Guozijian, China’s Ancient Imperial College
“A chronicle of Guozijian made by imperial order” completed in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) recounts the daily life, studies and activities of Guozijian (Imperial College) students.
The street is over 700 years old, with a history that could be measured according to a human lifespan. The entrance of the street is a stone carving with this instruction, written in six languages: “Officials and others should dismount from their horses.” Hidden in this street are not only ancient buildings with unique architecture, but also mysterious stories that tell the world of this street's glorious past.
This ancient and tranquil street is now called Guozijian Street, named after the central government agency known as Guozijian (the Imperial College) built there. Hundreds of years earlier, the street was called Chengxian (“becoming sages”) Street, a name that marked the start of the street's history.
It was a day in 1633, the sixth year of Emperor Chongzhen's reign (1628–1644) in the Ming Dynasty. While out taking a walk, scholar Liu Dong (1593–1636) came across a peaceful street east of An'ding Gate in Beijing, and saw a scenic view. Chinese scholar trees were lined up along each side of the street, their branches and leaves so thick that they extended out and reached each other, forming a shield to block the scorching sun.
Four archways decorated with coloured paintings stood among the greenery, giving the street an air of antiquity. The street amazed Liu, a Jiangsu Province native. He had visited many streets, wide and narrow, since coming to Beijing more than a year earlier, but he had never seen anything as charming as this.
On that very night, under a dim flickering oil lamp, Liu made notes in a book he was writing: “I took a tour northeast of the capital, visiting a district named ‘Chongjiao' and a street named ‘Chengxian.' It is where Guozijian is located.”
The book Liu was writing was Dijing jingwulüe (“introduction to the scenic spots of Beijing”), published two years after his visit to Chengxian Street. It was very popular with the capital's residents due to its content.
Before long, thanks to Liu's easy and graceful style of writing, readers discovered the hidden beauty of Chengxian Street. After
this, Chengxian Street and the architecture of Guozijian became more widely known.
A 700-Year-old Shady Street
Chengxian Street's history can be traced back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), when Kublai Khan (reign: 1260–1295), the first emperor of the dynasty, set up an institution named Guozixue (“national institute of learning”) on this street in 1287.
As recorded in Yuanshi xuanju zhi (“history of the Yuan, a selected chronicle”), “Guozixue, in the North District was located in the east part of the capital. The one in the South District then turned into a local university.” The Guozixue in the South District was the top educational institution in the early Yuan Dynasty. But the one founded later in the North District took over the duties of education and educational administration, and was referred to as Guozijian. This institution was also known in earlier times as Taixue (“institute of great learning”).
The Chinese character jian means “administrative agency.” Another way to say it is “yamen,” which means “government office.” In 1306, Guozijian was founded to the west of the Confucian Temple, which was built four years earlier, embodying the tradition that “an educational institution should be set to the right of a temple.” During the Yuan, Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, Guozijian was the government's top educational institution and agency for educational administration.
According to Liu's book, “Chengxian Street, which runs east to west, is 669 metres long and 11 metres wide on average. Lush rows of Chinese scholar trees line both sides.” Chengxian Street has four well-preserved archways, one at each entrance of the street and one on each side of Guozijian's entrance.
The two archways of Guozijian were built as a symbol of veneration to the top educational institution of the country, so the words “Chengxian Street” were only inscribed on the boards hung on the archways at the street entrances. The two boards on the archways at Guozijian were marked with the name of the agency itself. Guozijian and the Confucian Temple formed a unity, following the principle that an educational institution should be to the right of a temple. In 1965, Beijing Municipality changed the names of some streets, and Chengxian Street was changed to Guozijian Street.
Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties paid close attention to Guozijian, the Imperial College. Their regular visits to the place for inspection and lectures gave it a mysterious touch and privileged imperial power. The Imperial College students were provided with comfortable living conditions, a pleasant campus and competitive faculty to guarantee educated study. In addition, the stable social environment, excellent administrative system at the Imperial College, and plentiful job opportunities allowed the students to take part in a wide range of social activities.
Qinding guozijian zhi (“a chronicle of Guozijian made by imperial order”), completed during the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1821– 1851) of the Qing Dynasty, recounts the living conditions, daily life, studies and activities outside class.
Historical records and documents from past dynasties always included Guozijian's history, starting with its establishment in the Western Jin Dynasty (265–316) and continuing on into the Qing Dynasty. The
“special chronicles” on the institute were usually titled Taixue zhi (“chronicle of the institute of great learning”) or Guozijian zhi (“chronicle of the imperial college”), and are valuable materials on ancient Chinese culture. The most popular record about Guozijian is “a chronicle of Guozijian—made by imperial order” compiled during the reign of Emperor Daoguang in the Qing Dynasty.
This chronicle records the history of Guozijian in Beijing during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as its layout, facilities and administrative system. It also describes lectures given by emperors, classic books, documents, inscriptions and tablets held by the institute, and its student body.
This chronicle is regarded as a classic of the chronicles of the Imperial College published in ancient China, for it covers a full range of contents classified with logic and order, demonstrated with ample illustrations, and presented in a unique style.
Since the start of the 21st century, Beijing Municipality has been developing and utilising its historical and cultural resources, and spent three years working on an extensive project to restore both Guozijian and the Confucian Temple.
By the end of 2007, Guozijian and the Confucian Temple had been revitalised and brought back to their former glory in the Ming and Qing dynasties. These two cultural relics together form a “historical and cultural site under state protection” and have the second largest gross floor area of all sites open to the public in Beijing, with the Forbidden City being the largest.
According to staff members, when they were repairing and studying the relics unearthed at this site, “a chronicle of Guozijian—made by imperial order” and other documents were essential to their work. For instance, the restoration plan of the Ryukyu Student Hall in the Guozijian building was designed in strict accordance with the detailed records of the original construction described in the chronicle. The plan also benefitted from a coloured architectural drawing of Guozijian and the Confucian Temple, which provided notes on the architectural layout and structure of the old Ryukyu Student Hall.
During the archaeological survey for the restoration of the east wing of Guozijian, staff found a stone tablet engraved with a list of students ranked by their academic scores. Measuring 1.6 metres high, 50 centimetres wide and 10 centimetres thick, the tablet is not massive, but its contents are weighty. At the top of the tablet, the subject line reading “A Tablet Made by Imperial Order Listing Students' Academic Scores at Taixue” was engraved in the seal script style, and the text below recording students' exam scores at the Shuaixing Tang (College for Guiding Human Nature) was written in regular script in smaller characters.
The stone tablet reflects the ancient system of fentang (“dividing by college”), which was mentioned in the chronicle and is similar to today's system of dividing students by year. It is physical evidence of the grading system used for students at the College for Guiding Human Nature, and is also a precious exhibit displayed in the newly-restored Guozijian.
The chronicle consists of 84 volumes and has a total of more than 800,000 characters. Regarded as a unique and invaluable document of ancient Chinese culture and Beijing's history and culture, this masterpiece includes illustrations that cover diverse contents. In particular, entries about imperial colleges, rites, music and tablets are illustrated with pictures.
During the 2007 restoration, some parts of Guozijian were painted in black, their original colour, a fact that was discovered after an illustration named Guozijian quantu (“architectural drawing of Guozijian”) was found in the chronicle. In the drawing, certain decorative pieces of the middle section of Guozijian were painted in black rather than in traditional vermillion red. Since Guozijian was the nation's highest educational institution during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, it followed the traditional Chinese architectural features of government agencies, which used black for decorative elements.
The Imperial College Revived
The chronicle is a treasure for research into the history of both Chinese education and Beijing. In 2008, the Beijing Confucian Temple and the Imperial College Museum were opened to the public. As one of the most valuable exhibits on display, this chronicle provides the public with knowledge about teaching, organisation, administration and regulations for students attending Guozijian back then.
Guozijian covers an area of 30,000 square metres. It has three courtyards and six halls, in the centre of which is Piyong Hall. Three halls that served as classrooms are on each side of Piyong Hall. The east wing and west wing were the offices for the President and Director of Studies, and at the back is Jingyi Pavilion, which was a storeroom for imperial edicts. This type of architectural design facilitated both educational and administrative functions of Guozijian.
The word piyong is an ancient word that indicates a hall, palace or temple building surrounded by water. In the Yuan and Ming dynasties, emperors gave their lectures in Yilun Hall, but Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1735–1796) of the Qing Dynasty adored ancient traditions and rituals, and he wanted his lectures to be held in an authentic piyong. Therefore, he issued an edict in 1783 to begin construction of Piyong Main Hall, which was concluded in
the winter of the following year.
The hall sits on a tall base and has a pyramidal roof with four double eaves. It is encircled by balustrades made of white marble and surrounded by water on all sides. The fountain in the pond looks like a dragon's head coming out of water, or, if looked at from above, a round flat piece of jade floating in water. Such a design is original but still befits ancient institutions.
Since Guozijian was the Imperial College, staff members who worked there were also granted official ranks and salaries by the imperial court. According to the nine-rank system exercised during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, both the Chinese and Manchu Presidents were of Rank Four, the Directors of Studies were of Rank Six, the Proctors were of Rank Seven, the Scholars of the Five Classics and the Instructors of the Six Colleges were all of Rank Seven, and the Instructors were of Rank Eight.
The two Presidents were the executive officials of Guozijian. The Directors of Studies served as their assistants in dealing with various affairs. The Disciplinary Office, headed by one Chinese and one Manchu proctor, was responsible for supervising the attendance and performance of instructors and students. It was also in charge of fiscal management and enforcingf disciplinary sanctions, and was the office with the most power. The Office of Scholars, headed by one Chinese and one Manchu scholar, directed the teaching of Imperial College students.
Since its establishment, Guozijian had been under the Ministry of Rites. In 1725, the position of Chancellor (the head of Guozijian) was set up to supervise the college's affairs. The post was normally assumed by officials at a high rank, of high prestige and with profound knowledge. The first Chancellor of Guozijian was Prince Yunli (1697–1743), the 17th son of Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1662–1723).
Grand Secretary Liu Yong ( 1719– 1804) and Ji Xiaolan ( 1724– 1805) were successors to this post. Creating this new position of Chancellor meant that Guozijian could be independent from the Ministry of Rites. The college took direct orders from emperors only, and with this change it gained a higher degree of autonomy and more space for development. The staff of Guozijian received an official annual salary from the imperial court.
The Imperial College students were called guozijiansheng or taixuesheng, a dream for most students. However, the Imperial College students didn't live a comfortable life. They had their basic living costs guaranteed by monthly subsidies earmarked for them by the imperial court, but they weren't financially comfortable, and had a heavy academic load. Students were placed into one of six colleges based on their academic performance.
Students had to take numerous tests and exams. The total score of their monthly tests, quarterly tests, midterm exams and final exams was taken as the criterion for the annual assessment of their academic performance. Those who didn't meet the standard would be sent down a grade or penalised.
The Disciplinary Office was the place that students wished they would never have to go, because it was where implements were used to punish students who paid no respect to their teachers, who were not studious and down- to- earth, or who talked arrogantly.
In 1905, the Qing government repealed the Imperial Examination System and terminated the services that Guozijian provided. Guozijian no longer had the role of being the nation's highest institute of learning, and those who made its history sparkle have gone forever, leaving behind only old streets to tell of the rise and fall of this part of ancient Chinese civilisation.
Guozijian is now a tourist attraction where visitors can have a glimpse of history through its cultural relics. Just before the National Higher Education Entrance Examination every year, people write down words of good wishes on finely-made wooden boards and tie them to the stone balustrades in front of Piyong Hall, wishing the candidates a promising future. This ritual began in ancient times and still continues today.
A copy of Qindingguozijianzhi (“a chronicle of Guozijian made by imperial order”)