Van Mieu was founded in 1070 by King Ly Thanh Tong in honour of Confucius. It became Vietnam’s Imperial Academy, and first university, shortly after it opened. Student enrolment started in 1076 and by 1779 the university had graduated over 2000 doctors- PhD, that is. It was a prestigious school, delivering some of Vietnam’s greatest minds and it was considered an honour to study there- with Royal exams administered by the Emperor. The Academy ceased operation in 1779 when it became a district school. In 1906 the French turned it into a historical monument. Today Van Mieu is more of a garden and open for visitors.
The temple is dedicated to Confucius and thus it is styled after a temple in Confucius’ birthplace, Qufo in Shandong Province, China. The temple complex is large- covering around 54, 000 m² and includes Giam Park and the Literature Lake besides the 5 courtyards. At the main gate visitors encounter two dragons watching over the inscription ‘Ha Ma’ – a reminder to ancient visitors to leave their horses outside.
Three pathways run between the main gate and the inner courtyards. The middle pathway was for the use of the king, the pathway to the right for Mandarins of the military and the pathway to the left for the use of Mandarins of administration.
The temple has 5 courtyards each surrounded by a separating wall. Each courtyard has its own gate named to illustrate the courtyard’s connotation to a main aspect of literature and learning.
The first and second courtyards was used by ancient scholars to relax on the lawns and under the trees. The second courtyard houses the Pavilion of Literature (Khue Van Cac pavilion)- built in 1805. The pavilion is a red, wooden pavilion with an intricately decorated roof, two round windows and a bronze bell (only to be touched by monks) that is rung during important events. The second courtyard also holds tow gates dedicated to literature- the Crystallization of Letters and Magnificence of Letters gates.
In the third courtyard visitors will find the Thien Quang well and two large halls that holds the Stelae of Doctors. The Stelae are blue turtles carved from stone on which the names of the 1307 Doctorate graduates who passed the Royal examinations are engraved. They also contain praise for monarchs, explanations of the Royal examinations and the names of the people who organized the examinations. The Stelae were placed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register in 2011.
The fourth courtyard is called the Gate of Great Synthesis. The courtyard holds to additional gates named The Golden Sound and the Jade Vibration. This courtyard is the House of Ceremonies and here, inside the Dai Thanh sanctuary, altars to Confucius, his disciples and 10 honoured philosophers can be found.
The fifth courtyard was only added to the property in 1076 to house the Imperial Academy. The courtyard has statues of Confucius, his disciples and Chu Van An. The fifth courtyard hosts cultural events here today along with a display of uniforms from previous scholars.
In the past scholars were highly regarded in Vietnamese society- often seen as being of the highest social standing, or Si. The temple is a reminder of Vietnam’s high regard for learning and education.
*A version of this article first appeared at www.zafigo.com