Vietnamese Temple of Literature in Hanoi: A Thousand Years in A Blink

Born a thousand years ago (in 1070), the Temple of Literature was built to honor Confucius. Six years later, King Ly Nhan Tong finally finished the Imperial Academy (Quoc Tu Giam), located inside the Temple of Literature. The academy became the school for royal members, excellent scholars, and doctors to learn and study. In this article, we are going to discover the social life dictated by this temple, and of course the unique architecture.

Photo: Common Wiki

The Old Days

In the feudal time, there were four main social classes, with their social status decreasing respectively: the intellectuals, the farmers, the employees, and the traders. This meant that the intellectuals were the most respected part of society. Some of them chose to stay as teachers, but the majority wanted to become mandarins or generals. To progress to these positions, they had to pass regional and national examinations.

For almost 800 years (from 1070 to 1802), the Temple of Literature in Hanoi has played a prominent role in the national education. In order to study at this academy, most students had to pass their regional examination. It was also at this Temple of Literature that the final rounds of the national examination were held. Those who passed the exam would be given certain titles:

  • First place: Trang Nguyen
  • First runner-up: Bang Nhan
  • Second runner-up: Tham Hoa
  • The rest that passed: Doctors
Photo: Flickr @Nguyen Thanh Lam

The names of doctors and the above-awarded students of the examination from 1442 were crafted on the stone sheets placed upon the stone turtles in the temple. The purpose of organizing such an academy was to train the next national leaders. Hence, students had to be capable of discussing life in thorough and beautiful words. This made social science the main focus, with literature (including poetry) as the most important writing form.

Confucianism was the national political point of view, which made Confucius teachings the most important philosophy. The best students were those who could remember lots of teachings from the predecessors, analyze them thoroughly and cleverly apply such lessons to practical case studies. There came a question of why the Vietnamese chose a Chinese notable person to honor our national Temple of Literature, even when time after time Vietnam defeated invasions from this northern huge country. One simple answer I hear from my teachers is this: We chose a moral person to learn from, regardless of his nationality or religion; and we stood against the immoral ones, regardless of their size.


Today, the Temple of Literature is a place to honor the predecessors and exhibit relics of the past! No more schooling activities take place at this campus. Every Tet, the Hanoians gather at this temple to pray for good grades, good hearts, for the national peace, or simply to enjoy traditional performances and buy some calligraphy.  

Interestingly, before entering an important exam, Hanoian students usually pray at this temple to feel more confident. The superstitious ones strive to touch the stone turtle heads or place a penny into the turtle mouths to wish for good grades. While encouraging students to visit the temple and honor the predecessors, the temple managers are making an effort to restrict the superstitious behaviors.


This construction cluster is in the south of Thang Long Citadel. With the total area of 54,331 square meters, containing many buildings, this historic cluster is divided into three parts: Van Lake, Giam Garden, and The Temple of Literature – Imperial Academy.

Photo: My Tour

Van Lake (The Lake of Literature)

The lake located in front of the Temple of Literature is Van Lake (number one), also known as Minh Duong Lake or Giam Lake. In the middle of the lake, there is an islet named Phan Thuy Duong, where lots of literature meetings used to take place in the feudatory time.

Giam Garden

Giam Garden (number four) is on the right of the Temple Cluster. There aren’t any specific records explaining how this place was used during the old days. Yet, it serves as a beautiful fresh park today for people to drop by and enjoy the natural breeze inside the bustle of Hanoi city.

The Temple of Literature – Imperial Academy

We can divide this solemn temple area into five parts:

  • Temple of Literature Gate (number five): this gate is built in the significant Eastern style, which has three entrances. The central entrance is the largest one, with two floors. On one stone sheet in front of the gate, there is a couple of poetic lines that mean:

“A big country is composed of a firm educational system, good cultural behaviors, high morality, deep trust in its original literature.

An intellectual has to know the set of etiquettes well, be up-to-date, should not be stubborn, needs to keep in mind all lessons taught by the honorable people”

  • Dai Trung Gate (number six)
  • Khue Van Tower (number seven): the name means “the beauty of Khue star”. This tower was built in 1805. Students gathered at this place to discuss remarkable poets that passed their national exams. The tower has round windows, representing the sky. The windows combined with the square well (number eight), symbolizing the ground. It implies that this area is where the quintessential elements of the world are united. This proves how much people treasured the intellectuals during the feuderatory time!
Photo: Common Wiki

Behind Khue Van tower is the previously mentioned Thien Quang square well. There are 82 stone turtles located around this well (number nine), each holds a stone sheet engraved with the names of doctors (in the Vietnamese perspective, the turtle is a wise creature that leads a long life). On the first stone sheet made in 1484, there is a sentence: “Talents of virtue are the core value of a country”.

  • Dai Thanh Gate and the altar area (number ten and 11): Dai Thanh means the big success. This is also the gate that leads to the huge yard, then the main temple area, where respectful teachers and intellectuals are honored.
  • Thai Hoc Gate and Thai Hoc Area (number 12 and 13): during the old days, Thai Hoc area was the dormitory for students of the Imperial Academy. In 1946, the whole area was totally destroyed during the war. The construction today was built recently, named Khai Thanh temple. It is also home to the altar of Confucius’ parents.

With time, many traditional customs have changed, and numerous buildings have turned to dust. What remains today is the faith in intellectualism and morality that is passed through generations and generations of the Vietnamese. The strength of that faith is expressed in the way people build and preserve the Temple of Literature, in the poems that were crafted onto the stone sheets. And hopefully, you will understand this strength as you walk our soil and interact with our people. Let’s pay Hanoi a visit one day.

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