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HIST4600JM Topic Studies in Comparative History: Medieval Superpowers: Byzantium and China in Comparative Perspective

Semester 2 (2020-2021)

Lecture TimeWednesday 10:30am–12:15pm

VenueOnline via Zoom (until further notice)


Lecturer James MORTON ((852) 3943 1531 /

Teaching Assistant ZHANG Zhao (

Course Description


What was it like to live in the superpower countries of the medieval world? How did states exert strength and wield influence without the benefit of modern industry and technology? Historians have become increasingly interested in exploring these questions through comparative studies of pre-modern empires. In this course, we will focus the medieval Byzantine and Chinese Empires in c. 600–1300, which offer fertile ground for comparative historical studies.

Despite the many differences between Byzantium and China, the two had much in common: centralised bureaucratic governments, complex economies, rich artistic and literary cultures, the belief that their emperors had a divine mandate to rule the world, and more. Both inherited complicated bodies of tradition from ancient predecessors and both succumbed to foreign invasion in the 13th century. The course will take a thematic approach to the similarities and differences between the Byzantine and Chinese Empires over this period, focusing on a new subject every week. Instead of a traditional lecture format, we will meet in seminars to discuss each week’s topic, emphasising active participation and lively debate.

Learning Goals

This course has three main goals:

  1. To introduce you to the major characteristics of the medieval Byzantine and Chinese Empires in the period c. 600–1300.
  2. To explore the aims and methods of comparative history, applying them to the specific cases of medieval Byzantium and China.
  3. To help you develop the fundamental skillset and sensibility of a historian: how to understand scholarly debates, how to think critically about historical narratives, and how to effectively communicate your analysis to others.

Need Help?

It’s ok to ask for it! I understand that you may not have studied this subject before. If you have any difficulties with the readings, assignments, discussions, or any other aspects of the course, let me know and I will be happy to help you – that is what I am here for. You should feel free to email me and I will answer any questions that you have. Also, if you have a question during a seminar or tutorial, go ahead and ask me there and then; other students in the class may have the same question and you might be helping them too!

Teaching Mode

This class is officially ‘mixed-mode’, which means that we can use a combination of online teaching over Zoom and in-person teaching. Owing to the recent resurgence of COVID-19 in Hong Kong, we will hold the class entirely over Zoom for the first three weeks of the semester. I will review the situation in Week 3 and discuss the possibility of reverting to in-person classroom teaching with you. Zoom login details are available on the course Blackboard site.

Attendance and Absences

You are expected to attend all seminars and tutorials. This will comprise 10% of your overall course grade. If you have a valid reason for being absent from a seminar or tutorial (such as a doctor’s appointment, a family emergency, or similar), please contact me as soon as possible to ask for permission.


Course Schedule

13 Jan

1. Introduction: Byzantium and China in the Middle Ages

Philippa Levine, ‘Is Comparative History Possible?’ History and Theory 53.3 (2014): 331–347.

Averil Cameron, ‘Thinking with Byzantium,’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 21 (2011): 39–57.

20 Jan

2. Ethnicity and Identity

Anthony Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition (Cambridge, 2007), 42–81.

Marc S. Abramson, Ethnic Identity in Tang China (Philadelphia, 2007), 1–17.

27 Jan

3. Religion and Ideology

OHBS 11.1, 4–5: ‘Structures and Administration’, ‘Liturgy’, ‘Monasticism and Monasteries’ (pp. 571–581, 599–619).

CHC 5.2.8: ‘Sung Society and Social Change’ (pp. 595–621).

3 Feb

4. Land, Wealth, and Power

SHB 6: ‘Land and Power in the Middle and Later Period’ (pp. 112–141).

CCE 3: ‘Warlords and Monopolists’ (pp. 58–84).

Tutorial 1 (Weeks 1–3)

10 Feb

5. Government and Administration

 OHBS 9.2, 10.1: ‘Bureaucracy and Aristocracies’, ‘Structures and Administration’ (pp. 518–526,  539–552).

 CHC 5.2.1: ‘Sung Government and Politics’ (pp. 19–32, 49–80).

17 Feb

Lunar New Year Vacation – No Class!

24 Feb

6. War and Violence

OHBS 8, 10.2–3: ‘Military Technology and Warfare’, ‘The Army’, ‘Revenues and Expenditure’ (pp. 473–480, 554–569).

CHC 5.2.3: ‘A History of the Sung Military’ (pp. 214–249).

3 Mar

7. Law and Order

OHBS 14: ‘Justice: Legal Literature’ (pp. 691–697).

SHB 4: ‘The Social Function of the Law’ (pp. 76–90).

CHC 5.2.4: ‘Chinese Law and Legal System: Five Dynasties and Sung’ (pp. 250–285).

Tutorial 2 (Weeks 4–6)

10 Mar

8. Family and Society

OHBS 13.1–3: ‘The Role of Women’, ‘Families and Kinship’, ‘Patronage and Retinues’ (pp. 643–667).

SHB 3: ‘Family Structure and the Transmission of Property’ (pp. 51–74).

CCE 7: ‘Kinship’ (pp. 179–206).

17 Mar

9. Education and Culture

OHBS 17: ‘Language, Education, and Literacy’ (pp. 777–801, 820–825).

CHC 5.2.5: ‘Sung Education: Schools, Academies, and Examinations’ (pp. 286–320).

24 Mar

10. The Literary Arts

OHBS 18.1, 4–7: ‘Rhetoric’, ‘Hagiography’, ‘Homilies’, ‘Epistolography’, ‘Poetry and Romances’ (pp. 827–835, 862–905).

CCE 9: ‘Writing’ (pp. 241–271).

Tutorial 3 (Weeks 7–9)

31 Mar

Reading Week – No Class!

7 Apr

Reading Week – No Class!

14 Apr

11. The Visual Arts

OHBS 16.2, 4–6: ‘Art and Liturgy’, ‘Art and Iconoclasm’, ‘Icons’, ‘Art and the Periphery’ (pp. 731–739, 750–775).

Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China (Berkeley, CA, 2008), chs. 7–8: ‘The Sui and T’ang Dynasties’, ‘The Five Dynasties and the Sung Dynasy’ (122–193).

21 Apr

12. Decline and Fall?

OHBS 3d: ‘1204–1453’ (pp. 280–293).

CHC 6.1: ‘Introduction’ (pp. 1–42).

Tutorial 4 (Weeks 10–12)

10 May

Final Essay Due

Assessment & Assignments

Assessment Overview

Your performance in the course will be assessed on the cumulative basis of different types of assignment (described in more detail below) and your attendance. There will not be an exam or quiz component. The weighting of the different factors is as follows:

Final Essay                                  30%
Discussion Participation             20%
Reading Reflections                   20%
Topic Presentation                     20%
Attendance                                10%

Your final letter grade will be determined by your overall course percentage. You will not be graded on a curve. Grades will be assigned according to the following set thresholds:

A      90%                     C+  65%
A-     85%                     C    60%      
B+    80%                     C-   55%
B      75%                     D    50%
B-     70%                     F     >50%

Grade Descriptions

A                     Exceptional: Exceeds expectations. Demonstrates impressive knowledge, clarity, analytical ability, and a firm grasp of course material.

A-                    Strong: Has most of the qualities of A-grade work but has some minor areas for improvement.

B (+/-)             Good: Shows a solid understanding of course material. Has some flaws in writing or argumentation and may contain minor errors or misunderstandings.

C (+/-)             Satisfactory: Demonstrates an acceptable level of knowledge but suffers from lack of clarity, misunderstandings, historical errors, or weak argumentation.

D                     Unsatisfactory: Achieves the minimum passing grade but fails to meet most expectations of knowledge and argumentation.

F                      Failed: Does not meet basic expectations of knowledge, understanding, and/or timeliness in submission.

Reading Reflections

Before each class, you will complete the readings assigned for that week and then write a short reflection (max. 500 words) that you will submit by email before the beginning of the seminar. This reflection will be a sort of mini-essay in which you discuss the similarities and differences between Byzantium and China regarding that week’s particular topic. Your reflection should present a short, concrete argument for what you think is the most important similarity or difference and what you think it reveals about the nature of pre-modern empire in general. This should be an original piece of writing; you do not need to summarise the contents of the readings.

I will only ask you to write reading reflections for ten out of the twelve weeks of classes. This means that you get to skip two reading reflections; you can choose which ones.


Topic Presentation

Each class will begin with a topic presentation by a student or group of students to get the discussion started. This will constitute 20% of your overall course grade and every student will be expected to present once (no more, no less). Depending on the size of the class, you may be presenting alongside other students, in which case you should work together on your topic presentation as a team.

Topic presentations should be about 10–20 minutes. In your presentation, you should explain what you found most interesting about the week’s readings and why. I would also like you to pose at least five questions to the class that will help to get the discussion moving. If you want, you can supplement your presentation with a short PowerPoint slideshow or use other kinds of visual/audio accompaniment as appropriate. Feel free to get creative – remember, the goal is to spark the most interesting discussion that you can!

Final Essay

I will ask you to write a final essay (2,000–2,500 words) at the end of the semester, due on 10th May. This essay will require you to reflect on the major themes of the course and to develop your own argument or interpretation relating to the historical comparison between Byzantium and China in the Middle Ages. You will be free to choose your own topic and title, on two conditions:

  1. The essay must be a work of comparative history on the Byzantine and Chinese Empires in the period c. 600–1300.
  2. You must come to my open-door hours at least once before the end of Week 10 to discuss your idea for your final paper.

The essay should be written to academic standards with a central thesis, reference to relevant academic literature, and appropriate citations in footnotes. You are free to follow any accepted academic citation style such as Chicago, Harvard, or MLA. If you are not sure about how to write citations, I recommend looking at the Chicago Manual of Style quick citation guide:

If you have any questions about the final essay, let me know and I will be happy to answer.

Assignment Submission, Extensions, and Lateness Penalties

You will be expected to submit your final essay by 11:59pm on the specified date by uploading it to the relevant section of the Blackboard course website along with a signed declaration of academic honesty from VeriGuide.

Scheduling conflicts and unforeseen circumstances can sometimes make it difficult to meet deadlines. If you are unable to submit your work on time, please contact me as soon as possible and I will be happy to grant you an extension if you have a legitimate reason to require one.

If you fail to submit work on time and I have not granted you an extension, you will incur a daily lateness penalty of 1 percentage point. For example, if you submit your final essay (worth 30%) 3 days after the deadline, you will lose 3 of the 30% available; if you submit it 5 days late, you will lose 5 of the 30%, etc. I will not accept any further submissions after 7 days have passed unless I have granted special permission.


Tutorials and Participation

In addition to regular seminars, there will be a total of four tutorial sessions during the semester. These will serve as opportunities for broader discussion of the course’s themes. They will also be a chance to discuss course assignments (particularly the final essay) and for you to ask any questions that you might have. Remember that active participation in both seminar and tutorial discussions is expected and will be 20% of your overall course grade – so don’t be shy!


Course Readings

Each week you will be assigned approximately 50–60 pages of reading. Most of the readings will be drawn from the four books listed below, which contain a wide range of comparable articles by different subject experts:

CCE           Mark E. Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty (Cambridge, MA, 2009):



CHC           Denis C. Twitchett et al. (edd.) The Cambridge History of China (Cambridge, 1978–2019):



OHBS             E. Jeffreys et al. (edd.), The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies (Oxford, 2008):



SHB            J.F. Haldon, The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester, 2008):


There will also be some readings drawn from other sources; All the readings will be posted in advance on the Blackboard course site. You will not need to purchase or acquire any of the course materials yourself.


Plagiarism and Academic Ethics

Studying at the university level requires a high standard of professionalism and honesty in your academic work and personal conduct. This falls under the broad category of academic ethics, a matter that the History Department at CUHK takes very seriously. I expect you all to behave in an honest and respectful manner in class and in your assignments. Unethical behaviour, including plagiarism, will not be tolerated. You can find more information on university policy at

If you are unsure about the definition of plagiarism or academic ethics, feel free to ask me and I will be happy to discuss it with you in more detail.

Open-Door Hours

I make myself available every week from 2 to 5pm on Friday by Zoom so that anyone can speak to me about anything they want. If you would like to chat with me about any aspect of the course, your university studies, career development, favourite historical books and movies, or anything else, feel free to drop in and I will be happy to see you. I will provide Zoom log-in details for my open-door hours on the Blackboard course website.

Honesty in Academic Work

Attention is drawn to University policy and regulations on honesty in academic work, and to the disciplinary guidelines and procedures applicable to breaches of such policy and regulations. Details may be found at

With each assignment, students will be required to submit a signed declaration that they are aware of these policies, regulations, guidelines and procedures.

  • In the case of group projects, all members of the group should be asked to sign the declaration, each of whom is responsible and liable to disciplinary actions, irrespective of whether he/she has signed the declaration and whether he/she has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the problematic contents.
  • For assignments in the form of a computer-generated document that is principally text-based and submitted via VeriGuide, the statement, in the form of a receipt, will be issued by the system upon students’ uploading of the soft copy of the assignment.

Assignments without the properly signed declaration will not be graded by teachers.

Only the final version of the assignment should be submitted via VeriGuide.

The submission of a piece of work, or a part of a piece of work, for more than one purpose (e.g. to satisfy the requirements in two different courses) without declaration to this effect shall be regarded as having committed undeclared multiple submissions. It is common and acceptable to reuse a turn of phrase or a sentence or two from one’s own work; but wholesale reuse is problematic. In any case, agreement from the course teacher(s) concerned should be obtained prior to the submission of the piece of work.

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