Stone Stele Records of Royal Examinations of the LE and MAC Dynasties (1442 - 1779)
Stone steles in Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) - Quoc Tu Giam include 82 steles which record the royal examinations of Le and Mac dynasties (1442-1779). Every stele is put on stone tortoise's back to represent everlasting national quintessence and reflect historical and cultural values of Viet Nam through 300 years.
All steles are of the same model: the slab is flat with an arched pediment and tortoise-shaped base; the tortoise is rather big and looks strong; the steles are different in sizes. The steles are also unique in terms of their construction: stone was carefully selected from green stone in An Thach Mountain (Dong Son - Thanh Hoa Province), then designed, decorated, and engraved with patterns and inscriptions. This work must have required extraordinary patience and skill as it was done entirely by hand.
The 82 steles in Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam are unique ones in the world by containing its inscriptions. They record the names of the laureates of royal examinations held through nearly 300 years (from 1442 to 1779) and also information on history of the royal examinations; the successive dynasties7 conceptions of education, training and employing talent and their philosophy of state governance. Therefore the steles had a great social impact on education and training of talented citizens, encouraged contemporary people and the following generations in education.
Besides, each stele is itself a vivid art work with various designs: flowers, leaves, clouds, the moon; or the dragon, holy lion, tortoise and phoenix. Steles of each historic period are distinct from those of other periods. Distinctive features such as designs, decorative patterns, tortoise-shaped bases, and the type of Chinese characters used for their inscriptions preserve the steles' originality and prevent attempts to produce replicas. Many art researchers consider the steles as important documents to study Vietnamese history of art and sculpture from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
At present, the steles in Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam are still unique ones preserved constantly on the spot since they were erected. The inscriptions on all the steles are, in general, readable. The irreplace- ability and rarity lie in the content of the steles, the mode and condition of their establishment, their historical and artistic value, and their social impact. They are lively evidence of the intellect, aptitude and dexterity of the Vietnamese people.
On 9 March 2010 in Macau, China, the Asia-Pacific Regional Committee of Memory of the World recognized 82 steles which record the royal examinations of the Le and Mac dynasties in Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam as World Documentary Heritage in the Memory of the World Program of UNESCO.
Stele Erection Process
In 1484, King Le Thanh Tong gave an order to erect the first 10 steles for the royal examinations held in 1442, 1448, 1463, 1466, 1469, 1472, 1475, 1478, 1481 and 1484 under Le So Dynasty. However, now only 7 steles remain. In next years, Le So Dynasty had 5 steles erected for the royal examinations held in 1487, 1496, 1502, 1511 and 1514. Under Mac Dynasty, only 2 steles were erected for the royal examinations held in 1518 (under Le So Dynasty) and 1529 because of civil war.
Under Le Trung Hung Dynasty, the royal examinations were restored and hold regularly. In 1653, Le Trung Hung Dynasty had the most number of steles erected in Temple of Literature with 25 steles for the royal examinations held between 1554 and 1652. Then in 1717, 21 steles were erected for the royal examinations held between 1656 and 1712. With two large courses of stele erection and next regular stele erections, Le Trung Hung Dynasty had most steles erected in Temple of Literature (68/82). Under Tay Son (1788-1802) and Nguyen (1802-1945) dynasties, capital city was removed to Phu Xuan (Hue present) and steles were not erected in Van Mieu (Ha Noi) any more. Nguyen Dynasty gave an order to erect steles in Van Mieu (Hue) from the royal examination held in 1822.
Sequence of Inscriptions in the Steles
The inscriptions were engraved vertically follow the steles, including items: the first part presents reasons for holding the exam and erecting the stele; the merit of the king; and the names, positions, and functions of the examiners. The second part includes the list of the laureates; the names and positions of the inscription compilers, editors, calligrapher, and the date of the stele's erection.
The inscriptions engraved in the stone steles represent the feudal education opinions and animateci study and examination atmosphere; name of the families having tradition of examinations in the localities; name of high-ranking mandarins, famous scholars. Each line is extremely valuable historical document to help research about life and career of many famous Vietnameses such as Nguyen Trai (1380-1442), Ngo Si Lien (? - ?), Nguyen Quy 6uc (1648-1720), Dang Dinh Tuong (1649-1735) etc., of which many people used to be sent to China as envoys such as Nguyen Nhu Do (1424 - 1526), Le Quy Don (1726-1784)... This expressed unique values and affirmed international meanings of the steles in Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam.
Content of Inscriptions
Praising high-achieving scholars and study encouragement
Many steles indicate that aim of erecting steles is to praise the high-achieving scholars and encourage educations and examinations. But besides the praise, they admonish the scholars devote the government.
Affirming the role and value of talented persons
All 82 steles were confirmed that the training and use of the talents play a very important role in the construction and protection of the country. The first stele of the royal examination held in 1442 points clearly to this attitude: "Virtuous and talented people are the basic strength of a state. If the vitality is strong, the State will be powerful and prosperous. If it is not, it will weaken and have a low standing. Therefore, clear-sighted monarchs always attach importance to educating talented individuals and selecting Confucian scholars for the mandarinate, and regard the fostering of the State's essential energy as an urgent task".
Counseling scholars about moral philosophy responsibility
The steles usually counsel scholars to dedicate their talents for the country; not to degenerate, corrupt, in every position to do well the assigned works.
Encouraging good things, preventing evil things
Most of the steles refer to this problem, each stele in each period has different ways but all of them admonish people to do good things, avoid evil things.
The steles in Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam can be divided into 3 categories according to the erection time and art characteristics.
14 steles in 15th and 16th centuries
The steles in the period are 105cm in height, 100cm in width and 15cm in deep with floral motifs (flowers and leaves) to express natural forces or ancient philosophical conception of the changes adopted by Confucians.
The stele pediment engraved flame and moon-shaped discs but no dragons, because at the time it was not permitted to associate the glory of doctors with the animal-emblem of royalty and the deities).
On a number of pediment of the stele from the reign of Hong Thuan (16th century): two pairs of crossed horns symbol of the Yin-Yang antinomy, and whirling circles evoking without doubt the movement of the universe. The tortoise carrying stele on its back has fairly fine features. The tortoise is a symbol of longevity, of strength (it carries the stele and the crane), its rounded shell represents the sky, its flat belly the earth. Together with the crane, the messenger of the immortals, its constitutes a sacred dualism.
25 steles in the 17th century
Many researchers evaluate the steles in this period bring typical decorative arts and are the most precious art works in the cultural treasure in Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam. The steles are from 155cm to 170cm in height, from 100cm to 125cm in width, from 20cm to 30cm in depth. The border of the stele was engraved scenes of life (ponds of lotuses moved by waves, storks or cranes smoothing their feathers...). The pediment was engraved animal motifs (dragons, pairs of phoenix or unicorns, birds ...), unicorns worshipping the sun-the unicorn embodies the spirit and intelligence of the saint, the strength of the universe.
43 steles in the 18th century
In this period, the steles are from 170cm to 190cm in height, 120cm in width, 30cm in depth. The pediment carved two dragons worshipping a moon-shaped disc, the bodies merging into the clouds (their heads clearly distinguished). The floral motifs (flowers, leaves) on the border are strongly stylized. The tortoise has circular folds at the neck, the shell carries a protruding bone on the back and hexagonal motifs, the eyes are small, the legs emerge from the shell.
Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam
Located on Quoc Tu Giam Street, Dong Da District, Ha Noi, Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam has a total area of 54,331m2, including works such as: Ho Van (Literature Lake), Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Quoc Tu Giam and Giam Garden, of which Van Mieu and Quoc Tu Giam are two main architecture works.
Built in 1070 under King Ly Thanh Tong reign (1054 - 1072), Van Mieu is a place where worships Confucius, his followers, and Chu Van An (1292 -1370), moral figure in Vietnamese education. Van Mieu includes 5 areas, each area is begun by corresponded works such as Four Columns, Van Mieu Main Gate, Dai Trung Gate, Khue Van Cac (Pavilion of the Constellation of Literature) and Dai Thanh Gate. Khue Van Cac was built in 1805 under King Gia Long reign (1802 - 1820) with meaning of giving prominence to the cultural and educational centre of Viet Nam.
This is a high aesthetic value work, a historical and cultural symbol of Ha Noi Capital. Located between Khue Van Cac and Dai Thanh Gate, there is a lake named Thien Quang Tinh (Well of Heavenly Clarity). Two sides of the lake are 8 stele houses putting 82 steles of royal examinations.
Quoc Tu Giam - the first university in Viet Nam, was built in 1076 under King Ly Nhan Tong reign (1072 -1127). It was the first educational school for royal family members, and it was later opened to talented students.
Today, Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam becomes a destination attracting a large number of domestic and foreign tourists, as well as a place honoring students with excellent scholastic achievement.
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