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 and Gonville & Caius (external)

I read sinology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) where I also did my teacher training in history (PGCE/Agrégation). I then did further studies in classical Chinese and philosophy at National Taiwan University, and came to Cambridge where I did my PhD (1997) at this faculty, then known as Faculty of Oriental Studies. After a research fellowship at Wolfson College Oxford and a stint at the University of Arizona, I returned to Cambridge in 2002. I was appointed to the Chair of Chinese in 2007 (my inaugural lecture can be found here). I have served as Faculty (co)-chair and Head 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 welcome proposals from prospective graduate students interested in pre-imperial and early imperial China.  Dissertation topics I have supervised include rhetoric and persuasion during the Chunqiu period, technical studies of texts such as the Rites of Zhou, Huainanzi, and the Confucian Analects, early Chinese economic thought, the Han apocrypha, Han perceptions of the south, and the role of music and ritual in early Chinese thought. 

Recently completed PhDs

  • Yang FU, “Economic Discourse in Early Chinese Thought: From Antiquity to the mid-Warring States Era (4th cent. BCE).” (PhD. Cambridge, 2016)[placement: Assistant Professor, National Taiwan University]
  • Hajni ELIAS, “The Southwest: a study of regional identity in material culture and textual sources during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.)” (PhD. Cambridge, 2018)[placement: Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Cambridge]
  • Avital ROM, “Polyphonic Thinking. Music and Authority in Early China.” (PhD., Cambridge, 2019) [placement: Jing Brand Fellow, Needham Research Institute, Cambridge].
Supervision information: 

Professor Sterckx welcomes proposals for graduate work in fields relating to the Classical and literary Chinese language and philology, pre-imperial and early imperial cultural history, religion and thought.

Research interests: 

The cultural history, religion and thought of pre-imperial and early imperial China; classical and literary Chinese language and philology; text and manuscript studies (mainly the 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, taxonomy, animal studies). I have also written on food and dietary culture in Chinese philosophy, ritual and religion. Another area of interest is the interplay between moral and material values in Chinese thought and how these play out in early Chinese society (e.g. the economics of ritual and religion, gift culture, ideas about wealth creation, poverty, and the role of labour and the professions). 

Current PhD students

Mr Ashton Ng: Han Fei's Ideal Polity


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)