Story: Yen Chi
Photos: Ba Ngoc

One of the capital’s most popular tourist sites, the Temple of Literature is a site of special national significance that encapsulates the culture and heritage of Hanoi. One of the temple’s outstanding features is the garden of mandarin stelae, which is home to 82 carved stone tablets that list the names of over 1,000 outstanding scholars from the 15th to 18th centuries.

The Temple of Literature was constructed in 1070 during the Ly Dynasty. Five years later, the royal court hosted its first national exam, yet it was not until 1484 that Emperor anh Tong of the Le Dynasty ordered the erection of the stelae listing the names of top scorers from the exams of 1442 onwards. Until the Nguyen rulers constructed another Temple of Literature in Phu Xuan (Hue), the dynasties of the Preliminary Le (1428 – 1527), Mac (1527 – 1592) and Renaissance Le (1533 – 1789) hosted 121 royal court exams, yet only 91 stone stelae were erected. Of these, 82 have survived and list 1,304 exam winners. In 2010, UNESCO honoured these 82 stelae as a World Heritage of Memory in Asia – Pacific.

The man who laid the foundations for the garden of the royal court stelae in the Temple of Literature was Emperor Le Thanh Tong, known for his many talents, knowledge, kind heart and appreciation for the talents of others. According to ancient beliefs, stone is the essence of the earth and a material that can withstand the ravages of time. Hence, to be memorialised on a stone stelae was an extreme honour for exam winners, and motivation to study hard and set a shining example for the nation.

After the erection of the first 10 stelae in 1484 and the excellent examples of two Confucian scholars Than Nhan Trung and Do Nhuan, more stelae were erected following court exams in the Preliminary Le dynasty. By 1521, this dynasty had erected 20 stone stelae, 13 of which remain. However, in the subsequent Mac dynasty, only one royal exam stelae was erected in 1529 despite the rulers’ high regard for talent and the holding of 22 royal court exams. During the Renaissance Le Dynasty, the number of new royal exam stelae reached a record of 68.

The Duke of Bat Duong Tri Trach was a revered mandarin in the Renaissance Le dynasty who passed the royal court exam in 1619. In 1653, as the Lofty Governor of the Ritual Ministry, he oversaw the restoration of 26 damaged stelae for 26 royal court exams between 1580 and 1652. It was not until 1717 that additional stone stelae were erected in the Temple of Literature. this time, at the behest of Emperor Le Du Tong and Lord Trinh Cuong, Executive Chamberlain Nguyen Quy Duc, who was the third runner-up in the 1676 exams, led the restoration of 21 stelae for 21 royal court exams between 1656 and 1715. Following these two major periods of stelae erection, subsequent stelae were erected after national exams until 1779 under the reign of Canh Hung. Between 1580 and 1789, the Renaissance Le dynasty held 73 royal court exams and erected 69 stelae, 68 of which have survived.

“Talents are the vitality of a nation. Full vitality denotes strong national status and prosperity. A decay of vitality heralds weak national status and misery.”

This statement was written by Chamberlain Than Nhan Trung as he worked for Emperor Le Thanh Tong to compose a speech to mark the erection of the first royal exam stelae in Thang Long’s Temple of Literature in 1484. Over 500 years of ups and downs, this statement remains true. Talented people are the treasures of each nation, and at the core of each nation’s success during its development and protection.

The 82 stone stelae in the Temple of Literature are a cultural legacy and an invaluable gift from our ancestors. They are associated not only with the nation’s best scholars but also with our most brilliant emperors and mandarins including Le Thanh Tong, Than Nhan Trung, Do Nhuan, Duong Tri Trach and Nguyen Quy Duc. Like carvings in stone, our appreciation for these people’s talent and honour is engraved in the heart of every Vietnamese person.