studies in Early Chinese Political Thought pp. 211-248 (2015)
Ritual, Mimesis, and the Animal World in Early China Iain Morley (ed.) & Colin Renfrew (ed.) & Michael Boyd (ed.) From Play to Faith: Ritual, Play and Belief in Early Human Societies pp. 170-86 (2015)
Mozi 31: Explaining Ghosts, again Carine Defoort (ed.) & Nicolas Standaert (ed.) The Mozi as an Evolving Text: Different Voices in early Chinese Thought ( pp. 96-141 (2013)