Friday, June 14, 2019

Education in Imperial Vietnam

                                                                by Jim Goodman

laureate's procession, depiction inside Quốc Từ Giám
       After over a thousand years of Chinese administration, in 938 Vietnam won back its independence.  But after five years the new nation’s first ruler Ngô Quyn died and more than two decades of poly-sided civil war ensued.  Eventually Đinh Bộ Lĩnh prevailed and in 968 moved the capital to his hometown Hoa Lư.  After eleven years he was assassinated and the throne passed to Lê Hoàn, the military chief, just in time to repel a Chinese invasion.  He also defeated the Chăm on the southern front, but died in 1005.
       Four years of chaos followed until in 1009 Lý Thái Tô founded a new dynasty, stable enough to last over two centuries.  Buddhist monks had supported his enthronement and Buddhism became the state religion.  Government administrators came from the royal and aristocratic ranks and monks were in charge of education.
the Temple of Literature at the turn of the century
       But over time the Court came to the conclusion that, as an ideology for running the country and stabilizing society, Confucianism worked better.  It had been the ideology of statecraft in China since the Han Dynasty and the Vietnamese had had several centuries of experience living under it.  They may have revolted against individual Confucian administrators, but believed the system was the best way to hold a nation together.  Confucian ethics would guide the behavior of citizens towards the state and each other, with everyone aware of their place in society and their responsibilities to it.  Men familiar with the classics of Confucian principles would know how to properly manage state affairs.
entrance to the Văn Miếu compound
       This line of thought elevated education to a level of prime importance and respect.  It culminated in 1071 when King Lý Thánh Tông, in the final year of his reign, ordered the construction of the Temple of Literature on a small island in the big lake that existed then just south of the Citadel. In 1075 the Court began the tutoring of royal princes in the compound of Văn Miếu (as the Vietnamese call the Temple of Literature).  The following year the Court inaugurated the National School (Quc T Giám) on the Văn Miếu premises to educate members of the aristocracy in order to appoint them as mandarins to administer the country and manage affairs at Court.  In subsequent years it established the examination system.

pond in a Văn Miếu courtyard
       The Temple of Literature we see today is no longer on an island.  Only a small pond opposite the entrance remains of the lake that once surrounded it.  Modeled on the temple to Confucius in his hometown in Qufu, China, the walled, rectangular compound encloses five courtyards.  A tall, columned, ornamented gate marks the entrance on the south side. 
      The first three courtyards were basically gardens beside artificial ponds.  These were the places where the students indulged in quiet, private study.  The temple to Confucius stood in the fourth compound, where mandarins and princes came to make offerings and honor the sage.  The fifth compound housed the Quc T Giám buildings and halls.  Here the tutors worked directly with the students, imparting their lessons in reading and writing, overseeing their compositions, quizzing them, preparing them for the examinations.
courtyard tower, Văn Miếu
Confucius image in the Temple of Literature
       To enter the service of the Court, monks and priests took the Tam Giáo (Three Religions) examinations, while sons of aristocrats, who were to hold most high mandarin positions, took the Thái Hc Sinh exams.  The most prestigious examination system was for attaining a doctorate (tién sĩ) and was open to any landowner or his son who had already passed the lower level of exams.  As the prevailing inheritance system was division among the children (including the daughters) rather than primogeniture, the class of eligible hopefuls constantly expanded.
private classes in the old days
       To pass the series of exams and make it to tiến sĩ required a sophisticated knowledge of the Chinese classics, Confucian mores, history, literature, philosophy and statecraft.  The arts and sciences were not part of the curriculum.  The emphasis was less on practical matters and more on molding a character and worldview proper for a socially responsible administrator. 
       Those who got high marks in the provincial examinations (thi hương) won the title of cứ nhân and were eligible for the next level--thi hội.  If they passed four rounds of thi hội exams they won the coveted title of tiến sĩ and eligible for the final, royal set called thi đình, carried out to rank the tiến sĩ and apportion honors and positions.  Even those who failed at the thi hội level were still compensated, for they usually wound up being teachers, still a prestigious occupation and sometimes very well paid.
Quộc Từ Giám, the National University
        Thăng Long played host to all three of these examinations. The thi hi examinations were held in the lakeside Giáng Võ palace, southwest of the Citadel. The site for the thi hương examinations, like the thi hi examinations held every three years, though not the same year for each, was the spot now occupied by the National Library on Tràng Thi street, off the southwest corner of Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  Ordinarily a vacant lot, at thi hương time it became the intellectual and social focal point for all of Thăng Long.
       Two thick fences and a moat lined with rows of pikes surrounded the examination grounds.  The compound was divided into four equal parts, all fenced in with a gate surmounted by a watchtower.  City authorities posted guards around the camp’s perimeters.  An office in the center of the compound stamped the examination papers, announced the subjects and collected the candidates’ compositions.
huts and beds in the examination ground
       The Ministry of Ceremonies organized the event, though the king himself appointed the inspectors and the mandarins in charge of supervision and control.  The ministry announced the list of examiners ten days prior and they immediately were locked in seclusion inside the camp, cut off from contact with the outside world.  When the candidates arrived camp guards searched their belongings three times before letting them in to find which quarter of the camp to which they had been assigned.  All this searching and sequestering was intended to eliminate any chance of cheating in any way.  The government viewed these examinations with the utmost gravity.  The candidates themselves were equally serious.  Since their whole future depended upon their performance, no event in their lives until now was as important.
punishing violators of the examination rules
       Citizens of Thăng Long were also well aware of the importance of these examinations and enjoyed the excitement when the scholars thronged the city every three years.  The candidates were recognizable by the baggage they lugged into the city’s inns and hostels, containing the set of items they would live off during the days they were ensconced in the examination camp.  A tent of lacquered cloth and a bamboo bench were the most obvious items, things only ever toted by examinees.  They also carried some clothes, a water canteen, a wooden cylinder for storing exam papers and a wooden box with paper, ink and brushes, which doubled as a table for meals.  Thăng Long residents were especially hospitable to them.  After all, today’s noodles customer might one day be the mandarin governing this district.
examination day
       Candidates had to write four successive compositions (they had a full day for each) in addition to fielding questions from the examiners.  A serious mistake in a composition meant failure.  As a result, as time progressed, there were fewer and fewer candidates remaining, so less time waiting around to be scheduled.  By law, though, the maximum time permitted between the first and last exam was twenty days.  When the examinations were concluded some candidates returned to their villages, while others waited around for several days for the posting of the results.
       The urban mood was at its liveliest and merriest at this time.  With the immediate pressure off, the candidates relaxed at the West Lake pavilions, went boating on the lake around the Temple of Literature after visiting the shrine to Confucius, indulged in their famous propensity for pranks and practical jokes, visited theaters and dined and drank in the inns.  Finally the results would be known and those who passed and attained the c nhân degree filed off to the palace, from where mandarins led them in a well-observed procession through the city.  High-ranking families with marriageable daughters paid particular attention to which of the cnhân were single.
honoring the scholar and his horse
       The treatment accorded those scholars who went on to make tin sĩ and pass the thi đình examinations at the palace was even grander.  The king awarded them ceremonial clothing and the Ministry of Ceremonies hosted a banquet in their honor.  Mandarins gave them a guided tour of the royal gardens and the streets of the capital, lined with citizens applauding their success. 
       Then officials led them in a procession all the way back to their villages, led by drummers and including separate palanquins for the scholar’s teacher and parents, the tiến sĩ riding in the last, most elegant palanquin or on a specially outfitted horse.  If he scored extraordinarily high marks, at the entrance to the village four men grabbed the horse’s legs and carried both the animal and the seated scholar to the village center, thereby honoring both horse and rider.  This theme of the successful scholar’s return home has inspired countless paintings and carvings over the centuries and is one of the most common skits presented in shows by contemporary water-puppet troupes.
stele house at Văn Miếu compound
       Upon arrival the laureate performed rites to his ancestors.  His village organized a welcome ceremony and feast in his honor.  They also granted him certain favors and honors.  They invited him to direct village affairs, to have the seat of honor at assemblies and rituals at the đình (communal house) and to supervise the distribution of votive offerings to the villagers at festivals.  Meanwhile, unless he had already made employment arrangements as a tutor he awaited his appointment to office by the Court.  When it came he was not given a salary, but instead an estate in which he collected taxes and services from its serfs.
       The system continued through the Lý and Trn Dynasties, was interrupted by the two decades of Chinese occupation early 15th century, and after their expulsion, revived by the Lê Dynasty.  Confucianism then became the official state ideology.  In 1475 the dynasty’s most accomplished emperor, Lê Thánh Tông, began the custom of erecting steles inscribed with laureate’s name, on the grounds of the Temple of Literature (which are still there).   
steles honoring tiến sĩ ar Văn Miếu
entrance to Văn Miếu at Huế
       In the early 16th century the Lê government, plagued by a succession of incompetent, cruel and lecherous teenage tyrants, fell to Mác Đăng Dung in 1527.  Lê forces retreated, but eventually launched a long campaign against the Mc that restored them in 1592.  Yet throughout the turmoil the examination system continued in the capital, even under siege.  And with the Lê restoration it was back.
scholars' steles at the Huế Văn Miếu
       The restored Lê emperor was just a figurehead, though, and in the 17th century the country split into administrative halves.  The Trnh Lords ruled the north and the Nguyn Lords controlled the south.  The Trnh Lords continued to rely on the examination system for their officials and after 1695 the Nguyn Lords adopted the system.  The Tây Sơn Revolt (1778-1802) destroyed both administrations, but after Nguyễm Ánh, the last surviving Nguyễn Lord, reunited the country, classic Confucianism made a comeback.
       Now known by the royal name Gia Long, the new emperor made Huế the national capital and in 1808 built a new Temple of Literature on the Perfume River a few km downstream from the Citadel.  National examinations took place here until the end of the system entirely in 1919.  Gia Long also continued the custom of erecting steles inscribed with the names of the laureates.  Today, two rows of these, plus two compound entry gates, are all that remain on the site.
compound gate to Văn Miếu at Huế
       In contrast, the original Temple of Literature in Hanoi still stands, albeit with renovated buildings, but still roughly in the original layout.  It’s naturally a top tourist attraction, but is also revered by Hanoi residents.  In the past, the examination system was more than just a tri-annual season of intellectual and social excitement.  It instilled a sense of status and respect for education that has persisted through to the 21st century, even though it’s an entirely different system of education now.  It made residents feel that their city was the epicenter of culture and civilization in Vietnam, the major source of its intellectual ferment, artistic innovation and cultural inspiration.  It’s a claim that can still be made. 

the tiến sĩ's triumphant procession--popular water-puppet skit

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The Temple of Literature is one of the stops in Hanoi on Delta Tours Vietnam's visit to the city. See the itinerary at 

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