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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 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 for 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 in recent years include rhetoric and persuasion during the Chunqiu period, technical studies of texts such as the Rites of Zhou, Huainanzi, Yantielun 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.

Teaching responsibilities: 

Classical and Literary Chinese, pre-modern Chinese history, Chinese thought

Supervision information: 

Chinese thought; pre-imperial and early imperial cultural history; natural history; classical Chinese language.

Prof. Sterckx will be on research leave during the academic year 2024-25 and is unable to take new students or host visiting scholars during that period.

Research interests: 

Chinese thought and cultural history with a focus on the pre-imperial and early imperial period; classical and literary Chinese language and philology. 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, agriculture, natural history, animal studies). I have also written on food and dietary culture, ritual and religion, and economic thought. I am interested in the interplay between moral and material values in Chinese thought and how this played out in Warring States and Han society (the economics of ritual, gift culture, perceptions of wealth and poverty, the role of labour and the professions, innovation). 

Current PhD students

John Donegan-Cross: A Study of the Literary and Material Culture of Early China through the lens of the fenghuang 鳳凰
Ashton Ng: Han Fei's Ideal Polity
Peichao Qin: Pyromancy and Epigraphy in Late Shang China: A Study of the Hopkins Collection of Oracle Bones in Cambridge University Library


Китайская мысль: от Конфуция до повара Дина Moscow: Aplina (2023)
Zhongguo sixiang 中国思想 Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi chubanshe (2022)
Chinees Denken. Over geschiedenis, filosofie en samenleving Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Nieuwezijds (2021)
Chinese Thought: from Confucius to Cook Ding Pelican Books (2019)
Ways of Heaven: an Introduction to Chinese Thought Basic Books (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)
In the Fields of Shennong Cambridge: Needham Research Institute (2008)
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

Excreted and Left Untreated? Human and Animal Waste: from Dunhuang to Laozi East Asian Science, Technonolgy & Medicine pp. 1-41 (2023)
Excreted and left untreated? Human and animal waste: from Dunhuang back to Laozi East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine pp. 54.2 (2023)
Agrarian and Mercantile Ideologies in Western Han Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 63.4 pp. 465-504 (2020)
Animal to edible: the ritualization of animals in early China Martina Siebert (ed.) & Dagmar Schäfer (ed.) Animals through Chinese History pp. 46-63 (2018)
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)
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)