Van Mieu – Quee Tu Giam (or the Temple of Literature and National University) is both an historic and a cultural building. The former was erected in 1070A.D. under King Ly Thanh Teng, the latter in 1076. For nearly one thousand years the site has comprised the main Pavilions and interior courtyards, the stelae of Doctors, ink stone stands, the Van (Literature) Lake, Giam Park, secular trees, the Great Portico and other items…all witnesses to generations of scholars.
The building is Confucian; a man who dominates Chinese literature, philosophy, and religion. Born in Zouyl, Zhong Ni (his Chinese name) was an intellect who by the time he was 54 years old had a following that spread his teachings to every part of the Chinese Empires. Nine books make up the canon of his teaching on the ethical behaviour of self-education, familial organization, state governance and how to rule.
This site, dedicated to him, based on his teachings, is to the south of Thang Long citadel, covers an area around 55,000sqm and is divided into five courtyards.
The first extends from the Great Portico to the Dai Trung (Great Middle) gate. This is flanked by two lesser gates – Dat Tai (Attained Talent) and Thanh Duc (Accomplished Virtue).
The second houses the Khue Van pavilion, built in 1805, symbolic of the Ha Noi capital. It is flanked by the Suc Van (Crystallization of Letters) gate and the Bi Van (Magnificence of Letters) gate – both designed to praise the beauty and form of literature.
The third houses 82 Doctors’ stelae, lined symmetrically on two side of the Thien Quang well. They lead to the Dai Thanh (Great Synthesis) gate, in turn flanked by the Kim Thanh (Golden Sound) and Ngoc Chan (Jade Vibration) gates.
The fourth courtyard has two houses (which you can’t access) with altars to 72 Confucian disciples. The centre has the Bai Durong (House of Ceremonies) and there is also the Dai Thanh sanctuary where Confucius and four of his closest disciples are worshiped – Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi, and Mencius. There are also 10 more altars inside.
The final courtyard was originally the National University, a functional place for tutelage and instruction. Later it was dedicated as the Khai Thanh shrine dedicated to Confucius’ parents. The last phase of construction was fourteen years ago with the laying of the Thai Hoc courtyard – this celebrates the foundation of Hanoi.
What is evident as we stroll through each courtyard is that the hubbub of Hanoi is gone even though we are surrounded by traffic. This is a place where two thousand years of learning, contemplation, and great thinking has created an impenetrable bubble of solitude that seeps from every stone, every tree, plant, shrub. It is not meditative, but contemplative. I feel curious, aware, reflective as we pace our steps. Even Isla gazes up at carvings with a thoughtful frown. Josh gets no chance to look at anything as he has become a photo opportunity for the dozens of visitors to this place. A four month-old Western boy is a creature to be touched, cooed over, the object of many, many ‘selfies’.
It is the Doctor’s Stelae that grab my attention. The are like giant western tombstones, the kind you find in Victorian graveyards, themselves modeled on ancient Egyptian stelae (which is fascinating as it implies an architectural link between Hanoi and Egypt in the fifteenth century). The stelae record the names of 1307 graduates of the school between 1442 and 1779. The first stele was erected in 1484. They are a stone veined with dark blue, carved with elaborate motifs. A few of the stelae sit upon stone tortoises (there is a golden one housed in a shrine at the rear of the site).
A word about the tortoise which we have seen is a prevalent motif in Hanoi. It is one of Vietnam’s four holy creatures. The other three are the dragon, unicorn and phoenix. It is interesting that three are deemed mythological, one we can identify today. I would suggest that the first three did exist at some time; that the presence of the unicorn – so often thought as a peculiarly European beast of legend – further cements the cultural links of Vietnam the West to an early date. The common factor of all these creatures is their longevity. Great age is associated with great wisdom in Confucian doctrine.
We get separated, which is not a problem in this enclosure so I trot with some urgency to the rear of the site where the last shrine is elaborate, on two storeys, with three altars. Gold leaf, painting dazzles my eyes, the scent of incense and jasmine from burning sticks is heavy in the air. Another common theme of religious houses across the world is a need for smoking scents.
Outside I come across an ornate rectangular ‘vase’ housing a very large and very old bonsai…
If you’re ever in Hanoi, pay this place a visit. It’s also right next to the Museum of Fine Arts which you should visit…even if just to get a little air conditioning. Here are few more views of the place.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?