The Guangya Academy (Guangya shuyuan 廣雅書院) was one of the greatest newly found academies in the late Qing period. It was located northwest of Guangzhou 廣州 (Canton), Guangdong, and was founded in 1887 by Zhang Zhidong 張之洞, who was governor-general (zongdu 總督) of Liang-Guang 兩廣 at that time. Zhang Zhidong was one of the most prominent representants of the self-strenghening movement that tried to undergo structural reforms of the imperial state in order to meet the challenged posed by foreign imperialism. In Zhang Zhidong's eyes a gradual reform of the educational system was of greatest importance for the creation of a modern class of aspirants for administrative posts. In 1869 therefore, he founded the Jingxin Academy 經心書院 in Wuchang 武昌, Hebei, in 1873 the Zunjing Academy 尊經書院 in Chengdu 成都, Sichuan, and in 1882 the Lingde Academy 令德書院 in Taiyuan 太原, Shanxi. Yet the curricula of all these academies did not surpass the traditional frame of Confucian learning.
When he was governor (xunfu 巡撫) of Shanxi, Zhang Zhidong met the British missionary Timothy Richard (1845-1919) under whose influence he began to introduce Western learning (Xixue 西學) into the curricula of the academies he had founded. The Guangya Academy in Guangzhou was the first whose curriculum Zhang Zhidong personally drafted. He also personally chose the site where it was to be built, and supervised the whole organization of the institution.
In a memorial to the throne, as a literary text called Qing ban Guangya shuju bian'e zhe 請頒廣雅書院匾額折, he says that the objective of the curriculum was to preserve the Way of the Saint (shengdao 聖道, i. e. Confucius), and to connect antiquity with the present, in order to learn contemporary affairs (ming xi shi wu 明習時務), which can both be made useful as the backbone of the state (guojia zhengan 國家楨幹). At the same time, the students were to be educated in a way as to bring profit to their own hometowns and families. The curriculum of the Guangya Academy included studies on the Classics, history, philosophy (xingli 性理), statecraft (jingji 經濟) and writing. These were later reduced to the four majors Classics (jingxue 經學), to learn the great meaning; History (shixue 史學), to be able to connect the past with the present; Philosophy (lixue 理學), in order to discern the truth; and Literature (wenxue 文學), in order to express oneself in the right way. The discipline of Statecraft was part of the broader discipline of History. It also included geography.
The examinations were divided into official tests (guanke 官課) and institutional tests (zhaike 齋課). For the official tests, the students had to submit the collected results of the tests in all four majors that were submitted to the official Yamen of Eduation (zhujiang yamen 主講衙門), where the submitted tests were checked and then sent back to the Academy. The tests were then counter-checked, and a ranking of marks was established for each major separately. The mark was written on the test sheet. All examination were then again sent to the Yamen of Education that published the final results.
The results of the institutional examinations were assessed for each major separately. The procedures were similar for the official examinations, but the director of the academy collected the tests, appraised the results personally and established a list with the marks of all students of the academy.
The process of examination was thus very different from that of the traditional state examinations. Yet the conditions of time for the official tests were similar to those of the traditional examinations, namely an examination phase of three days. For the institutional examinations, there was no similar restriction, but for each of the majors, the length of the examination was at least two double-hours. This system was later copied by Liang Qichao 梁啟超 in his school Hunan shiwu xuetang 湖南時務學堂.
In the beginning it was very difficult for teachers and students to make themselves free of the traditional way of learning and the four traditional disciplines of Classics, History, Masters, and Belles-Lettres. It was only under the directorship of Zhu Yixin 朱一新 (1846-1894) that the new curriculum gained more acceptance and could be realized to Zhang Zhidong's satisfaction. Zhu Yixin had been a teacher at Ruan Yuan's Gujing jingshe Academy 詁經精舍 and had therefore a lot of experience with a novel style of instruction beyond the paths of traditional learning. He was of the opinion that the study of history was much more important than that of the Confucian Classics, and the closer history was, the more important is was, and the more useful was it to learn from history. Zhu also stressed that history was not only event history, but the intelligent scholar had to learn a lot about statecraft and the functioning of the administrative system. In order to strengthen China, the students of the Guangya Academy were to learn Western geography and their military affairs, but also mathematics and astronomy, chemistry, physics, the science of engineering and of agronomy. Zhu Yixin's discussions with his students about Western science are included in his book Wuxietang dawen 無邪堂答問. Other writings of members of the Academy are included in the collectanea Guangya shuju congshu 廣雅書局叢書.
The Guangya Academy was the most important and successful of all academic foundations of the Self-strengthening movement.