‘Perhaps in no other country would an intellectual history of six centuries be simultaneously a political history, a history of social elites, and a study of literary values.’ This apt phrase, capturing Peter K. Bol’s approach to ‘This Culture of Ours’ from Tang to Song China (1992: v), applies to at least one other medieval polity: the Byzantine empire. Just like the Tang/Song and subsequent Chinese empires, this polity, whose political and cultural elites spoke and wrote (classicising) Greek but defined themselves as Roman down to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, revived classicising learning as the conditio sine qua non for participating in public and political discourse from c.800. PAIXUE will break new ground in studying, for the first time across vastly different cultures, the ramifications of these unrelated, yet structurally analogous, imperial and literati elite projects invested in classicising learning – known, respectively, as paideia (logoi) and xue .

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 written learning. Their distinctiveness in preserving classical traditions has been indirectly noted by Arnason and Wittrock (2004: 3), who observed that ‘with the partial exceptions of Byzantium and China, continuities linked to imperial traditions were of limited significance in the early second millennium’. Classicising paideia gained new life in Byzantium from the dialectics that characterised iconoclasm and its aftermath through the tenth to twelfth centuries and beyond, with important changes to the canon. In medieval China, it began with the promotion of guwen 古文, or ancient style prose, by the eighth-century thinkers, Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan, 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 revive the ways of the ancients. For present purposes, ‘classicising learning’ is defined as command of the Byzantine Atticising style (or sociolect; attikismos/attikizein/at­tikōs legein) and Chinese ancient style (guwen), as well as of the relevant, and continually evolving, canon of authoritative texts. It also involves the ability to employ both in public discourse, with those who carried such learning being known as pepaideumenoi or logioi and shi= literati, respectively.

Striking convergences point to ‘analogical investigations’ (Lloyd 2015: 2) shared by elites in both imperial systems. In both Byzantium and China systems of value developed that were based on the possession of classicising learning and that the second-tier service elite of pepaideumenoi and shi – who asserted themselves as arbiters of this learning – could appeal to as the basis of their cultural and political authority. Particularly during the eleventh century, in the wake of societal transformations prompted by demographic change, economic growth, and shifts in the constellations of power, the imperial courts’ interest in recruiting capable officials and concomitantly rising numbers of middling-class literati seeking career opportunities resulted in novel approaches to teaching and examining classicising learning, as well as in changes in the classical canon. In both, moreover, increasing strife and factionalism over ever-scarcer resources began undermining imperial authority, and, eventually, both systems suffered catastrophic failure with the Jurchen Jin conquest of Kaifeng in 1127 and the Crusader conquest of Constantinople in 1204. These events, in turn, had comparable consequences for the decentralisation of classicising learning in Laskarid and Palaiologan Byzantium, and in Southern Song China. However, such structural convergences must not eclipse the substantial, and equally instructive, divergences between Byzantium and China. Most basically, paideia and xue operated within specific contexts, and thus possessed distinct meanings and cultural significances. But there were other notable contrasts. To start with, there were vast differences in scale, both in terms of geographical space and the number of individuals involved in classicising learning – a difference that is further heightened by significant disparities in the amount of surviving sources, with the Chinese side being far better documented. Classicising learning in China underwent frequent transformations but remained uncontested as the legitimate social competence. In Byzantium, by contrast, it become integrated into the Christian empire over the period of long late antiquity and subsequently found itself mostly in synergy with Christian and church ideals (in the case of grammar and rhetoric), but still occasionally challenged by them (in the case of Neoplatonic philosophy), with paideia and church structures frequently overlapping from the eleventh century onwards until c.1350. Finally, Byzantium remained focused on oral performances/examinations and manuscript culture, while in China, written examinations and printed texts came to predominate from the Northern Song period onwards.

PAIXUE comparatively analyses two classical traditions of lasting cultural influence that sit uneasily alongside the still-dominant western European perspective, which too often perceives the later Latin middle ages and the Renaissance as the major connection to the ancient past and continues to invoke ‘Byzantinism’ as a pejorative term. The Chinese ‘mandarin’ possesses similar connotations and has become, tellingly, a stock comparison for Byzantine pepaideumenoi.