Friday, November 03, 2006

Hanoi City Tour: Van Mieu - A History Lesson

Van Mieu is a temple built in 1070 to worship Chinese philosopher Confucius. Six years later, Quoc Tu Giam, literally "Temple of the King Who Distinguished Literature" was established to teach the doctrines of Confucius and his disciples to the elite. What exists today is a series of four courtyards that served as an entrance to the university. This entire temple complex is a fine example of classic Chinese architecture with Vietnamese influences.

Its layout and architecture is based on Confucius' birthplace at Qufu in the northeastern Chinese province of Shantung. It consists of five courtyards lined out in order, with the entrance to the first via the impressive twin tiered Van Mieu gate.

Entering through the gate leads to three pathways that run through the length of the complex. The middle road leads to the gate Dai Trung Mon - the beginning of the second courtyard with two small gates in both sides which served as separate entrances for the military and scholars.

Entrance to the third courtyard is through the dominating Khue Van Cac, a large pavilion built in 1802. Here scholars composed poems, appreciated music and drank wine.

Central to this courtyard is the Thienh Quang Tinh ("Well Of Heavenly Clarity"); either side of which stand two great halls which house the true treasures of the temple, the stone stelae.

In 1484, King Le Thanh Tong decreed the names of all those who have attained the doctoral ranks in the national examination triennial examinations held here at the Quoc Tu Giam, be inscribed on stone stelae carried on the backs of giant tortoises. Presently 82 stelae stand at Van Mieu on which are inscribed names and birth places of more than 1300 men who studied and graduated there.

Initialy reserved only for the princes and other elite members of society, the school later admitted sons of mandarins and finally commoners were allowed to attend but, only after they passed a rigorous examination at the regional level.

The fourth courtyard in bordered on either side by great pavilions which once contained altars to 72 of Confucius' greatest students but which now contain offices, a gift shop and a small museum which contains ink wells, pens, books and personal artifacts belonging to some of the students that have studied here through the years.

There are four sacred animals in Vietnamese culture. These four creatures are revered for their sacred powers and the blessings which they bestow upon their worshippers. One such sacred animal is the kylin, the Vietnamese unicorn, The kylin represents wisdom and is most prominent in scholarly institutions like the Quoc Tu Giam.

The dragon is a potent and ubiquitous presence in Vietnam, the most important of Vietnam’s four sacred animals. Unlike the fire breathing monster of Europe, the Vietnamese dragon is a benign guardian; the King who protects the people and is the embodiment of power and intelligence.

The phoenix is the Queen, the manifestation of beauty and peace. Phoenix are usually depicted as large elegant birds resembling storks. Always in pairs, a dominate male with spread wings and reaching neck, and a submissive female with head bowed, they are often found in temples, and are believed to bring good luck.

The tortoise or turtle is the symbol of longevity, and the protector of the kingdom. It is common for Vietnamese statues and carvings to have a stone tortoise as its base so that the sentiments or achievements expressed on whatever is standing on it will last for a long time.

The Chinese ruled Vietnam for a short period between 1407 and 1427. After this brief interregnum, the Vietnamese leader Le Loi rose to prominence. He endowed the univesity with a new library and lecture halls, and added a poetry composition section to the examinations.

Van Mieu existed for more than 700 years as a center for Confucian learning. Moreover, it is a powerful symbol for the Vietnamese, having been established after the country emerged from a period of Chinese colonialism that lasted from 179 B.C. to A.D. 938. It is a testament to the strong cultural heritage of the Mandarins. As such, it stands for independence and a solidifying of national culture and values.

The school flourished into the early 20th century, but the end of the civil service examinations by 1919 signaled the end of its 800 year service. The site lay largely abandoned when the French colonizers arrived, and they referred to it as the Pagoda of Crows since a flock of crows nested in old mango trees located on the site.


sbanboy said...

yippee .... I finished reading every single word ...thanks for sharing

Kesian the turtle kena pijak ... hehe

Shah said...

Hanoi seems like a wonderful place to visit. Better start saving up now and do less eating out. Me and YD both love visiting historic sites. We were planning to visit Cambodia next year but I think now Vietnam looks like a better choice.