Article by Stephen Robinson
Shuyuan Men is an area of Xi’an located just inside of the South Gate, running along for a few hundred meters until eventually terminating close to the Forest of Steles near Wenchang Gate. This area is often visited by tourists, who come looking to pick up some trinkets or calligraphy – something to take home that looks like it has some cultural value. And, indeed, Shuyuan has become the home of some of Xi’an’s various artists, especially those that specialize in the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy.
For those that might be unaware, Chinese calligraphy or shufa is a time-honored traditions where Chinese characters are written out in flowing brush strokes. Anything from a single character to an epic poem may be written out in a variety of styles, from lightly ethereal to heavy, bold strokes. The ability to appreciate fine calligraphy is a sign of a cultured person, and many calligraphy masters are highly respected.
But how did this area of town come to host so many of the city’s artists? This comes in part, as with many places in Xian, from the history of the area itself. A shuyuan is an academy, specifically an academy where students would prepare for the Imperial Civil Service Exam, the primary method for selecting government officials in Imperial China. Begun in earnest during the Tang Dynasty, the Civil Service Exam became a path for the gentry to move into government service and help solidify power and wealth for their families for generations to come.
During the Ming Dynasty, the examination systems was expanded in scope, after being neglected during the Mongol-run Yuan Dynasty. The number of academies across the country was expanded, including an academy established in Xi’an, the Guangzhong Academy. Candidates would study the principals of Neo-Confucianism, along with a series of shixue or ‘practical learning’, such as mathematics, horseback riding, archery, and calligraphy.
Students, who often came from wealthy families or were the eldest sons of ‘middle class’ families who could afford the tuition and training, would live in the academy, training for several years until they were allowed to go sit the exams in the capital. Students would train rigorously under the strict tutelage of teachers, who would train them in the correct ways to write the infamous ‘eight-legged essay’, a rigidly structured essay that was heavily weighted in the exam.
The struggles of the students studying for the exam were heavy, and sometimes the students would give up, either returning to their families in shame or attempting to make a living without contacting their families, unable to face them. A vast majority would never make it to sit the exams.
In 1905, as the Qing Dynasty rapidly approached its end, the Civil Service Exam was abolished, leading to the closing of many of the academies across China. The students who had made it to the level of shengyuan retained some of their status, but a large majority of students were left with nothing.
As time went on, the area located near the Guangzhong Academy would be transformed into the tourist area that it is today. The shops selling artwork and calligraphy work well in juxtaposition to the Forest of Steles. As appreciation for classical Chinese cultural has grown in recent years, so has the reputation and prestige of the artists of Shuyuan Men. So, if you have the opportunity, spend an afternoon in the shops of this sleepy old street, and maybe take a slice of Chinese history home with you to appreciate.