This is the site of Vietnam's first national university.
The 'temple' moniker attests to how inextricably linked learning and religion were back in the year 1070 when it was built by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong. This was actually a temple dedicated to the cult of Confucius, who broke the monopoly over education previously held by Buddhism. At almost 1,000 years old, it's one of the few remaining examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture still standing in Hanoi.
For contemporary Vietnamese, it functions as a shrine to Confucius himself, whose influence is still very much a part of Vietnamese culture, and it serves as a testament to Vietnam's long history of striving for educational excellence. The temple was initially reserved for mandarins and high-ranking civil servants, but later outstanding students of no particular rank were also educated here.
The Temple of Literature is set on a large, rectangular complex encompassing five walled courtyards connected by gateways, among green gardens and reflecting pools.
The first area of interest is the Well of Heavenly Clarity beside which are 82 tortoise-carrying stellae, (there were originally 117), which list the names, places of birth and achievements of graduate students who accomplished exceptional results during the Le Dynasty. The names on some of the stellae have been scratched out -- these are scholars who subsequently met with some sort of disgrace or royal disapproval, and were expunged from the record.
Each of the buildings had a specific purpose and meaning, though some have been given over to exhibits charting the history of the temple. The pamphlet handed out to visitors on arrival is fairly helpful, and blissfully free of grammatical errors (befitting a sight dedicated to education) but in order to really get a sense of what you're looking at, a guide is highly recommended; enquire at the ticket office.
Some of the temple is comparatively new. The housing in the back was lost in a fire a few decades ago, and the current structures are of more modern vintage in the spirit of the old buildings. There is also a statue dedicated to Chu Van An (after whom at least one street in every Vietnamese city is named) who is considered the greatest scholar in Vietnam's history -- the bronze likeness dates back to only 2003.
At the rear of the gardens is a large sanctuary with an impressive Confucian statue, and in the forecourt of this sanctuary traditional music is played when a sufficiently large crowd gathers.
The complex backs onto Nguyen Thai Hoc St, but the entrance is on Quoc Tu Giang. The temple makes for a good sanctuary from both the touts and the traffic.
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