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Classicising learning in medieval imperial systems: Cross-cultural approaches to Byzantine paideia and Tang/Song xue

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PAIXUE (Classicising learning in medieval imperial systems: Cross-cultural approaches to Byzantine paideia and Tang/Song xue)

Reporting period: 2019-02-01 to 2020-07-31

In the medieval Eurasian cultural and geopolitical space, Byzantium and China stand out as two centralised imperial orders that drew on allegedly unbroken, in fact purposely constructed, traditions of classicising learning. In Byzantium, classicising learning (logoi, paideia) gained new life from the dialectics that characterised iconoclasm and its aftermath through the tenth to twelfth centuries and beyond, with concomitant changes to the canon. In medieval China, classicising learning (xue 學) was revived with the promotion of guwen 古文 (ancient style prose) by eighth-century thinkers and was subsequently taken up by reform-minded literati during the Northern (960–1127) and Southern Song (1127–1279) periods, resulting in on-going revisions of the canon and competing accounts of what it meant to carry out the ways of the ancients. Those who engaged in such learning were known as logioi/pepaideumenoi and shi 士 = literati, respectively.

PAIXUE examines paideia/logioi and xue/shi from two major angles. Its first strand, ‘Classicising learning and governance – performance of empire’, analyses literati interaction with the imperial/aristocratic elites through the prism of ritualised communication and the (social) performance of classicising learning, showing how the social ramifications of classical learning culminate in performative situations. The second project strand, ‘Classicising learning and the literatus – ethics, emotions, mimesis’, places the individual literatus centre-stage and looks at the role of learning and memorising classicising texts in the ethical and emotional configuration of a Byzantine and Tang/Song learned subject, ultimately empowering literati to withdraw from the pressures of the imperial system.

PAIXUE’s key objectives are to
— within comparative empire studies, explore the heuristic, analytic, descriptive and paradigmatic potential of classicising learning in the longue durée as a distinctive lens;
— analyse the function of performative situations in the maintenance of empire and elite interaction, and the double-edged impact of classicising learning on empire;
— analyse the role of classicising learning in the formation of literati subjectivity across cultures, particularly its impact on ethics and emotions;
— demonstrate the utility of (meta-)prosopographical databases, social network analysis, and mapping for researching the historical sociology of Byzantium;
— build an online resource for the promising new field of comparative Sino-Byzantine studies;
— explore ways in which cross-cultural research in the humanities can be made more meaningful.

The project takes into account a core period that ranges, for the Byzantine empire, from late antiquity to c.1350 and, for China, from the Tang through the Song periods (618–1279), with a focus on the tenth through twelfth centuries.
The project team has started work on their respective research monographs and co-authored articles.
Project monographs explore the topics of classicising learning in the Byzantine imperial order with comparative glances at the Tang/Song; the role of emotions in medieval China; and the role of beauty in classicising Byzantine discourse. Additionally, two PhD theses comparatively approach female rule in Byzantium and China and its reliance on literati, and non-aristocratic/literati resistance to imperial power.
PAIXUE’s co-authored articles introduce classicising learning through the lens of (changing) reading and commentary practices; offer a case study on the eleventh century in order to test the analytical value of structural convergences and divergences, and to better understand the dynamics behind them; and explore gardens and the pleasures and virtues associated with them in Komnenian Byzantium and Song China.

The PAIXUE team has thus far hosted two of its anticipated series of three major conferences. The first – ‘Comparative Approaches to the Chinese and Byzantine Imperial Orders’ (May 2019) – brought together eight pairs of Byzantinists and Sinologists to discuss various aspects of classicising learning and empire. The second conference – ‘Classicising Learning, Performance, and Power: Eurasian Perspectives from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period’ (December 2019) – additionally included classicists, medievalists, Islamicists and scholars of legal history, and featured over 30 speakers who explored the role of classicising learning in their respective cultures of expertise.

The team is also making good progress on the Database of Byzantine Literati (DBL), the first-ever attempt to grasp core actors among Byzantine literati systematically/quantitatively. This database draws on existing prosopographies and puts sociological approaches to classicising learning in Byzantium on firmer grounding. Searchable factors recorded include: region of family origins, place of birth, social background and mobility; number and relative position amongst (educated) brothers/kinsmen; patronage relations; attested/presumed performances in ‘rhetorical theatra’, and career postings across the empire.
The recent move towards global and comparative history has resulted in growing interest in Axial Age studies and its medieval sibling, Eurasian transformations, as well as new work on empires in the longue-durée. It is also reflected in recent projects on the ‘global’ middle ages. Eisenstadt’s pioneering comparative study of imperial systems (1963) now finds company in a number of synoptic, rather than comparative, handbooks on empires, or aspects of imperial states, of varying geographical and chronological scope. All of these take a comprehensive approach to the polities and societies of pre-modern Eurasia, and sometimes beyond, but for want of an alternative tend to juxtapose chapters written by experts in their respective fields.

PAIXUE, by contrast, consciously limits itself to an in-depth comparison of two imperial systems, focusing on one seminal feature and its ramifications in both. Such structural-comparative approaches have also been gaining momentum in recent years, in studies focusing on the Roman and Han empires, ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy and science, and ancient literature. Yet there has been no attempt to analyse any aspect of medieval Byzantine or Chinese cultures systematically and in-depth from a cross-cultural vantage point.

PAIXUE has thus entered literally uncharted territory and is in the process of unlocking considerable potential utility for Byzantinists, Sinologists, classicists, and medievalists, as well as for intellectual historians, comparative historians, and historians of empire. It propels scholarship on learning and empire in both Byzantine studies and Sinology, and closes existing gaps. At the same time, it fosters a new field of Sino-Byzantine studies and raises novel questions by exploring structurally analogous mechanisms of centralised empire in the formation of institutions, practices, and values. It promotes innovative ways of cooperation in the humanities, such as publications co-authored across the two disciplines, and the creation of a project database that will provide Byzantinists with advanced research tools on the sociology of paideia and a quantitative/‘typological’ survey of imperial performance culture to facilitate further qualitative analysis.