Confucian Academies in East Asia

International Workshop organized by project C09 “Knowledge Transfer in the Context of Differentiation and Institutionalization in 16th and 17th-century Korea“ (Head: Eun-Jeung Lee), 4–6 May 2017


Empty and abandoned Sungyang Academy in Kaesŏng (North Korea). 1957.

Empty and abandoned Sungyang Academy in Kaesŏng (North Korea). 1957.

Conference Report by Vladimir Glomb, Martin Gehlmann

Confucian Academies are probably the least known part of the Confucian intellectual world, which has dominated Far Eastern countries until the coming of modernity. Being closely bound to scholarly efforts of self-cultivation and vigorous study of Confucian teaching, academies ceased to function in their traditional sense at the end of the 19th century and for most of the twentieth century were seen only as cultural relics or worse as representatives of the oppressive feudal order. Renewed interest in Confucian heritage in the last two decades brought a new impetus for various studies focusing on intellectual, religious, economic, and social functions of the academies within premodern society. Research activities within the field have been revived through the advance of disciplines related to studies of Confucian academies and the opening of many archive materials to public research. Due to sensitive political situation in the region (many countries still remain divided, as in the case of China and Korea) research activities have been and still are troubled by a lack of coordinated cross-border cooperation. The conference was a first attempt on an international level to overcome these obstacles and share materials and methodological insights between scholars from various countries and disciplines.

The search for a valid definition of Confucian academies applicable for diverse local societies and historical periods requires a broader understanding of Confucian academies as a dynamic concept evolving over time both in terms of form and context. The transfer of knowledge was proposed as a suitable concept to outline the comprehensive study of Confucian academies; this approach covers both processes of epistemic change related to academies and historical transformations of this specific institution.

The conference took, in this sense, two directions in tracing of knowledge transfer via Confucian academies. First it focused on understanding of Confucian academies as the concept which was, since its first introduction in Tang-China, successfully disseminated, transformed and adapted in all countries of the region. In the second sense, the knowledge transfer focus enabled us to identify the major role of these Confucian knowledge institutions in the intellectual life of Asian societies in terms of academies educational curriculum, book production, support of philosophical schools, or interaction between scholars and the local society.

Searching for a working definition of Confucian Academies we face a crucial dilemma: None of the basic dichotomies defining Confucian academies during their beginning in Tang-China (private-education vs. state schools, self-cultivation in contrast to official examinations, orthodox Confucianism opposing other religious and intellectual currents, independent scholarship in contrast to conservative elites) survived the centuries of transformation in various geographical and historical environments unshaken. The diversity and multiplicity, yet all unified under the label of Confucian academies, became the leitmotif of the conference and the necessary step for establishment of critical discourse related to new resources, but also new interests in the study of the academies.

The introductory lecture by Linda Walton described the changing destinies of Songyang academy, one of the four great academies of the Northern Song-Dynasty. Tracing its history from beginnings until contemporary times, she demonstrated how the meaning of the academy site transformed over time under the influence of religious, intellectual, political, social, and economic forces. Forming an important part of the sacred landscape of Songyang Mountain the academy successively served as bulwark against Buddhist influence, site of literati pilgrimages or in recent times as part of a UNESCO natural-cultural heritage site. In this aspect, it documents well the how Confucian academies formed the physical hallmarks of Confucian landscape and stood as a symbol of Confucian appropriation and influence in the area. Confucian academies were in this sense shaping both the physical and intellectual landscapes and distinguished themselves as a Confucian counterbalance to the competing institutions of other religious or intellectual currents (Buddhist monasteries, Daoist temples).

In the dichotomy within the two basic principles of administration of Chinese society – military (wu) and civil (wen) services – academies were always believed to clearly belong to the literary and intellectual side. Thomas H.C. Lee’s presentation demonstrated that this division was often blurred. His study of archery education in the Confucian academies proved the existence of more mundane aspects of Confucian training. Speaking on archery as an integral part of the classical six arts (together with rites, music, charioteering, calligraphy, mathematics) elaborated on the existence of archery ranges within educational institutions and discourse on the value of archery training in the formation of an ideal scholar.

Being stretched between the Far East and Southeast Asia, Vietnam is often neglected as a part of the Confucian culture. Yet Nguyen Tuan Cuong documented the existence of Confucian academies in Vietnam through the example of Phuc Giang academy. Being founded in the 18th century by scholar, official, and envoy Nguyen Huy Oanh (1713–1789), the academy presents a unique blend between Chinese academies that Nguyen Huy Oanh visited China, and domestic tradition, which were already part of the Vietnamese Confucian education.

Namba Yukio spoke on the structural similarities or difference of Japanese educational institutions in relation to the concept of academies on the eve of the Meiji-Reforms, introducing western educational models to Japan. He also provided insight into current developments of Confucian academies in Japan. Being himself involved in the founding of a “modern” Confucian academy, he spoke on the values and purposes of these institutions in contemporary society, consciously modeling them after historical examples.

Further insight to the problem of the academy concept in Japan was brought by Margaret Mehl with her presentation which offered a perspective on the relatively smooth transition, if not coexistence, between traditional learning, practiced in Japanese academies (juku) and the western knowledge, introduced during the period of modernization. The example of the two foremost propagators of the western music in Japan Isawa Shûji (1851–1917) and Shikama Totsuji (1853–1928) also reflects this transition, as they considered new, western, musical theories still in the context of classical, Chinese, convictions of music as an important part of government. In other words, Japanese academies had not capitulated in front of the influx of western learning but rather developed a broad range of accommodation strategies, how to transform their classical learning into new forms applicable in the modernized society.

Their very geographical location determined the nature of academies, for example academies from the northern parts of the Korean peninsula. The presentation of Chung Soon-woo offered a case study of Sungyang academy located nowadays in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The northern regions of the Korean peninsula were historically considered to be backward and not suitable for Confucian education. Yet in spite of widespread discrimination, local scholars founded numerous academies and shrines in order to demonstrate the opposite. Seriously hindered by the absence of free access to North Korean sources, research on academies in the DPRK is only rarely part of the debate in the field and should be given greater attention.

Martin Gehlmann studied the transmissions of the White Deer Grotto regulations from China to Korea through their display on wooden hanging boards within the lecture halls within the academies. Through its relation to Zhu Xi (1130–1200), the White Deer Grotto academy is considered as the model for the majority of later academies. Nevertheless, variations in the presentation of the regulations in the academies, including addition, alteration, and deletion, suggest that even such canonical texts were adapted to be suitable to individual circumstances.

In spite of the proclaimed adherence to the Zhu Xi academy model, which started the renaissance of the academies during the Song-Dynasty and served later as an example for both Chinese and Korean academies, interpretation of Zhu Xis legacy took various forms and resulted in remarkable diversity among the later academies. Hoyt Tillman elaborated on Zhu Xis contribution to the development of the academies and the practical appropriation of his legacy during later times.

The spread of Zhu Xi's model of the academy to Korea was subject of the presentation of Deng Hongbo. Focusing on the figures standing behind the founding of the first academy in 1543, he tried to detect motivations for the introduction of the academy model into Korean society. The situation surrounding the foundation of the first academy also raises the important question on the Korean awareness on the concept during previous centuries, when academies already existed in China but were not yet introduced to Korea.

The transformation of academies, especially in terms of their social background and role in relation to their students was described in the contribution of Steven Miles, who analyzed the place of academies within the urban environment of late Qing-times Guangzhou. Insight into teachers and students’ diaries, local gazetteers, and various less known sources reveal a vivid picture of students frequenting multiple academies striving for examination success and academy officials trying to keep the spirit of Confucian self-cultivation within the bustling city environment alive.

The process of dissemination of academies both in China and Korea was closely associated with the rise and fall of philosophical schools standing behind the individual academies. Li Xinrui explained ideological reasons beyond Korea’s acceptance of Zhu Xi’s model of the academy and profound neglect of alternative Chinese traditions, represented specifically by the Huxiang School (12th century).

The ideological proliferation of individual academies and their adherence to particular interpretations of the Confucian canon was well documented by Xiao Xiao, through the example of Zhan Ruoshui’s (1466–1560) Dake regulations, which represent an attempt to create academy rules following the teachings of Wang Yangming (1472–1529). Distancing himself from the concept of elite education and accenting the spontaneous nature of intellectual enlightenment, Zhan Ruoshui significantly changed the academic curriculum and turned attention of the students toward more introspective method of study.

The modern legacy of Confucian academies was highlighted by Park Kyeonghwan, who introduced institutional efforts to preserve academies’ heritage and tradition in the Andong region of the Republic of Korea. His contribution focused on the activities of the Advanced Center of Korean Studies, which is in charge of an educational program, research activities, and preservation of materials related to local academies.

Lee Byoung-hoon provided a case study of Oksan academy in South Korea with special focus on the publishing activities and related book culture. He also spoke on the management of the academy library keeping various records, financing of publications, activities, or distribution networks for academy publications. The Oksan academy in this sense stood at a crossroad of various spheres, publishing not only teaching materials and classics, but collected writings of individual scholars as well, by surprisingly utilizing a local dependent Buddhist monastery for these tasks.

The introduction of Confucian academies into Korea was a long and diverse process during which various scholars adapted the Song-times Chinese model to the Korean environment and their personal ideas. Vladimir Glomb analyzed the views of Yulgok Yi I (1536–1584) on the role of the academy in relation to local society (connecting the academy with community compact), the economic role of the institution establishing a communal granary under the academy management and defining the religious meaning of the academy via discussing the meaning of the academy shrine dedicated to local scholars. Another important aspect highlighting the position of academies between public and private education is to be found in the comparison of his teaching activities in his private scholar retreat with the concept of public education inside the academy.

The existence of the Confucian academies on the margins of the Chinese empire was described in Chien Ichings presentation and her study on the institutions located on Taiwan and adjacent islands. Through the description of the syncretic nature of Taiwanese academies and their proclivity to the cults of Wenchang deity and geomantic thought throughout the Kangxi (1661–1722) and Qianlong (1735–1796) reigns, she has shown the tendency of the local academies to a rather broad understanding of the Confucian pantheon and willingness of local society to enhance the success in the examinations via supernatural means.

The closing session, moderated by Eun-Jeung Lee, Martina Deuchler, and Marion Eggert, served as a starting point to draw conclusions from the conference and delineate possible ways for future cooperation within the field:

The conference presentations revealed several directions for both future research and planned publications on the topic. In the terms of transmission and dissemination of the original concept of Chinese academy, represented by Zhu Xi and his White Deer Grotto Academy, the conference discussions demonstrated the necessity to call into question linear models of transmission of the academies through a straightforward diachronic model of dissemination and adaption. The selective approach to the original Chinese model is best illustrated by several historical fissures through which we can see how, even though the Chinese model was known in other cultures (Vietnam, Japan, Korea), it was not adopted or it was not adopted in its original form.

The second most important conclusion or device for the better understanding of Confucian academies as drivers of epistemic change is the departure from the perspective of academies as social isolated institutions. In spite of the rhetoric stressing the nature of academies as a place of seclusion and intensive study separated from outer influences, academies played a significant performative role, both outwards and inwards. In fact they can be considered active participants of public discourse and created a crucial point between scholar, state and local community. Being a part of local communities they served primarily as a tool of the spread of Confucian influence and in many cases reshaped the adjacent environments, not only in intellectual, but also in social and economic terms. The same can be concluded as well for the inner workings of the academies: Apart of intellectual debate, academies strived to create the world on their own which would reshape its inhabitants via diverse strategies ranging from physical discipline to artistic expression embodied by buildings, calligraphies and the seasonality of life in the academy.

The conference succeeded in bringing together representative studies covering both the whole region of East Asia and almost the entire history of Confucian academies from the 12th century until contemporary times. The large amount of material, data, and insight provides us with unique opportunity to study the role and development of Confucian academies in a broader cultural context and to focus more on the heterogeneity of the concept of the Confucian academy in various countries and societies. The results of the conference will be published as a first comprehensive monograph on Confucian academies in East Asia.