There has been documentary proof of an existence of a state-run highest education institute since the Western Zhou Dynasty called Tai Xue 太学, which evolved to become Guozijian 国子监 in Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD). Since then, every dynastic government had set up a Guozijian in their capitals.
About The Imperial College 国子监
Guo Zi Jian 国子监 (The Imperial College) in Beijing was the highest educational institution and administering organ of education set up by the state during the three dynasties of Yuan (1279–1368 AD), Ming (1368-1644 AD) and Qing (1636-1912 AD). Guo Zi Jian was founded in 1287, with extensive renovation and expansion during the Ming Dynasty, and addition of Bi Yong Hall in 1783.
It covers an area of some 27,000m2 with three courtyards. On the central axis, there are Ji Xian Gate 集贤门, Tai Xue (Imperial College) Gate 太学门, Glazed Memorial Arch 琉璃牌楼, Bi Yong Hall 辟雍殿, Yi Lun Hall 彝伦堂 and Jing Yi Pavilion 敬一亭. And on the sides of the main courtyard are six classrooms and two offices. And next to Jing Yi Pavilion are the offices of the principals and a foreign student hostel.
Ji Xian Gate 集贤门 (Main Gate)
Along the street (formerly known as Chengxian Street 成贤街, or “Street of Becoming Virtuous”) that is now named after the famous college are two arches that forms the side markers into the area where the Imperial College and Confucian Temple are situated. Also distinctive are two marble stele markets called 下马碑 to remind everyone to get off their horse as a form of respect to Confucius.
The main gate into the Guozijian is called Ji Xian Gate 集贤门, or “The Gate of Gathering Virtues”. Many students endured years of study to pass the final examinations called the Huishi 会试 to get here.
In the courtyard after entering, there were beds of roses, as if to remind everyone that the path to education success is not always a bed of roses.
On either corner of the carpark are two pavilions, Well Pavilion 井亭, that used to be the water wells that supplied the water for the college. The pavilions were built during the Ming Dynasty, and the water from the well were used for the moat around Bi Yong Hall. Today, the water is still used to fill the moat.
Tai Xue (Imperial College) Gate 太学门 (College Entrance)
Tai Xue 太学 had been the name for the highest educational institution in ancient China since Western Zhou Dynasty (1045-771 BC). Tai Xue Gate gives access to the main teaching area. This is the main entrance to the college. Only persons with official matters (lecturers, students and support staff) can enter.
Previously beside the gate were seven stone steles about student discipline and college regulations, including “The Imperial Edict” 《五朝上谕碑》in Ming Dynasty (still there); “Instructions to College Students” 《晓示生员卧碑》by Qing Emperor Shunzhi, which have been moved to the site of “Thirteen Confucian Classics” Steles 乾隆石径.
The stele was carved in Ming dynasty明成化三年（1467）, and inscfribed the imperial edicts of five emperors from the founding of Ming until then, total 99 years. The second edict written by the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was written in plain Chinese.
Glazed Memorial Arch 琉璃牌楼
Built in 1784 by Emperor Qianlong, the Glazed Memorial Arch 琉璃牌楼 is the only memorial arch in Beijing that is not part of a temple. The inscriptions “圜橋教澤” (front)、”學海節觀” (back) on the horizontal boards are in Emperor Qianlong’s calligraphy. “圜橋教澤” refers to the numerous students that graduated from the school; “學海節觀” was the metaphor for the sea of students listening the royal lectures from beyond the moat – you can see that our Emperor Qianlong was not a humble guy.
Another interesting trivial about this arch is that it does not have a threshold 门槛. It symbolises that education has no bar, anyone of any background can enter and study. The centre arch can only be used by the emperor or the Zhuangyuan 状元 or Top Scholar, showing the emphasis of education in the Chinese mentality.
Among all the items in Guozijian, there’s a very special item found right after the glazed arch. While most of the items are found in pair, this glazed ceramic dragon head-fish body sculpture is the only one. This creature is called Ao 鳌. A Chinese idiom that depicts “leaping into success” is “鱼跃龙门” or “fish jumping over the dragon’s gate. Many thought that the fish transformed into the dragon. It actually turned into an Ao. Hence, “独占鳌头” or “owning the single Ao’s head” means getting the first place.
Bi Yong Hall 辟雍殿 (Royal Lecture Hall)
Bi Yong Hall 辟雍殿 was built in the 49th year of Qianlong. Biyong 辟雍 was an ancient term for Taixue or Imperial College. The hall is surrounded by a round corridor and can only be accessed by exquisite marble bridges across the moat to connect the square hall and the courtyard. The architecture style is 天圆地方 or “Heaven is round, Earth is square”.
Since Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722 AD), every time the new emperor ascended the throne, he would come to Guozijian to give a lecture to show the central government’s attention to higher education. The drawing from the Palace Museum showed Emperor Yongzheng (r. 1722-1735 AD) came to gave a lecture on the 2nd Year of his reign 雍正二年（1724 AD）三月初一.
Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-1796 AD) gave his first lecture here in 1785, after the completion of the Biyong Hall. You can see what an extravagant and showoff Qianlong was.
While his father was a spendthrift and an excellent financier, Qianlong spared no expense to build his palaces and royal buildings. He left the country in a very bad shape financially to his son, Emperor Jiaqing (r. 1796-1820 AD). So it was so ironical to have him lectured his court officials amidst all these extravagance about the Four Books《四书》, which is all about prudence and perfecting oneself (中庸之道).
Yi Lun Hall 彝伦堂 (Main Lecture Hall)
Called Chong Wen Hall 崇文阁 in the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), this hall served as a college library. After it was rebuilt during Ming Emperor Yongle’s reign (r. 1403-1424 AD), the name was changed into Yi Lun Hall 彝伦堂. Before the Bi Yong Hall was built, the emperor delivered his lectures here (临雍讲学).
The inscriptions on the horizontal board above the door are in Qing Emperor Kangxi’s calligraphy. The raised courtyard in front of the hall was called the Lingtai 灵台 where students assembed for meetings or lectures.
A sundial was used as a timepiece in ancient China to indicate local time by the shadow cast by a central projecting pointer on a surrounding calibrated dial. This sundial was made in the Ming Dynasty; this is a common feature in all imperial palaces to keep time.
It is said that when the Bi Yong Hall was completed, Emperor Qianlong, during his personal visit there, thought this cypress resembled the silhouette of Liu Yong 刘墉, his prime minister who had been given the nickname “Luo Guo” 罗锅 (“hump”) because of his hunchback, gave the cypress the name Luo Guo Cypress 罗锅槐.
Jing Yi Pavilion 敬一亭
This is not a pavilion and currently not opened to public. It was used as a storage of stone steles which have since been moved to the special exhibition hall 乾隆 (十三经) 石径 between the Confucian Temple and Imperial College.
The Other Architecture Features
Besides the main axis, the Imperial College has many other architecture features to support the running of the highest administrative and governing education agency in the country. And it has to function as an institute of higher learning at the same time.
Six Halls 六堂 (Classrooms)
Six halls, three on each side, lined the east and west of the Bi Yong Hall. These halls were the classrooms for different lessons. In the modern day, these rooms have been repurposed to house exhibitions. On the west side are Guang Ye (“Industry”) Hall 广业堂, Zheng Yi (“Righteousness”) Hall 正义堂 and Xiu Dao (“Meditation”) Hall 修道堂. These halls are used for temporary exhibitions.
The east rooms that consist of Chong Zhi (“Ambition”) Hall 崇志堂, Cheng Xing (“Sincerity”) Hall 诚心堂 and Shuai Xing (“Spontaneity”) Hall 率性堂 are converted into permanent exhibitions for Exhibition of Chinese Imperial Examinations 金榜题名展 and Exhibition of the Imperial College 国子监原状陈列展.
Eastern Lecture Hall 东讲堂 (Principal’s Office)
Bo Shi Hall 博士厅 (Professors’ Office)
Bo Shi 博士 was the official title of a specialist in charge of the dissemination of learning, equivalent of the modern day Professor or Ph.D. In fact the Chinese noun for Doctorates is boshi. The hall is equivalent to the office of university professors today.
Famous scholars such as Yu Ji 虞集 (1272-1348, Yuan Literati), Yuan Zhongdao 袁中道 (1570-1626, Ming Politician/Author), Kong Shangren 孔尚任 (1648-1718, Confucius 64th Generation Grandson, famous Peking opera composer) had their offices here.
Disciplining Hall 绳愆厅
It housed the administrative organ in charge of admonishing and punishing faculty and students who violated discipline and rules.
碑亭 Stele Pavilions
Emperor Qianlong loved to house steles in these pavilions, especially his own inscriptions. So in the Imperial College, there’s no exception that one would find two pavilions on either side behind the glazed arch that contained his own writings.
The front inscription of the Western stele is the “Record of the Completion of the Water Surrounding Moat of Bi Yong Hall” 《国学新建辟雍环水工成碑记》in Manchurian. TheChinese version is on the front inscription of the Eastern stele.
鼓亭、钟亭 Drum and Bell Pavilions
Drum and bell were used as time keepers in Guozijian – Bell in the morning at 7am and drum at 5pm in the evening. All jiansheng 监生 (students in Guozijian) followed this strict timing everyday.
Closure of the Imperial College
In 1905, the Guozijian was shut down. During the 1898 reform of the Qing Dynasty, the education and administration of education functions of Guozijian was mainly replaced by the Imperial University of Peking, later known as Peking University. It went into disrepair until the Nationalist Government took over and used it as a Public Library.
About the Confucian Temple 孔庙 and Imperial College 国子监
Beijing Confucian Temple and the Imperial College are located at Guozijian street of Dongcheng District. They were built in Yuan Dynasty, with a long history of more then 700 years. Emperors of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties came here to pay the respects to the great thinker and sage, Confucius.
The Imperial College was the highest learning institution in ancient China. Most of the current buildings were built during the Ming Dynasty. It is the last Imperial College in China and the predecessor of Peking University. Today, these buildings are opened for public to learn how our forefathers study and gain academic success in imperial China.
The ticketing office is beside the main gate of the Confucian Temple. After buying the ticket, you may enter the Confucian Temple, and then continue the tour to the Imperial College through the Chijing Gate 持敬门 beside the Stele Pavilion 石径.
Opened daily between 8.30am – 4.30pm, except Mondays. Tickets must be bought through WeChat mini apps. Remember to bring your passport to visit.
Confucian Temple and Imperial College 孔庙 国子监
Guozijian Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing
Visited May 2023
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