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Shuyuan: A hallmark education of ancient Chinese academies

By Zhang Xiwei | 2015-03-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The pictured Yuelu Academy (Shuyuan) is one of the four most renowned institutions of higher learning in ancient China.


Shuyuan is a term that refers to academies of classical learning in ancient China. It originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), flourished during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1206-1368) dynasties, and endured into the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties. With a history of more than 1,000 years, the shuyuan was replaced in modern times by new types of academies and schools. Throughout its development, the shuyuan was committed to cultivating students’ virtues, nurturing their pragmatic spirit and driving innovation.

Diversified curriculum
As a typeof education of school and system, the shuyuan distinguished itself from state-run schools oriented towards the imperial examinations with its focus on quality education. Since the day it was brought into being, it progressively fostered unique modes of teaching and talent cultivation.

In ancient China, the teaching-and-learning educational pattern was closed and ossified. State-run schools were beyond doubt. Even in private schools, it was commonplace that the founders of various schools of thought recruited disciples and imparted knowledge privately. Teachers and students were in fixed master-disciple relationships.

These kinds of relationships often placed the teachers in such a sacred and authoritative position that they had no incentive for academic innovation or updating knowledge. On the other hand, the rigid learning mode inhibited new thoughts and doctrines and hindered normal academic development.

The shuyuan broke away from the constraints of state-run schools. It allowed tailored school-running policy, course design, and teaching approach and form. Classroom discussions were also practiced where students could raise questions and teachers offered explanations. Moreover, students had a great amount of time studying on their own in their dormitories or the library while exchanging ideas with their teachers or classmates.

However, teaching activities were not confined to the classroom or student dormitory. Offering sacrifices to late masters or sages and learning rites were also important. In the shuyuan, various measures were taken to enable teachers to bring their enlightening and instructional functions into play. Students were encouraged to learn by themselves and think independently.

The curriculum was also customized according to different conditions, but Confucian classics, historiography, literature, poetics and mathematics were normally indispensible.

In the Song Dynasty, the Five Classics, which comprise the Classics of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, Book of Changes (I Ching), and Spring and Autumn Annals, were commonly seen in the syllabus. After Zhu Xi, a prominent Confucian scholar in the Northern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), wrote commentaries for the Four Books (the Analects, Mencius, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean), the four volumes were more universally adopted in the course design. In the Yuan Dynasty, Zhu’s Commentaries of the Four Books was a required teaching material in the shuyuan.

Meanwhile, other subjects were also incorporated in the curriculum. For instance, the Lishan Academy in modern-day Heze, Shandong Province, taught medical science. Elsewhere in the province, students could learn calligraphy at the Boshan Academy in modern-day Zibo. Some academies even taught martial arts in the form of archery.

Practicality valued
The method of cultivating students and decision about what talents to produce depended on different policies among the shuyuan. State-run schools aimed to prepare students for the imperial examinations and select promising government officials. By contrast, the shuyuan laid emphasis on character building, academic development and knowledge imparting.


While vigorously promoting the development of the shuyuan, preeminent educators in all dynasties were unequivocal in their opposition to making the shuyuan a vanity fair and focusing on teaching content tested in the imperial examinations.

They advocated and carried forward the “education first” philosophy upheld by sages of the ancient times, sparing no efforts to equip student with statecraft.

Zhu strongly criticized official schools and the imperial examinations for luring scholars to pursue fame and fortune, stressing that the shuyuan should attach importance to character education and value integrity, self-discipline and self-cultivation.

The education rules formulated by Zhu was extensively carried out in the shuyuan and inherited by most academies of later generations, even exerting impact on the educational policy of state-run schools.

With moral education and solid learning topping the agenda of teaching, the shuyuan educated students to practice personally what they had learned while fostering a distinctive pragmatism-oriented academic atmosphere.

Dense academic ambience
In the Northern Song Dynasty, the “Three Worthies of the Southeast,” namely Zhu Xi, Zhang Shi and Lü Zuqian, enjoyed a high status in the academic community based on their teaching careers at the shuyuan.

Many academies inspired educators to promote the unity of knowing and doing, rigor and inclusiveness. Therefore, the shuyuan became an institution for academic exchange and a birthplace for varieties of schools of thought.

A host of schools of thought that came into being after the Song Dynasty were closely related to the shuyuan. In his Survey of the Schools of Thought in the Song and Yuan Dynasties, Huang Zongxi, an outstanding historian and educator in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, named many schools of thought directly after the shuyuan where they were formed.

The shuyuan also featured academic seminars and societies. Shuyuan seminars gathered scholars to discuss and debate over heated political and academic issues. For example, in 1167 in the Northern Song Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Xiaozong (1127-1194), Zhang, who was teaching at the Yuelu Academy, present-day Hunan University in Changsha, Hunan Province, invited Zhu to give lectures and exchange ideas with him, launching the famous “Yuelu Meeting” or “Zhu-Zhang Seminar” and bringing a breath of fresh academic air to the shuyuan.

The seminars encouraged different schools of thought to lecture and discuss in the shuyuan, therefore considerably upgrading the teaching level, enlivening academic atmosphere and injecting vigor into the development of the shuyuan.

Through academic societies, educators were mobilized to spread their academic ideas at the shuyuan. According to Huang, scholars Yang Jian, Shen Huan, Lü Zujian and Yuan Xie, who were serving at academies in Mingzhou, today’s Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, founded the “Four Mingzhou Scholar Society,” which not only enriched teaching activities of the shuyuan, but also boosted academic development.

When Zhu presided over the White Deer Grotto Academy he established, there was no academic society. Later, dozens of his disciples, such as Li Fan and Hu Yong, who were engaged in academic activities around the Mount Lu in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, met regularly to discuss what Zhu had taught them.

In addition, there were also literature and poetics societies that substantially advanced the traditional Chinese academic culture and contributed to bourgeoning the Chinese culture.

The history of the Chinese shuyuan indicates that when it prospered, Chinese culture also boomed. By virtue of its dense academic ambience, the shuyuan set academic trends of the times and played a significant role in cultural orientation, displaying salient features in academic research and cultural inheritance.

Emphasizing good virtues and traditional spirits of the Chinese nation, such as integrity, self-cultivation, pragmatism and academic innovativeness, the shuyuan culture has become an important component of the traditional Chinese culture and also made indelible contributions to carrying forward the excellent culture of the Chinese nation.

Zhang Xiwei is a professor from the School of History and Culture at Shandong University.