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Centuries of Development
At the foot of Mt. Yuelu in Changsha, Hunan Province, is the site of the ancient Yuelu Academy. The educational institution, a gathering place for renowned Confucian figures and educators including Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Zhang Shi (1133-1180), has fostered influential Chinese thinkers and statesmen such as Huang Zongxi (1610-1695) and Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692) of the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Zeng Guofan (1811-1872) of the late Qing Dynasty, Yang Changji (1871-1920) from the Republic of China era (1912-1949), and most notably, Mao Zedong, a Marxist and one of the founders of New China, who studied under Yang Changji while there.
The ancient academy, founded in 976 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), is considered one of the most prestigious institutions of learning in Chinese history. In 1167, Zhu Xi and Zhang Shi launched a two-month academic exchange that drew a huge turnout. Their teaching gradually transformed into Huxiang School, a well-known branch of China’s Confucian philosophy. The academy reached its zenith during the Qing Dynasty when Confucians advocated the idea of “placing wisdom in state governance,” attaching greater importance to practical knowledge and skills in the sectors of politics, economics, science and technology, and military affairs.
What is an “academy” in the traditional Chinese sense? As defined in the History of Chinese Academies compiled by modern Chinese scholar Li Guojun, “An ‘academy’ refers to a special educational organization, mostly privately run or hosted, usually featuring a collection of books and a gathering place for lectures and discussions. They are considered loftier than traditional youth educational institutions.”
“As an independent organization for education not run by the state, an academy had to host services such as academic research, lectures, book collecting and publication, and sacrificial ceremonies to fund the operation of its school,” illustrates Professor Zhu Hanmin, former president of Yuelu Academy. “Many scholars mention them in the same breath as colleges and universities in Western countries. If they are considered comparable, Yuelu is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning on the planet. Of continuously operating colleges and universities in the world, only Morocco’s University of Al Qarawiyyin, founded in 859, is older.”
The first academy of classical learning was established during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Such academies reached their heyday during the Ming and Qing dynasties, when more than 2,000 could be found across the country. “Established by men of letters, Chinese academies inherited the educational and academic traditions of pre-Qin Confucianism while Western institutions of higher learning adopted traditions of the ancient Greeks, both ancient societies which contributed greatly to the development of the modern world,” remarks Zhu Hanmin. “In contrast with Western institutions’ sense of a ‘right’ to autonomy, traditional Chinese academies remained under the administrative power of the imperial authority. Consequently, most academies only trained students for imperial examinations, instead of academic research, during the Qing Dynasty, and almost all of them changed their institution status or shut down in the modern era.”