Van Mieu laureate steles include 82 stone steles carving epitaph texts recording names of the Confucian laureates of royal examinations of Le and Mac Dynasties (1442-1779) in Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam, Hanoi. The steles were seated on the stone tortoises to manifest the everlasting of the nation’s quintessence, the cultural and historical values of the country during 300 years.

Van Mieu stone steles
Van Mieu stone steles
Van Mieu (the temple of Literature)
Van Mieu (the temple of Literature)

In 1484, to appreciate Confucianism and respect Confucian intellectuals who passed the pre-court competition-examination, King Le Thanh Tong erected first seven laureate steles at Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam of the examination in 1442, 1448, 1463, 1466, 1475, 1478 and 1481 under the Le So Dynasty. In the next years, the Le Dynasty erected five more PhD laureate steles of the examination in 1487, 1496, 1502, 1511 and 1514. During the Mac Dynasty, due to the civil war against Le Trung Hung reign, only two steles were erected in the examination year in 1518 (under the Le So Dynasty) and in 1529. So during the reign of Mac dynasty, 22 doctoral examinations were held but only one examination in 1529 was recorded in a stele erected in Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam. Under the Le Trung Hung dynasty, the examinations were resumed at the time when King Le Trung Tong set up the capital in Thanh Hoa. After Thang Long citadel was retaken, the examinations were held gradually, but until 1653, Le Trung Hung dynasty conducted the largest stele erection in Van Mieu with 25 steles of examination year from 1554 to 1652. After that, in 1717, the second course under the Le Trung Hung dynasty erected 21 steles in the examinations from 1656 to 1715. With the two large stele erection phases and a regular stele erection after each examination session until 1779, Le Trung Hung dynasty erected 68 out of 82 laureate steles. Under the Tay Son and Nguyen dynasties, the capital was moved to Phu Xuan, Hue, therefore, laureate steles were no longer erected in Van Mieu (Hanoi). The Nguyen dynasty started stele erection in Van Mieu in Hue in the examination in 1822.

Van Mieu stone steles

All the 82 laureate steles were manipulated in the same style: flat stele, curve and arched shape brow. The steles are seated on the tortoises’ backs, which were designed big, thick and strong. The style of stele building was special: the stone was carefully selected, then was designed, decorated and carved by patterns and inscriptions. The manual work required artisans’ patience and skills.

The 82 laureate steles in Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giang (Hanoi) are the only ones in the world carved with inscriptions which not only named doctoral laureates who passed the examinations from 1442-1779 but also wrote down the history of each examination and the theory of each dynasty on education and training, and how to use talented people, thus having great impacts on the contemporary society as well as future generations. The inscriptions noted clearly the date of the stele erection, names of the people who compiled the text and those who erected the steles. This affirmed the reality, origin and uniqueness of the document. The epitaphs were compiled by country’s reputable culturists and intellectuals, basically, they were invaluable literature works. The epitaphs were written in Chinese scripts with different types of writing, making each stele like a picture, a calligraphy work. Each line of words in the 82 steles is an invaluable historical resource which helps us study the life and career of many Vietnamese celebrities, including Nguyen Trai, Ngo Si Lien, Nguyen Quy Duc, Dang Dinh Tuong…Moreover, of 1304 doctors whose names were engraved in the 82 steles, 225 used to be sent to China as the King’s envoys. They included Nguyen Nhu Do and Le Quy Don…This represents the uniqueness and international significance of Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam stone steles.

The photo taken in 1991, the stone steles weren't equipped with roof cover
The photo taken in 1991, the stone steles weren’t equipped with roof cover

Besides, each stele is like a precise and unique sculpture with sophisticated and stylized decoration with the images of flowers, clouds, moon, dragon, unicorn, tortoise, and phoenix. The scripts, the decorations and the style of the stele and tortoise all bear the age that created the steles. Arts researchers consider them an important document during the study of Vietnam’s art and sculpture history from the 15th century to the 18th century. To date, Van Mieu stone steles are the only original version which have been kept on the site and continuously since they were erected. Most of the pattern and document are still clear and readable. Their scarcity and irrreplaceability in the contents and stele erection manner, the historical-art value and social influence made them very special and unique.

On March 9, 2010 in Macao, China, the Memory World Committee in Asia-Pacific of UNSECO recognised the doctor stone steles under the Post-Le and Mac dynasties in Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam (Hanoi) as the world heritage documentation under the UNESCO world memorial programme./.