The Academy of Yuelu Hill (Yuelu shuyuan 岳麓書院), located in Changsha 長沙, Hunan, was one of the oldest private educational institutions in China, and one of the four great academies of the Song period 宋 (960-1279) . It was founded during the early Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), on the place of a former Buddhist school directed by the monk Zhixuan 智璿. In 973 Zhu Dong 朱洞 was appointed governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Tanzhou 潭州. In this function he once visited the Daoist and Buddhist retreats at Baoheng Cave 抱黃洞 on Yuelu Hill. A certain Liu Ao 劉鼇 (fl. 976) suggested to him establishing an academy on the site of a former Buddhist school. Zhu Dong had first a five-room instruction hall (jiangtang 講堂) built, and lodges for the students, with 50 rooms for living and studying. The lodges were located as wings to the east and west of the Instruction Hall. This shape is preserved until today.
One of the next governors, Li Yun 李允 (Li Kuan 李寬), who was appointed in 999, continued with the construction work, and added a library building, a Ritual Hall (Lidian 禮殿) or Confucius Hall (Kongzitang 孔子堂), and had plastic sculptures of the Ten Wise Disciples (shizhe 十哲) of Confucius erected, as well as pictures of all the Master's 72 disciples. Li Yun also sought the support of the imperial court, and in 1001 the Song emperor presented the academy precious books of all kinds, especially commentaries to the Classics, historiographical books, and dictionaries. At that time the number of enrolled students was somewhat more than 60. The Academy imitated the structure of the three colleges (sanshe fa 三舍法) National University (taixue 太學), including the degree system.
In 1012 the Classics expert Zhou Shi 周式 was made director (shanzhang 山長) of the Academy, which from then on attracted more and more students. The number of students was fixed at more than a hundred. The Academy flourished during the Qiandao reign 乾道 (1165-1173) of the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279). One of the most important teachers at the Yuelu Academy was the Neo-Confucian master Zhang Shi 張栻 (1133-1180), who was opposed to the state examination system and preferred a private system of education for the creation of a pool of competent persons to be appointed for state offices. In his eyes, the most important characteristics to show competence was to perpetuate the Confucian way of politics by supporting the people. His most important students were Wu La 吳獵 (1130-1213), Zhao Fang 趙方 (d. 1222), You Jiuyan 遊九言 (1142-1206) and Chen Qi 陳琦. During the early Southern Song period, the Yuelu Academy was the most important institution of Neo-Confucian studies before the reinauguration of the White Deer Academy 白鹿洞書院 by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200). Even then, scholars like Zhen Dexiu 真德秀 (1178-1235) and Zhu Xi were deeply influenced by the teaching and learning model created in the Yuelu Academy. Zhu Xi visited the Academy and discussed with Zhang Shi the Classic Zhongyong 中庸 "Doctrine of the Mean". When Zhu Xi was pacification commissioner (anfushi 安撫使) of Hunan, he issued the educational instructions Zhuzi jiaotiao 朱子教條.
In 1131 the Academy was destroyed by marauding troops, but pacification commissioner Liu Gong 劉珙 (1122-1178) took care for the surviving of the school. During the Yuan 元 (1279-1368) and Ming 明 (1368-1644) periods the buildings of the Academy were several times destroyed by the impact of war. They were rebuilt, in 1494 by assistant prefect (tongpan 通判) Chen Gang 陳剛, in 1509 by prefect (zhizhou 知府) Wu Daoxing 吳道行, and in 1527 by the prefects Wang Bingliang 王秉良 (1473-1532) and Sun Cun 孫存, but the original shape was never reconstructed. The Academy was nonetheless an important place of teaching, and was therefore visited several times by Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明) and his disciple Wang Qiaoling 王喬齡. In 1509 Chen Lun 陳倫 compiled a local gazetteer for the Academy, the Yuelu shuyuan zhi 岳麓書院志. In 1530 the exhortations Jing yi zhen 敬一箴 and Chengzi si zhen 程子四箴 were published. Shortly before the downfall of the Ming dynasty, the famous philosopher Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-1692) was "visiting professor".
The Kangxi emperor 康熙 (r. 1662-1722) of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) revived the Academy, as an expression of his patronage of Neo-Confucianism. In 1687 the emperor presented the school with a personally written tablet with the inscription Xue da xing tian 學達性天, and with copies of the Thirteen Classics and the official dynastic histories. In 1744 the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (r. 1736-1795) bestowed the Academy a table with the inscription Dao nan zheng mai 道南正脈. From that time on the Yuelu Academy again experienced a time of prosperity. The number of lodges for the students were enlarged. Yet the Qing government tried to incorporate private academies into the state education system. The curriculum and research themes also changed from Neo-Confucianism to the philological study of ancient texts (the so-called Hanxue 漢學 "Han studies"), a topic that flourished during the Qianlong and Jiaqing 嘉慶 (1796-1820) reigns.
It was especially under the directorship of Wang Wenqing 王文清 that the studies of the Confucian Classics were enriched by those of the other "masters and philosopher", a teaching concept that was reverted by Luo Dian 羅典 (1719-1808) later. Governor Wu Rongguang 吳榮光 (1773-1843) had a new school near the Yuelu Academy built, the Xiangshui xiaojing tang 湘水校經堂, whose purpose was to intensify philological studies on the Confucian classics. A lot of concrete regulations and statutes were compiled during the Qing period, like Yuelu shuyuan xuegui 岳麓書院學規 by Li Wenzhao 李文炤 (1672-1735), or Yuelu shuyuan xuezhen jiu shou 岳麓書院學箴九首, Dujing liufa 讀經六法 and Dushi liufa 讀史六法 by Wang Wenqing 王文清. The library of the Yuelu shushe was extremely large. During the Tongzhi reign it includes more than 14,000 volumes. In 1898 these traditinal writings were enriched more than hundred volumes of "modern teaching" (xinxue 新學). The last director of the Academy was Wang Xianqian 王先謙 (1842-1918), a famous Confucian scholar of the late 19th century.
During the Qing period numerous important philosophers, thinkers, politicians and writers had been enrolled at the Yuelu Academy, like Wang Fuzhi, Tao Shu 陶樹, Wei Yuan 魏源 (1794-1857), Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠 (1812-1885), Hu Linyi 胡林翼 (1812-1861), Zeng Guofan 曾國藩 (1811-1872), Guo Songtao 郭嵩濤 (1818-1891), Li Yuandu 李元度 (1821-1887), Tang Caichang 唐才常 (1867-1900), Shen Jin 沈藎 (1872-1903) or Yang Changji 楊昌濟 (1871-1920). All of them came from the two southern provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi.
In 1903, with the educational reform of the Qing court, the Yuelu Academy was transformed into a public school, with the title of Hunan Gaodeng Xuetang 湖南高等學堂 "High School of Hunan Province", and later University of Hunan 湖南大學.