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The Yuelu Academy and Hunan's Nineteenth-Century Turn Toward Statecraft

From: Late Imperial China
Volume 26, Number 1, June 2005
pp. 72-109 | 10.1353/late.2005.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Late Imperial China 26.1 (2005) 72-109

Daniel McMahon

Teacher [Luo Dian] established proper instruction. He charged his students to mould their natural inclinations, gird their moral resolve, and clearly act according to the circumstances of the times . . . [The Teacher said:] "Those who do not crave glory, profit, or advantage are to be encouraged, but not even a junzi can keep from wanting a good name. Craving a name makes one clear in investigation, pure in conduct, and enthusiastic in acts of humanity. Far worse is pretending to be a Sage in order to do harm to the world — or else, having no desire and thereby being placid and without plans. How can this conduct be relied on for national management and the peoples' livelihood?!" The Teacher used a middle path to curb many extremes of this type. Over the past thirty years the south of [Dongting] lake has seen successive generations of talent. These several hundred notables include men ranked first in the Metropolitan Examinations, those employed in and out of government office, as well as provincial graduates and tribute students of virtuous conduct and brilliant literary attainments. The flourishing of the [Yuelu] Academy is unprecedented!
—Yan Ruyi (1759–1826), Leyuan wenchao 4:4a–5b

In the eulogy above, a Hunan scholar praises Yuelu Academy Headmaster Luo Dian's (1717–1808) contribution to one of the most significant turns in this school's thousand-year history. Dating from the late eighteenth century, the Yuelu Academy—concerned with "national management" and its enervation by contemporary politics and scholarship—shifted its pedagogical focus towards reformist "statecraft" (jingshi) study, concurrently courting closer ties with provincial lineages and government. From this "middle path" emerged a network of nationally prominent alumni who embraced Luo Dian's political vision and guided the school's early nineteenth-century expansion. The patronage of Luo and his students shaped a Hunan climate in which "studies of substance and use" (you ti you yong zhi xue) became not just philosophically desirable, but feasible as a strategy for personal advancement.

As Philip Kuhn observes, the developments of the Yuelu Academy "played a major role in nineteenth-century history." The Qing government, rocked by mismanagement, malfeasance, and rebellion, turned to the traditional salve of "literati activism," yielding to regional elites enhanced authority to undertake administrative action. This "localist turn" empowered provincial literati interest, evidenced by the national emergence of scholars from Jiangnan (Changzhou School), Shaanxi (Guanxue Academy), and Guangdong (Xuehaitang). Of the local leaders that seized opportunities of political change, however, none did so more forcibly than those from Hunan. Historians note the dynamic "Hunan connection" that arose in the late Qing: a network of Yuelu-trained luminaries such as He Changling (1785–1848), Tao Zhu (1779–1839), Wei Yuan (1794–1856), Zeng Guofan (1811–72), Hu Linyi (1812–61), and Guo Songtao (1818–91). Hunanese scholar-officials made key contributions to the empire, ranging from White Lotus and Taiping pacification to post-Taiping reconstruction and anti-imperialist "self-strengthening."

The strong role of the Hunan elite in nineteenth-century imperial management had roots in Luo Dian's late eighteenth-century promotion of statecraft study and institutional revival. Locally, Yuelu Academy activity focused local Song Learning tradition, fostered regional pride, and encouraged links with provincial government. Nationally, it helped native sons attain specialized posts in the Qing bureaucracy. Subsequent education and networking contributed to an imperial niche for Hunanese activism, in evidence by the 1820s and at its zenith by the 1870s. School success galvanized the academy's position as a central node in a coalesced Hunan nexus of lineage ties, Neo-Confucian study, and literati relationships.

Yuelu Academy Historiography

The Yuelu Academy and its Shanhua (Changsha) environs have not lacked observers. As distant as the Tang dynasty, peripatetic poets such as Han Yu pondered Yuelu Mountain's scenic charm and colorful legends of Yu the Great. Following the establishment of the academy in 976, Song teachers and administrators, such as the famed School of Principle (lixue) philosopher Zhang Shi (Zhang Nanxian, 1133–80), further commented on the institution. Their writings endured and, by the Ming dynasty resurgence of the academy, were compiled in the 1514 Yuelu zhi...