[Relax, USTe friends--the quadricentennial-celebrating school along Espana still has a lock on the title as the oldest extant university in Asia. Congratulations! As a colleague said, “Ikaw lang, UST, ikaw lang ang may 400th year!” Nga naman. But as I qualified in a travel piece I filed for the Inquirer in 2004, “UST was a Western-style ecclesiastical school... The 'Western-style' qualifier is an important distinction, because in Asia, a far older university rooted in Confucian history and tradition was already functioning by 1076 A.D.” However, while UST survived the centuries, that school didn't. Here's the rest of the story.]
SHRINE TO ANCIENT WISDOM
When we think of the oldest university in Asia, older even than Harvard in the United States, the distinction automatically goes to the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, founded in 1611 by the third Archbishop of Manila, the Dominican Msgr. Miguel de Benavides.
UST was a Western-style ecclesiastical school, built along the lines of the mighty European seats of learning that began with the establishment of the University of Bologna in 1088 A.D.
The “Western-style” qualifier is an important distinction, because in Asia, a far older university rooted in Confucian history and tradition was already functioning by 1076 A.D. This was the Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam (The Temple of Literature-School for the Sons of the Nation) in the ancient city of Hanoi, Vietnam.
And while it has ceased being a university, it still draws many scholars, thinkers and artists who seek wisdom and kinship in its monuments that celebrate nearly a thousand years of the quest for higher education among the early Vietnamese.
The temple itself was established in 1070 A.D. as a shrine to Confucius. Six years later, the reigning monarch, Ly Nhan Tong, opened the country's first university inside the temple grounds. Members of the royal family made up the first students, followed by the sons of the aristocracy.
Eventually, the school was opened to commoners who passed regional examinations, allowing for the possibility of social mobility through scholastic merit.
The students, from 15 years old and above, studied literature and ethics derived from the Confucian canon, principally the four classical texts (The Great Study, The Golden Mean, The Analects: Conversations between Confucius and his Disciples, and The Works of Mencius) and the five pre-Confucian classics (The Odes, The Annals, The Book of Change, Rites and Ceremonies, and The Spring and Autumn Annals).
Meeting four times a month (two for those in advanced classes), the students were taught how to write poetry and produce commentaries on the sacred texts, which were marked “excellent” or "good” by the teachers.
Those who didn't pass were still accorded respect as men of higher education, members of the country's learned class who often went back to their towns to become educators and school masters themselves.
Vietnamese art today still immortalizes these long-ago royal examinations, when young men from the provinces headed for the capital with their sleeping mats, brushes and ink-stones to sit for the grueling four-tiered exams.
Those who passed all four stages were given the title of doctor laureate (tien si) and invited to the palace for an audience and banquet with the king. They were then sent home with great fanfare to their villages, where they were received with much pride.
In a given year, some 450 to 6,000 candidates would vie for the doctorates. The last royal examinations were given in 1779, and by that time, 2,313 examinees had been awarded laureates.
The Garden of the Stelae is found in the third courtyard of the Temple of Literature. At its center is a square pond called the Well of Heavenly Clarity. Arrayed around this pond are pavilions that shelter the stelae from the elements.
The pavilions themselves, while hewing close to the complex's ancient architecture, are restored versions of the original structures that had withered away with the centuries or were damaged by war.
These stelae and the entire temple area have been designated as among Vietnam's most important historic and cultural treasures. Yet ordinary visitors are still allowed to go up to the stelae, touch the slabs and read the inscriptions on them, to learn from the preserved wisdom of the country's forebears.
All five temple courtyards (Entrance to the Way, the Great Middle Courtyard, Garden of the Stelae, Courtyard of the Sages, and the school grounds in the fifth courtyard) are stylized spaces with pavilions, gardens, ponds, doors and walkways reflecting Confucianism's ideal number and its dedication to the pursuit of yin-yang--balance and harmony in the universe--as expressed through indigenous Vietnamese art and design.
The altar, still extant today, is the heart of the temple, and it is reached by passing through the lantern-decorated Courtyard of the Sages, where the king and the new doctor laureates would gather before paying their respects to images of the great teacher and his disciples.
Vietnam has done away with its monarchy and the royal examinations, but the courtyard is still used for ceremonial dances during the Tet (lunar new year) holidays, and even for live chess games.
Its base has four brick pillars engraved with cloud designs that support a second floor made of wooden frames. The round open windows on this floor are adorned with sun-like rays and face all four directions--like a jewel radiating light or a vessel open to the four winds.
Built in 1805 under the Nguyen Dynasty, it is--like the rest of timeless Van Mieu--an ode to the all-encompassing, illuminating value of knowledge and literature in human affairs.