Shuyuan, or scholarly academies first appeared during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756) of the Tang dynasty (618–907). Academies originated in the libraries of private scholars and local government offices engaged in the sorting of ancient books and records; their emergence is tied to the rise of printing and the increased circulation of books. It was inevitable that scholars surrounded by books would undertake their own bibliographical activities such as collecting, cataloging, editing, writing, engraving, reading, teaching, research, creation, and dissemination.
From their origin in the Tang dynasty up until the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), there have been more than seven thousand academies during a time of more than one thousand years. In 1901 (the twenty-seventh year of Guangxu reign), an imperial edict was issued changing the term shuyuan (scholarly academy) to xuetang (school).
These private academies grew partly from scholars’ private studios. Unlike studios, however, they were open to the public—Ruist scholars, Daoist priests, and Buddhist monks were among the many who used the academies. Eventually, academies became public institutions. The official institution of the Tang dynasty, the Academy in the Hall of Elegance and Rectitude (Lizheng dian xiushuyuan), later renamed the Academy of Scholarly Worthies (Jixian dian shuyuan), had its origins as a place where ancient books and records were collated, cataloged, and published. The activities within the academy were entirely cultural and had no connection with political affairs; therefore, it was not considered an administrative agency of the government. There were many positions inside the academy; some of them were: scholar, auxiliary academician, academician expositor-in-waiting, compiler, subeditor, record keeper, auxiliary scribe, and copyist of imperial books, rubbing maker, scroll binder, and auxiliary functionary for making writing-brushes.
During the Tang dynasty and the Five Dynasties (907–960) period, there were only seventy academies recorded in China. By the Song dynasty (960–1279), they were highly valued institutions, numbering a little more than seven hundred. Academies developed differently during the two halves of the dynasty.
In the Northern Song (960–1127), academies strengthened education and teaching and were recognized and accepted by society as a type of school. They were best represented by the Four Great Academies: Songyang, Yuelu, Bailudong, and Suiyang. Academies in the Southern Song (1127–1279) prospered and were places where research and teaching occurred together. Renowned scholars, such as Zhang Shi (1133–1180), Zhu Xi (1130–1200), Lü Zuqian (1137–1181), and Lu Jiuyuan (1139–1193) all lectured at notable academies. Zhu Xi was particularly influential in shaping the role and purpose of the academy during this period. The principles laid down in his “Bailudong Academy Proclamation” were adopted throughout the empire and played an important role in shaping academies. Since then, academies have influenced Chinese scholars for generations.
The Four Academies of Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River) in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the academies in provincial capitals in the Qing dynasty, and local academies, each with their own characteristics, guided future development in China; they also revealed the interests and pursuits of the time, and embodied a cultural richness unique to themselves.
Scholarly academies were not only educational institutions, but cultural ones as well. Although, the three major undertakings of the academies—lecturing, collecting books, and holding sacrificial ceremonies—were greatly valued in the past, the focus was always placed on teaching. Academies were well positioned to provide education and undertake cultural research. While the collecting of books was an important cultural activity, the fact that students and teachers borrowed books is just as important as it promoted the circulation of texts and ideas.