The Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first national university

The Temple of Literature (Vietnamese: Văn Miếu) is a Temple of Confucius in Hanoi, northern Vietnam. The temple hosts the Imperial Academy (Quốc Tử Giám), Vietnam’s first national university. The temple was built in 1070 at the time of Emperor Lý Thánh Tông. It is one of several temples in Vietnam which is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars.

The history of The Temple of Literature:

The temple was built in 1070 and was reconstructed during the Trần dynasty (1225–1400) and in the subsequent dynasties. For nearly two centuries, despite wars and disasters, the temple has preserved ancient architectural styles of many dynasties as well as precious relics. Major restorations have taken place in 1920, 1954 and 2000.

In 1076, Vietnam’s first university, the “Quốc Tử Giám” or Imperial Academy, was established within the temple during the reign of Lý Nhân Tông to educate Vietnam’s bureaucrats, nobles, royalty, and other members of the elite. The university remained open from 1076 to 1779. In 1802, the Nguyễn dynasty’s monarchs founded the Huế capital where they established a new imperial academy. The academy at the Hanoi temple lost its prominence and became a school of the Hoài Đức District.

The Temple of Literature

Under the French protectorate, the Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám was registered as a Monument historique in 1906. During the period of 1945- 1954, the French demolished parts of the temple to make room for the sick and wounded since the hospitals were full during times of war. Campaigns of restoration were pursued in 1920 and 1947 under the responsibility of École française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East).

The layout of The Temple of Literature:

First Courtyard:

The first courtyard and the gate leading to the second
The first courtyard extends from the Great Portico to the Dai Trung (Đại Trung), which is flanked by two smaller gates: the Dai Tai gate (Đại Tài Môn) and the Thanh Duc gate (Thành Đức Môn).

The first courtyard and the gate leading to the second

Second Courtyard:

The second courtyard contains the Khue Van pavilion (Khuê Văn Các), a unique architectural work built in 1805 and a symbol of present-day Hanoi. The Khue Van pavilion is built on four white-washed stone stilts. At the top is a red-coloured with two circular windows and an elaborate roof. Inside, a bronze bell hangs from the ceiling to be rung on auspicious occasions. Beside the Khue Van pavilion are the Suc Van gate (Súc Văn Môn) and the Bi Van gate (Bi Văn Môn). These two gates are dedicated to the beauty of literature, both its content and its form. In the first and second courtyards there are topiaries (bushes that are cut into particular shapes) that represent the 12 zodiac animals.

Khue Van pavilion – The second courtyard of The Temple of Literature


Third Courtyard:

One enters the third courtyard from the Khue Van pavilion. In the third courtyard is the Thien Quang well (Thiên Quang Tỉnh). On either side of the well stand two great halls which house the treasures of the temple.

Third Courtyard of the temple with the Thien Quang well and the red Khue Van pavilion

Stelae of Doctors:

Turtle Steles with the names of those successful at the royal exams
In 1484, the Emperor Lê Thánh Tông erected 116 steles of carved blue stone turtles with elaborate motifs to honour talent and encourage study. The Turtle (Quy) is one of the nation’s four holy creatures – the others are the Dragon (Long), the Unicorn (Ly) and the Phoenix (Phượng). The turtle is a symbol of longevity and wisdom. The shape and size of the turtle changed with the passage of time.

The doctors’ steles are a valuable historical resource for the study of culture, education and sculpture in Vietnam. 82 stelae remain. They depict the names and birth places of 1307 graduates of 82 triennial royal exams. Between 1442 and 1779, eighty-one exams were held by the Lê dynasty and one was held by the Mạc dynasty. The ancient Chinese engravings on each stele praise the merits of the monarch and cite the reason for holding royal exams. They also record the mandarins who were tasked with organising the exams. It used to be common to rub the stone turtles’ heads, but now there is a fence that is meant to prevent people from doing this in order to preserve the turtles.

Turtle Steles with the names of those successful at the royal exams

Fourth Courtyard:
One enters the fourth courtyard through the Dai Thanh gate (Đại Thành Môn). On either side are two smaller gates: Kim Thanh gate (Kim Thanh Môn) and the Ngoc Chan gate (Ngọc Chấn Môn).
On each side of the ceremonial fourth courtyard stand two halls. Their original purpose was to house altars to the seventy-two most honoured disciples of Confucius and Chu Văn An (a rector of the Imperial Academy). In the centre of the fourth courtyard is the House of Ceremonies (Đại Bái Đường). The next building is the Thượng Điện, where Confucius and his four closest disciples Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi and Mencius are worshipped. The sanctuary also hosts altars to ten honoured philosophers. A small museum displays ink wells, pens, books and personal artefacts belonging to some of the students that studied at the temple.

Dai Thanh Gate, The Temple of Literature

Fifth Courtyard:
In 1076, Emperor Ly Nhan Tong ordered the construction of an imperial academy as a fifth courtyard. Literate mandarins were selected as students. In 1236, the academy was enlarged and named Quốc Tử Viện and later Quốc Học Viện. In the Lê dynasty it was called Thái Học Viện and was developed further. This development included the Minh Luân house, west and east classrooms, a storehouse for wooden printing blocks and two sets of three 25 room dormitories. The Khải Thánh shrine was built to honour the parents of Confucius. In 1946, the courtyard was destroyed by the French in 1946.[citation needed] In the year 2000, the fifth courtyard was reconstructed on grounds of the original “Imperial Academy”. It honours the talents, the national traditions and the culture and education of Vietnam. The design of the new fifth courtyard were based on the traditional architecture in harmony with the surrounding sights of the temple. Several buildings were constructed including the front building, the rear building, the left and right buildings, a bell house and a drum house. The Thái Học courtyard occupies 1530 m2 of the temple’s total area of 6150 m2. The front building has a number of functions. Ceremonies in memory of cultural scholars are organised from the front building as are scientific activities and cultural events. The rear building has two levels. The ground floor has a statue of Chu Văn An (a rector of the academy) and shows exhibits of the temple and the academy with a display on Confucian education in Vietnam.

Altar to Chu Văn An, rector of the imperial academy

The upper floor is dedicated to the three monarchs who contributed most to the foundation of the temple and the academy: Lý Thánh Tông (1023–1072), who founded the temple in 1070, Lý Nhân Tông (1066–1127), who founded the Imperial Academy, and Lê Thánh Tông (1442–1497), who ordered the erection of the turtle stone stelae of doctor laureates in 1484. On either side of the rear building are square buildings which hold a drum and a bronze bell. The drum is 2.01 metres wide, 2.65 metres high, has a volume of 10 m3 and weighs 700 kilogram. The bell was cast in 2000. It has a height of 2.1 metres and it is 0.99 metres wide.

How to get there:

Approximately 2-3 km west of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi is one of the oldest and most important monuments in the city – Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám). You can get there in about 10 minutes by taxi from Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, one hour when you walk.