Dr Jingyi Jenny Zhao, a Research Fellow at Clare Hall based at the Needham Research Institute, discusses her focus on philosophy in ancient Greece and early China.
I was born in China and moved to Cambridge at the age of eleven.
Little did I know then that I would go on to study and to have a family here — Cambridge has become my home! I feel very fortunate to have had a bilingual and multicultural upbringing, which has influenced the way I think, both on a personal and an academic level.
My research takes a comparative perspective on the cultural traditions of ancient Greece and early China.
These traditions have come to be seen as representing important trends in Eastern and Western thought. Adopting a comparative lens opens up the possibility of discovering the idiosyncrasies of each civilisation, as well as the similarities between them, that would otherwise be missed.
I work on ancient philosophy and more specifically, ethics.
I find it fascinating that ancient philosophers East and West alike have contemplated some of the most fundamental issues that we’re grappling with today. Two thousand years later, their questions and solutions continue to inspire and illuminate.
Despite the limitations set by the pandemic, Clare Hall comes across to me as a dynamic college with a real sense of community and purpose
My PhD work, completed in 2015 at Cambridge, examined ‘shame’ and related ideas in Aristotle and Xunzi — a 3rd century BCE Chinese philosopher, to reveal their ideals of human nature and moral education.
Since then, I have expanded my work in the emotions and also developed an interest in representations of children in ancient Greece and early China. Children have come to be seen as members of society with the greatest plasticity and potential, and the question of how they should be nurtured and educated is still hotly debated. I want to delve into discourses about children to see what they reveal about human potential and the good life.
I joined Clare Hall in February 2021 as Needham Research Fellow.
It’s a strange time to be starting a new position since the pandemic has put a pause on some College activities, and I missed out on the face-to-face introductions. However, I have enjoyed a number of exchanges with Fellows and staff, as well as the delicious offerings of the kitchen! Despite the limitations set by the pandemic, Clare Hall comes across to me as a dynamic college with a real sense of community and purpose. Now that things are starting to open up again, I am very much looking forward to getting involved in more College events and meeting everyone in person.
The position that I currently hold is a rather special set-up.
I am based at the Needham Research Institute (NRI) — an institute for the study of East Asian science and civilisation that is named after the eminent Cambridge scientist and historian, Dr Joseph Needham. It’s conveniently situated just around the corner from Clare Hall on Sylvester Road. It’s a unique fellowship since alongside academic research, I am responsible for supervising secondary school students from Hong Kong on their annual summer programme at the NRI. I enjoy having the freedom to conduct my own research as well as the opportunity to engage with school students and inspire them in their study of Chinese and comparative history. This position perfectly combines my academic interests and my passion for teaching and public outreach. I feel very privileged.
My current aspirations are two-fold:
firstly, I would like to continue to research and publish original work in the area of Sino-Hellenic comparative studies; secondly, I aim to expand my current projects in public engagement to make a wider impact on the community.
My main priority right now is to complete my book manuscript on Aristotle and Xunzi for Oxford University Press, which I hope will have something to offer for classicists, sinologists, and philosophers alike.
I plan to research further into discourses about children in the ancient world, drawing on ancient materials to offer insights into contemporary debates on children’s education and welfare; I think there’s a lot to be done yet in this area. I aspire to follow in the footsteps of Dr Needham in continuing to build bridges between the East and the West, the past and the present.
One thing few people know about me…?
I love to listen to podcasts such as ‘Desert Island Discs’ and ‘The Life Scientific’ that feature interviews with interesting people. Since 2018, I have been conducting interviews of my own with eminent scholars in fields ranging from Classics, Engineering, History, Psychology and beyond, with the aim of making important and exciting academic ideas travel further. These interviews are published on my public account (静一访谈) on WeChat, the largest social media platform in China. In the future I hope to make the content available on a website so that more people can access them — watch this space!