The Academy of the White Deer Cavern (Bailudong shuyuan 白鹿洞書院) was one of the greatest educational institutions (see academies) in premodern China. Its original purpose was to equip scholars and students with the necessary books and was therefore also known under the names Bailudong shutang 白鹿洞書堂, Bailu shuyuan 白鹿書院, or Zhu Huiweng shuyuan 朱晦翁書院 (Zhu Huiweng is another name of the philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹, 1130-1200). The remnants of this institution are to be found at the foot of Mt. Wulao 五老峰, one of the summits of Mt. Lushan 廬山 in the province of Jiangxi.
It was founded during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) by the brothers Li Bo 李渤 (773-831) and Li She 李涉, two hermits who founded a private library in the mountains. Li Bo's style was "Master of the White Deer" 白鹿先生, a designation from which the name of the academy is derived. The word "cavern" means the living place of the two hermits which was so remote that visitors might have the impression of entering the depths of a cave.
During the Changqing reign-period 長慶 (821-824) Li Bo was appointed regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of Jiangzhou 江州, a position that provided him with the funds to erect a new building for the library. In 937 he returned and founded a school, together with Li Shandao 李善道. His school, called Lushan guoxue 廬山國學 "State School of Mt. Lushan", was officially acknowledged as an educational institution and was thereupon bestowed the title of Bailudong guoxiang 白鹿洞國庠 "State School of the White Deer Cavern". The name Bailudong shuyuan was officially granted during the early Song period 宋 (960-1279), when the imperial court presented the school with a copy of the Nine Confucian Classics 九經. In 1053 Sun Chen 孫琛, ministerial director (langzhong 郎中) in the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部)visited the Academy and offered it the necessary funds to erect a building with ten lecturing rooms. A name board of the hall bore the inscription Bialudong zhi shutang 白鹿洞之書堂. The hall was destroyed in 1054 by war damage.
In 1179 the Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi was appointed military prefect (zhijun 知軍) of Nankang 南康. He used this chance to visit the Academy, and decided to rebuild the school, with the Shenglidian 聖禮殿 "Hall of the Sacred Rituals" as the main building. The whole new complex disposed of 360 rooms. The most important lateral buildings were called Yushuge 御書閣 (the library where the imperial gifts were stores), Mingluntang 明倫堂 "Hall of Enlightening Social Relationships", Zongrusi 宗儒祠 "Shrine of the Confucian Ancestors", Xianxianci 先賢祠 "Shrine of the Former Worthies" and Zhongjieci 忠節祠 "Shrine of the Loyal and Faithful". The Wenhuitang 文會堂 "Prose Session Hall" was adorned with a couplet verse written by Zhu Xi himself: Lu shi yu you, wu wo xiang wang zhi di; feng quan jiao ying, zhi ren du de zhi tian 鹿豕與游，物我相忘之地；峰泉交映，知仁獨得之天. Zhu Xi became the director of the Academy and started collecting a library and reviving the academic life. As educational supervisor of the school, also compiled the statutes of the Academy, the Bailudong shuyuan jieshi 白鹿洞書院揭示 (also called Bailudong xuegui 白鹿洞學規).
In the statutes it is said that the ancient saints desired studying in order to enlighten the patterns of propriety, not only for the cultivation of the self, but also to be transmitted to others. In Zhu Xi's academy the method of learning and teaching was different than today. The students studied the texts by themselves and only consulted their professors to discuss matters of doubt, to which they had occasion in lecturing sessions (jianghui 講會), prose sessions (wenhui 文會), or poetry sessions (shuihui 詩會). The White Deer Academy was not only the place where Zhu Xi was teaching Neo-Confucian theories, but it became the most important educational institution of China during the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279), and was later to be made a model academy for the whole empire. The Neo-Confucian scholar Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193), whose "School of the Mind" (xinxue 心學) later was seen as a competitor to Zhu Xi's "School of the Principle" (lixue 理學), also visited the White Deer Academy, where he served as a "visiting professor", and left his reader Bailudong shutang jiangyi 白鹿洞書堂講義. Zhu Xi wrote a preface for it, and had it incised into a stone slab. Under the directorship of Zhou Lei 周耜 the collected sayings of Zhu Xi, Zhuzi yulei 朱子語類, were compiled.
The most important students enrolled at the Academy were Hu Yong 胡泳, Cao Yanchun 曹彥純 (1157-1228) and Cao Yanyue 曹彥約 (1157-1228). Emperor Lizong 宋理宗 (r. 1224-1264) personally wrote a copy of the statutes Bailudong xuegui that he wanted to be used by all academies in the Song empire. In 1260 a general discussion on the principles of Neo-Confucianism was held by Chen Chunzu 陳淳祖 and Tao Yigui 陶一桂. Lü Zuqian 呂祖謙 (1137-1181) wrote a history of the Academy, Bailudong shuyuan ji 白鹿洞書院記, in which he called this institution one of the great four academies of the Song period (si da shuyuan 四大書院). The Academy was enlarged under the directorships of Zhu Zai 朱在 (1169-1239), Chen Mi 陳宓 (d. 1230), Yuan Fu 袁甫 and Chen Yanyou 陳炎酉. The most important professors during the late Southern Song period were Huang Gan 黃榦, Li Fan 李燔 (1156-1225), Chen Wenwei 陳文尉, Lin Kuisun 林夔孫, Zhang Qia 張洽, Tang Zhong 湯中, Fang Yue 方岳 (1199-1262), Nao Lu 饒魯 (1193-1264) and Chen Hao 陳澔 (1260-1341).
In 1351 the buildings burnt down during a military attack, and only in 1438 Zhai Pufu 翟溥福 (1381-1450), prefect of Nankang, began to reconstruct the school. From then on, a long list of famous professors instructed the students of the Academy: Hu Juren 胡居仁 (1434-1484), Cai Qing 蔡清 (1453-1508), Li Mengyang 李夢陽 (1472-1529), Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明, 1472-1529), Zhan Ruoshui 湛若水 (1466-1560), Xue Yingqi 薛應旗 (1500-1575, the founder of the Donglin School 東林學派), Wu Guolun 吳國倫 (1524-1593), Zou Shouyi 鄒守益 (1491-1562), Wang Dong 王棟 (1502-1581, the founder of the Taizhou School 泰州學派), Wang Ji 王畿 (1498-1583) and Zhao Canlu 趙參魯 (1537-1609).
In 1494, during the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), prefect Guo Xi 郭𤦘 had a gazetteer of the White Deer Academy printed, Bailudong shuyuan zhi 白鹿洞書院志. The last gazetteer was printed in 1720 by prefect Mao Deqi 毛德琦. Three years later vice education-intendant censor (tixue fushi 提學副使) Shao Bao 邵寶 had assembled all students and had printed them the Confucian Classics. This was the first time that the Academy disposed of a printing shop. In 1521 Wang Shouren visited the Academy, revised the Classics Daxue and Zhongyong and had them printed. Zhan Ruoshui had his books Xinxing tushuo 心性圖說, Siwu zongzhen 四勿總箴 and Xinxing zongzhen er tushuo 心性總箴二圖說 printed by the Academy.
During the early Wanli reign-period 萬曆 (1573-1619) Zhang Juzheng 張居正 (1525-1582) gave up the academy, but the shrine was preserved, in case that the school might be revived later, which happed in the late Wanli reign-period. At that instance, the curriculum of the Academy was adapted to the state examinations. In 1622 Li Yingsheng 李應升 (1593-1626) came as a visiting professor. He held weekly small lectures and monthly great lectures, to which students came from far away.
During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) the provincial and local governments took over the duty to preserve the institution and imposed new statutes for it, as an institution from which candidates for the state examinations were expected to graduate. 1682 new statutes, fixed by education-intendant censor (tixue 提學) Gao Huang 高璜, in which he clearly defined the responsibilities of the director (dongzhu 洞主), the vice instructor (fujiang 副講), the dean (tangzhang 堂長), the Classics director (jingzhang 經長), the educational director (xuezhang 學長), and the management staff, as well as the administrative structures and procedures of the institution.
In 1685 director Tang Laihe 湯來賀 (1607-1688) revised the statutes and incorporated seven paragraphs describing the way in which students had to undergo the process of learning. In 1687 the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 (r. 1661-1722) presented the Academy with a honorific plate with the inscription Xueda xingtian 學達性天 "Progess in learning to attain a Celestial character", as well as a lot of books to be registered in the library. Yuan Jing 原敬, who became director in 1712, was a rather conservative head of the Institution who went back to the old principles of Zhu Xi.
In 1736 the White Deer Academy was made a model school for all state-administrated academies of the empire. In 1744 another plate was presented by the emperor, with the inscription Zhu Si xin chuan 洙泗心傳 "Transmission of the heart between the Rivers Zhu and Si" (where Confucius had lived). Chen Hongmou 陳宏謀 (1696-1771), governor of Jiangxi, was visiting professor in 1745. He recommended to the director, Jing Daomo 靖道模, to enlarge the statutes by the Ludong xugui 鹿洞續規. Wei Ding 魏定, director in 1752, compiled the book Shengren baishi zhi shi 聖人百世之師, and wrote guidelines for learning, the book Lixue yueyan 勵學約言. In 1788 prefectural school instructor (xuezheng 學政) Wang Chang 王昶 (1724-1806) inspected the White Deer Academy and ordered the compilation of a general history of the imperial academies, the Tianxia shuyuan zongzhi 天下書院總志, with the intention to point at the educational problems in his time.
The Academy was during the Qing period headed by the famous scholars Xiong Weidian 熊維典, Tang Laihe, Wei Dingguo 魏定國 and Gu Zhen 顧鎮, and among the teaching staff, many famous Confucian scholars were to be found, like Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610-1695), Cha Shenxing 查慎行 (1650-1727), Yun Jing 惲敬 (1757-1817) or Hong Liangji 洪亮吉 (1746-1809). The buildings were destroyed during the Xianfeng reign-period 咸豐 (1851-1861), this time again by the impact of war. They was rebuilt during the Tongzhi reign-period 同治 (1862-1874). At the end of the Qing period it was transformed into a new type of state school, namely a forestry school with the name Jiangxi linye xuetang 江西林業學堂. The remains were in 1988 included among the national heritage of important buildings.