The biographical genre xue'anti 學案體 or xue'an 學案, literally "scholarly cases", constitutes a "genealogical" description of various schools and branches of Confucian teaching, and includes not just biographies of the most important representatives, but also quotations of their most important teachings. In this construction, the genre is a merger of chronicle, biography, topic-related historiography (jishi benmo 紀事本末), and paradigmatic textbook (dianzhi 典志).
Each section (xue'an) or "case" of the Mingru xue'an begins with a table presenting an overview of the school concerned enumerating the representative teacher and his disciples. In this way, a kind of genealogy between different interpretative schools of Confucianism can be established. The chapter then presents short biographies, and the most important philosophical propositions, with commentary. These are explained in detail by – partially extensive – quotations from the master's teachings, either occasional statements (yanxinglu 言行錄) or writings (zhuzuolu 著作錄). In some cases, evaluations by contemporarians are added.
Huang Zongxi later compiled a similar book called Song-Yuan xue'an 宋元學案, which was revised by Quan Zuwang 全祖望 (1705-1755). It covers the evolvement of Confucian schools during the Song and Yuan periods. The philosophy of the 18th century, or the influential Jiangsu School (Wupai 吳派) and Anhui School (Wanpai 皖派, see Qian-Jia School Qian-Jia School 乾嘉學派) at least, is covered in Jiang Fan's 江藩 (1761-1831) book Guochao Hanxue shicheng ji 國朝漢學師承記. The youngest books of the genre are President Xu Shichang's 徐世昌 (1855-1939) Qingru xue'an 清儒學案, and Yang Xiangkui's 楊向奎 (1910-2000年) Qingru xue'an xinbian 清儒學案新編. Like many other genres, the xue'an-type biography also experienced condensed forms, as seen, for instance, in Tang Jian's 唐鑒 (1778-1861) book Guochao xue'an xiaoshi 國朝學案小識.
Precursors of "philosophical biographies" can be found in Zhuangzi 莊子 (ch. Tianxia 天下), Xunzi 荀子 (ch. Fei shi'erzi 非十二子), Hanfeizi 韓非子 (ch. Xianxue 顯學), the chapters Rulin 儒林, Rizhe 日者 or Guice 龜策 of the history book Shiji 史記, or the bibliographical chapters of the official dynastic histories. Brief narrations of the development of Confucian schools can be found in the Song-period book catalogues Junzhai dushu zhi 郡齋讀書志, Zhizhai shulu jieti 直齋書錄解題, and the bibliographical chapter Jingjikao 經籍考 in the encylopaedia Wenxian tongkao 文獻通考.
Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130-1200) Yi-Luo yuanyuan lu 伊洛淵源錄 has a similar intention and describes the development of Neo-Confucian schools. Focuses on individual teachers and their schools are found in Qian Mu's 錢穆 (1895-1990) Zhuzi xin xue'an 朱子新學案, on Zhu Xi from the Southern Song 南宋 (1127-1279), and Lu Fuchu's 陸復初 Wang Chuanshan xue'an 王船山學案, on Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明) from the Ming period. Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929), the famous early twentieth-century scholar, wrote a history of the philosophy of Mohism, Mozi xue'an 墨子學案, and Xiong Gongzhe 熊公哲 (1896-1990) one on the early Confucian master Xunzi, Xun Qing xue'an 荀卿學案.
Similar "genealogies" are to be found in Buddhist texts like Sengyou's 僧祐 (445-518) Chu sanzang jiji 出三藏記集, Zhisheng's 智升 (fl. 730) Kaiyuan shijiao lu 開元釋教錄, Puji's 普濟 (fl. 1252) Wudeng huiyuan 五燈會元, or Zhipan's 志磐 (fl. 1269) Fozu tongji 佛祖統紀. Liu Renhang's 劉仁航 (1884-1938) book Dongfang datong xue'an 東方大同學案 gives an overview of the development of the philosophical schools (see Hundred Schools) of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), but also describes the adoption by China of Buddhism and ideas of Christianity.
Liang Qichao, author of a book on the history of modern philosophy (Zhongguo jin sanbai nian xueshu shi 中國近三百年學術史), particularly praised the well-balanced descriptions of many different branches in the xue'an genre which did not prefer one school over the other. Huang Zongxi also referred to critics of lower standing in order to create an objective picture of each individual school. A third strength of the genre was, in Liang's eyes, the exact analysis of the geographical and notional origin of certain propositions.