Dr William Matthews

Dr William Matthews

Visiting Fellow

Department of Anthropology

English, Mandarin
Key Expertise
China (contemporary and Warring States to Han)

About me

William’s research centres on the relationship between cognition, cosmology, and cultural transmission, with a regional focus on China. Broadly, he is interested in how explicit conceptions of the world vary across societies, how this variation correlates with other features of social organisation, and how it interacts with general features of human cognition. He pursues these interests through research on Chinese cosmology, combining anthropological and historical approaches, and maintains a strong interest in interdisciplinary exchange between social and biological anthropology, cognitive psychology, and sinology.w 

William’s book, Cosmic Coherence: A Cognitive Anthropology through Chinese Divination (Berghahn 2021), examines the cosmology of Chinese Yijing divination based on ethnographic fieldwork with diviners in Hangzhou, and examination of early Chinese texts influential in its development. The book focuses on divinatory reasoning and diviners’ explicit ontological and epistemological claims to challenge current anthropological and sinological approaches to cosmology and ontology, arguing that cosmology and ontology are properly understood as products of individual reflection rather than as cultural logics underlying behaviour. Drawing on dual process theories of cognition, cultural epidemiology, and diviners’ understandings of similarity and difference, Cosmic Coherence advances a ‘homological’ approach to comparative cosmology which aims to reconcile general features of human cognition with cross-cultural variation in beliefs. 

William has recently guest-edited a special issue of Social Analysis (2021) on the relationship between divination and ontology, in which contributors from anthropology and classics explore the role of calculation and divine agency in divinatory practices from ancient Greece to contemporary China. William has published research articles on topics including divinatory ontology in comparative perspective, similarity and difference in the Yijing, and the politics of divination as ‘superstitious’ knowledge in contemporary China. He has also authored a number of book chapters on Chinese cosmology and divination, and is Section Editor for History and War for the forthcoming e-publication, The Routledge Research Encyclopedia of Chinese Studies. 

Currently, William is developing a new project on the relationship between political cosmology and imperial state formation in early China. This will combine qualitative and quantitative approaches to early Chinese texts with examination of the environmental, socioeconomic, and technological correlates of political and military centralisation in the Qin state, to understand the conditions for the transmission and increasing cultural salience of an ideology of universal cosmic empire. More widely, this aims to contribute to a comparative understanding of the long-term relationship between imperial expansion and political cosmology. 

William has taught courses on China in comparative perspective (on topics including imperial bureaucracy, religion, the modern nation-state, revolution, socialism, and school and ideology), evidence and arguments in anthropology and other disciplines, the anthropology of China, and anthropological theory. William trained in anthropology at University College London, where he completed his PhD in 2016, funded by the ESRC. He studied modern and classical Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University.  

Expertise Details

Cosmology; Divination; Cognition; Cultural transmission; Empire; Ontology; Comparison; Politics of knowledge

Selected Publications


2021: Cosmic Coherence: A Cognitive Anthropology through Chinese DivinationBerghahn Books, Nov. 2021

Book chapters

2022. “Reducing Uncertainty: Six Lines Prediction in Contemporary China”. In T. Hon (ed.), The Other Yijing: The Book of Changes in Chinese History, Politics, and Everyday Life. Leiden: Brill.  

2021. “Chinese Correlative Cosmology: Historical Development and Current Debates”. In C. Shei and W. Wei (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Chinese Studies, 260-273. London: Routledge.  

2020. “Fate, Destiny and Divination”. In S. Feuchtwang (ed.), Handbook on Religion in China, 156-183. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.


In press. “Reduction, Generation, and Truth: A Comparative Approach to Divinatory Interpretation”. Current Anthropology.  

In press. “Getting Our Ontology Right: A Critique of Language and Culture in the Work of François Jullien”. Theory, Culture and Society.  

2021. “Calculation and Divine Agency: Comparative Perspectives on Divination and Ontology”. Social Analysis 65 (2). Special Issue introduction, as Guest Editor.  

2021. “Reflective Ontology and Intuitive Credibility in Chinese Divination”. Social Analysis 65 (2).  

2018. “Encompassing the Horse: Analogy, Category, and Scale in the Yi Jing”. The Journal of the British Association for Chinese Studies 8 (1), 32-61. (Shortlisted for the journal’s Early Career Researcher Prize.)  

2017. “Ontology with Chinese Characteristics: Homology as a Mode of Identification”. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (1), 265-285 

2017. “Making ‘Science’ from ‘Superstition’: Attitudes to Knowledge Legitimacy among Contemporary Yijing Diviners”. Journal of Chinese Religions 45 (2), 1-24.