When I think of Yuelu Academy — one of China’s oldest academic institutions — I think of peace, and the peaceful moment my Chinese husband, John, and I had there one afternoon. We strolled in and out of galleries and open-air courtyards, until we came upon a tiny courtyard nestled in a corner with a 100-year old Chinese privet. The privet rained its fragrance — from the tiny, yellow star-shaped flowers — all over the courtyard, filling the air with a rare sweetness on a sultry summer afternoon. I breathed it all in, feeling a sense of renewal, as if this was the very scent of inspiration.
Inspiration seems central to Yuelu Academy. Like all of China’s academies of classical learning (institutions where scholars could teach and study the Chinese classics), the planners for Yuelu chose a remote, picturesque setting for the academy, establishing its network of Chinese-style courtyards and open classrooms on the Eastern side of Yuelu Mountain beginning in 976. Such a place offered a quiet, meditative environment conducive to the study of Confucian classics.
Today’s Yuelu Academy is tucked within a neighborhood surrounding the modern university that has continued its legacy — Hunan University. While the remoteness seems a memory, the picturesque quiet still remains, like the venerable trees blanketing the school grounds.
Even for the visitor, Yuelu Academy appears modest, perhaps reflective of the Confucian classics once taught behind its doors. It does not lure visitors with hyperbole about its greatness in the history of Chinese institutions of higher learning. Nor has it followed other academies to inflate its ticket prices (notably, Songyang Academy in Dengfeng charges 80 yuan per person, more than double the 30 yuan entrance fee at Yuelu). When you have over 1,000 years of history, and have birthed one of China’s most important universities, you needn’t be ostentatious. The result is a relaxing, more contemplative atmosphere — even with Chinese tour groups there — that offers a break from the overcommercialized chaos of many famous China sites.
Still, Yuelu Academy could be too sparing in some respects. For example, there are limited English translations for signage, and almost no English translations in the museum area, which introduces some of the famous scholars who taught there, such as Zhu Xi. I suspect the operators either decided the museum would be of little interest to foreigners — or simply didn’t want to bother. Yet, learning the history of Yuelu Academy is fascinating, even to foreigners new to China, and helps the visitor understand why the greater Hunan area (historically referred to as the State of Chu, or 楚国) was praised for its ability to produce great talent.
The rest of the grounds include ancient classrooms, gardens, statues, a Confucian
temple, and even a spring (the culture spring, of course). Meander in and out of the courtyards at your own pace, stopping to toss a coin in the spring, or smell a privet flower, or pause at a bridge. You might, as I did, catch a glimpse of the next generation of scholars — such as a young undergraduate reciting English phrases out loud behind the academy.
Yuelu Mountain (300 meters — or over 900 feet — above sea level) sits right behind the academy, perfect for a breezy stroll on any of its winding pathways up and down the hill. Yuelu Mountain is like an extension of the academy, offering an even more remote, natural place to ponder the weightier things in life, all under an endless, green canopy of trees. Even when the mountain is packed with visitors, it’s hard to feel overwhelmed.
Take some time to enjoy some of the mountain’s highlights. Aiwan Pavilion (爱晚亭) is one of China’s most famous pavilions, and where Chairman Mao also used to spend summer evenings as a young scholar. Lushan Temple (簏山寺), a Buddhist temple with a dazzling and unusual facade, has a history going back to 268 (though the current structure was rebuilt in the 1980s). And there are many more small attractions dotting the area, from the Taoist Yunlu Palace (云麓宫) to the tombs of famous scholars such as Cai E (蔡锷). Sometimes, the highlight is simply the view of Changsha, the sound of a bird singing in the woods, or even the chance to see a couple of monks play badminton.
If you’d like to linger on the mountain over dinner, consider dining at the vegetarian restaurant on the mountainside, called Lushan Temple Vegetarian Restaurant (簏山寺素茗). The food is average (stick to the home-cooked vegetables and humble favorites, such as tofu — and avoid the fancier, faux-meat), but the chance to enjoy the view, fresh air and quiet truly satisfies.
Eventually, all mortals on Yuelu Mountain must descend back to reality. Ease your transition into Changsha by walking out through nearby Hunan University (湖南大学) — one of the few Chinese universities without gates. If you’re not sure how to go, ask one of the locals.
Months later, I happened upon the privet flowers I collected from Yuelu Academy, eternalized between the pages of my journal. I imagined that moment in the courtyard — the fragrant scent, the echoes of scholarship in those walls. Enlightening? Maybe. Enlightened travel experience? Definitely.
When to visit
Yuelu Academy (岳麓书院, located on Lushan Lu (麓山路), is open from 8am to 5pm daily (admission – 30 RMB, as of June 2009). Spring and Autumn are the best times to come for moderate, comfortable outdoor weather at Yuelu Academy and Yuelu Mountain. Summer is another option — while you should expect some brutal heat, the trees around the academy and on the mountain provide cooling relief.
By Plane: Changsha International Airport offers easy access to the city. You can either take a bus into town (~15 RMB per person) and then get a taxi to the academy, or simply take a taxi directly to your destination.
By Train: Changsha is on a number of important routes, including Guangzhou-Beijing, Beijing-Guilin-Kunming, and Guangzhou-Xi’an-Lanzhou. There are also daily trains to Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Where to stay
We stayed at Daronghe Holiday Hotel (大蓉和假日酒店, 0731-888-1888), at 188 Furong Zhong Lu, Section 2, Changsha (长沙市芙蓉中路二段188号), nestled in the Helong Stadium (和龙体育馆). The rooms are very modern, clean, and include all local and long distance charges in the room fees. Rooms start at around 200 RMB/night, and there’s a Carrefour nearby.
This hotel is currently not on Ctrip, so if you want to book, try calling them. Otherwise, find more hotels by booking — online, as I did — at Ctrip.com (no deposit needed, and you can cancel easily, if necessary).
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.
To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.