Stone steles in Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam include 82 steles which record the royal examinations of Le and Mac dynasties (1442-1779). All steles are put on stone tortoises’ back to represent everlasting national quintessence and reflect historical and cultural values of Viet Nam through 300 years.
In 1484, King Le Thanh Tong gave an order to erect the first 10 steles for the royal examinations held in 1442, 1448, 1463, 1466, 1469, 1472, 1475, 1478, 1481 and 1484 under Le So Dynasty. However, now only 7 steles remain. In next years, Le So Dynasty had 5 steles erected for the royal examinations held in 1487, 1496, 1502, 1511 and 1514. Under Mac Dynasty, only 2 steles were erected for the royal examinations held in 1518 (under Le So Dynasty) and 1529 because of civil war.
Under Le Trung Hung Dynasty, the royal examinations were restored and hold regularly. In 1653, Le Trung Hung Dynasty had the most number of steles erected in Temple of Literature with 25 steles for the royal examinations held between 1554 and 1652. Then in 1717, 21 steles were erected for the royal examinations held between 1656 and 1712. With two large courses of stele erection and next regular stele erections, Le Trung Hung Dynasty had most steles erected in Temple of Literature (68/82).
Under Tay Son (1788 - 1802) and Nguyen (1802 - 1945) dynasties, capital city was removed to Phu Xuan – Hue and steles were not erected in Van Mieu (Ha Noi) any more. Nguyen Dynasty gave an order to erect steles in Van Mieu (Hue) from the royal examination held in 1822.
All the 82 steles are of the same model: the slab is flat with an arched pediment and tortoise-shaped base; the tortoise is rather big and looks strong; the steles are of different sizes. The steles are also unique in terms of their construction: stone was carefully selected, designed, decorated, and engraved with texts. This work must have required extraordinary patience and skill as it was done entirely by hand.
The 82 steles in Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam are unique ones in the world which have inscriptions. Their inscriptions record not only the names of the laureates of royal examinations held through nearly 300 years (1442 – 1779) but also information on history of the royal examinations; the successive dynasties’ conceptions of education, training and employing talent and their philosophy of state governance. Therefore the steles had a great social impact on education and training of talented citizens, encouraged contemporary people and people of the following generations in education. The inscriptions also contain such details as the date of the stele’s erection and the names and official posts of the inscription compilers, revisers, calligraphers, and engravers. It affirms that the steles are original, authentic and unique. Each stele is a true work of art as they are the results of master mind and hands of the best scholars, engravers and calligraphers over times. They are of great significance to the study of ancient documents in Chinese as the texts were written in Chinese characters, but read in Vietnamese way of pronunciation, so they can serve as references for those who study the former Vietnamese languages. Furthermore, these steles furnish valuable information about Vietnamese emissaries that would contribute to the study of diplomatic relations between Viet Nam and other Northeast Asian countries. Among the 1304 doctoral laureates whose names are recorded on the steles, 225 were once assigned diplomatic missions to China under Ming and Qing dynasties. Using the steles as reliable documents, Vietnamese and foreign scholars can study the history, education and culture of Viet Nam in the past, and young generations can absorb the traditions and values left by their ancestors.
Moreover, each stele is itself a vivid work of art with various designs: flowers, leaves, clouds, the moon; or the dragon, holy lion, tortoise and phoenix. Steles of each historic period are distinct from those of other periods. Distinctive features such as designs, decorative patterns, tortoise-shaped bases, and the type of Chinese characters used for their inscriptions preserve the steles’ originality and prevent attempts to produce replicas. Many art researchers consider the steles as important documents to study Vietnamese history of art and sculpture from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
At present, the 82 steles in Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam are still unique ones preserved constantly on the spot since they were erected. The inscriptions on all the steles are, in general, readable. The irreplaceability and rarity lie in the content of the steles, the mode and condition of their establishment, their historical and artistic value, and their social impact. They are lively evidence of the intellect, aptitude and dexterity of the Vietnamese people.
On March 9, 2010 in Macau, China, the Asia-Pacific Regional Committee of Memory of the World recognized 82 steles which record the royal examinations of Le and Mac dynasties in Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam as world documentary heritage in the Memory of the World Program of UNESCO.