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Ancient Chinese academies continue to affect Asian cultures

ZHANG CHUNLEI | 2019-05-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Deng Hongbo (Left) is a professor at Yuelu Academy at Hunan University and deputy director of the Research Center for Chinese Academies.
Chung Soon-Woo (Middle) is a professor of educational history at the Academy of Korean Studies.
Tsurunari Hisaaki (Right) is a professor at Fukuoka University of Education.


Ever since the Tang and Song dynasties, a type of school called shuyuan, or academies, have been crucial to the country in regard to such areas as education, scholarship, book collection, publishing and architecture. They also shaped folk customs, modes of thinking and ethical concepts. With the spread of Chinese culture, shuyuan have taken root in foreign countries and integrated Chinese civilization with local cultures. On this page, three scholars from China, South Korea and Japan talk about the distribution of shuyuan around the world and how they have evolved with the times, thus revealing the relationship between Chinese shuyuan and Asian civilization.


Could you please talk about the distribution of shuyuan around the world? What are the characteristics of the foreign shuyuan?
Deng Hongbo:
Many shuyuan are located in East Asia and Southeast Asia where Chinese characters and the Confucian culture have been influential. For example, the Korean Peninsula has established 903 shuyuan throughout history. There have been over 100 shuyuan in Japan. Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Italy and the United States are also home to some renowned shuyuan.

The establishment of shuyuan in East Asia and Southeast Asia can be attributed to the common root of traditional oriental culture. In the West, shuyuan are active and prominent, such as Great Qing Academy in San Francisco, the US and Complesso dei Cinesi in Naples, Italy, which is today’s University of Naples “L’Orientale.”

Like their counterparts in China, overseas shuyuan are a distinctive type of school, but they are different in many respects. For example, Korean shuyuan are devoted to holding sacrificial ceremonies to honor dead saints while Japanese shuyuan emphasize book publication. Some Western people construct shuyuan in their countries to serve the local Chinese who aim to learn Western culture. These Western institutions vary more greatly from shuyuan in regard to teaching content and approach, such as Complesso dei Cinesi in Naples, Italy.

Chung Soon-Woo: Shuyuan are a major form of private educational establishments that developed and promoted lixue (“learning of principle”), during the Joseon Dynasty. The rulers opened official-run schools in rural areas. Their educational activities existed only in name after the kingdom’s middle period. Shuyuan and their counterparts that provided elementary education became powerhouses for cultivating the Sarim, a powerful faction of literati that dominated middle and late Joseon politics. Ever since then, shuyuan have been rooted in the kingdom and integrated with the local culture.

Prior to modern times, Japan was greatly influenced by China, such as in its social mechanisms, cultural forms and educational system. It adopted the pattern of shuyuan in the Edo period. The country’s first academy was the Nakae Academy, a private school focusing on the teachings of Confucius, and its founder Nakae Tōju was a Japanese Confucian philosopher. In the second half of the Edo period, Japanese people had the greatest enthusiasm for Chinese learning, leading to an unprecedented scale of Confucian studies. Shuyuan greatly affected education in Japan.


How did the shuyuan in Japan and the Kingdom of Great Joseon evolve and adapt?
Deng Hongbo:
The introduction of shuyuan to foreign countries began in the Ming Dynasty, and that first took root in the Kingdom of Great Joseon where the shuyuan developed many new characteristics. First of all, the shuyuan in China were devoted to teaching while the shuyuan there, apart from teaching, focused even more on enshrining sages. Most ancient sages earned enshrinement in the Chinese shuyuan through their remarkable academic contributions, but the 1,300 sages enshrined in Korean shuyuan were outstanding people from all walks of life.

Korean shuyuan held a conservative academic attitude as they only taught the teachings of Chinese neo-Confucian Zhu Xi and his followers while rejecting the ideas of the Yangming School of Mind that were popular in China at that time. Shuyuan had the privileges of tax and military service exemption and owned a large number of hospitals and slaves. These factors led to the shuyuan’ prosperity, but also their abolishment.

Chung Soon-Woo: The Korean shuyuan have gone through several stages. The 16th century was a nascent period where the shuyuan enhanced their role as educational institutions and received strong support from the state. In terms of educational principles, all shuyuan followed the rules of the White Deer Grotto Academy, one of the Four Great Shuyuan of China. From the late 16th century into the middle years of the 17th century, the number of shuyuan grew to about 200 across the country, which gave birth to academic differentiation based on various philosophical schools.

From the late 17th century to the 18th century, many shuyuan were established merely to benefit from the favorable policies such as tax and military service exemption, causing multiple social problems. Thus, the government took drastic measures to ban shuyuan. In modern times, there was a period when shuyuan were criticized for being the battlefield of different factions. In the current era, the traditional ethics of Confucianism taught in ancient shuyuan is being interpreted in a new way.

Tsurunari Hisaaki: In the Edo period, the widespread Rules of the White Deer Grotto Academy was the biggest influence on the Japanese teaching system. In order to promote Edo neo-Confucianism, known in Japanese as Shushi-Gaku, the feudal Japanese military government Edo Bakufu encouraged all the students to learn Shushi-Gaku and follow it. Japan didn’t adopt the imperial examination system, so the purpose of learning placed a greater emphasis upon self-cultivating, and from this perspective, the Rules of the White Deer Grotto Academy was the best textbook. Today, some Japanese schools still teach the rules.


At present, which countries still have shuyuan?  How do they protect and operate these shuyuan?
Deng Hongbo:
Today, there are shuyuan in China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries. According to incomplete statistics, China has over 3,000 shuyuan, including newly established shuyuan, ancient shuyuan and online visual shuyuan. The current domestic scale is bigger than that of the Ming Dynasty. For further recognition and development, contemporary shuyuan should not withhold themselves from modern society. Instead, they need to explore social problems and propose solutions.

Chung Soon-Woo: Confucian culture is well preserved in South Korea. As of August 2011, there were 701 shuyuan on the Korean Peninsula (637 in South Korea and 64 in North Korea). All major universities are also conducting in-depth research on Confucianism, and a national research center on shuyuan has been established. Today, the sacrificial ceremonies paying tribute to saints, proposed by Confucianist scholars, are regularly held in each spring and autumn. Now, the shuyuan in South Korea are working hard to resume teaching activities. From the traditional perspective, holding sacrificial ceremonies for dead saints is the central function, but the focus is now shifting to lectures.

Tsurunari Hisaaki: Out of the shuyuan in Japan, the Nakae Academy is widely recognized for its significant historical and academic value, and it has been listed as a national historical site in accordance with the Japanese Cultural Asset Protection Act. In recent years, various fields in Japan have been seeking Japanese heritage to preserve and promote, such as a group of educational heritage sites. We hope East Asian countries will collaborate to protect the sites affected by the culture of the shuyuan. This is what we are trying to do.


Today, what contributions can shuyuan make to Asian cultures and global development?
Deng Hongbo:
Shuyuan are a treasure trove of oriental ideas that can provide experience for contemporary academic construction. Academic innovation, cultural inheritance and social responsibility are particularly worthy of attention. Academic innovation is key to supporting and spreading shuyuan. Cultural inheritance and social responsibility supply a vision that can steer academic innovation in the right direction, with equal attention to traditions and the current situation.

Chung Soon-Woo: In the era of information, the most profound challenge facing Korean education is the dehumanization of education. The shortcomings of schools call for a solution.
The Confucian scholars in shuyuan are wary about the abuse of education and learning. Education, in their opinion, is a process of teaching students how to find the path of discovering the true self and ultimately becoming a saint. Shuyuan are the best place to pursue this goal.

The self-cultivation theory advocated by shuyuan is an exploration of how to guide society toward the public good, which has an implication for modern education.

Tsurunari Hisaaki: The advantage of shuyuan we should carry forward today is the tradition of academic freedom and its primary learning approach called jiangxue (People in public explain their own perspectives on academic issues). In shuyuan, jiangxue is a learning method in which like-minded people voluntarily study together and learn from each other. It is of immense value as a form of traditional educational heritage bred by shuyuan and should be promoted in future education.

Today, Japan is increasingly interfering with higher education research institutions. Traditional Chinese shuyuan were private establishments that operated independently. If Japan can have more universities independent from the government budget, true academic freedom can be achieved.


This article was translated from Guangming Daily.


edited by MA YUHONG