Confucianism: Form As Much As Content
(No.8, Vol.2, August 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
From The Three Teachings of Vietnam, As an Ideological Precondition for the Foundation of Caodaism, Hue Khai, Religion Publishing House, Hanoi, 2010. (Whatever Caodaism may have owed to Confucianism, the present article is interesting in relation to the history of Confucianism, a religion often cited as having had an important influence on Vietnam as the country appears today. – Ed.) 

Confucianism was brought into Vietnam under Chinese rule, through three periods, from 111 BC to 39 AD, by the Western Han and Eastern Han dynasties, from 43 AD to 541AD, by the Eastern Han, Three Kingdoms, Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties and from 602AD to 905AD, by the Sui and Tang dynasties.
ConfuciusDuring the first ten centuries AD, Vietnamese Confucianism learning did not flourish. Monks learnt Chinese characters to read Buddhist sūtras and absorbed Confucian teaching. When the nation gained independence from China in the 10th century AD, under the Ngo (939-967), Dinh (968-980) and Le (980-1009) dynasties, the elites supporting the imperial court were Daoist priests and Buddhist monks. Monks taught Ly Cong Uan (974-1028), who later became the founder of the Ly dynasty (i.e., Ly Thai To, reign 1009-1028). Under the reign of King Ly Anh Tong (1138-1175), monk Tri, from Mount Cao Da, taught Thái Úy (Defender-in-Chief), To Hien Thanh (?-1199) and Thái Bảo (Assistant Grand Tutor) Ngo Hoa Nghia.
Vietnamese Confucian learning developed from the 11th century, and gradually declined under the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945). Confucian learning qualified the literati to be court officials via civil-service examinations. Many Vietnamese Confucian scholars were also authors who studied Confucian philosophy. In war and its aftermath books were taken and destroyed. Almost nothing was left for later ages to study. Maybe the prominence of Vietnamese Confucianism is not so much due to philosophical thoughts as to literature, a civil-service examination system and the political role of Confucian scholars. In 1070, King Ly Thanh Tong (reign 1054-1072) had the Văn Miếu (Literature Temple) built, in which the statues of the Duke of Zhou, Confucius, and the Seventy-Two Worthies were worshipped.1 In 1075, King Ly Nhan Tong (reign 1072-1127) opened the first civil-service exam, called Tam Trường (Three-Round Exam), in which the best candidate was Le Van Thinh. The King also set up Quốc Tử Giám (the Imperial College) in 1076 and Hàn Lâm Viện (the Imperial Academy), and chose Mac Hien Tich as an Academician.2 Noted Confucian scholars under the Ly dynasty were Ly Dao Thanh (?-1081), Truong Ba Ngoc and To Hien Thanh (?-1179).
King Tran Thai Tong (reign 1226-1258) opened such exams as the Thái Học Sinh (High College Student Exam) in 1232, the Tam Giáo (Three-Teaching Exam) in 1247, and the Tam Khôi (Three-Degree Exam) in 1247 to select Trạng Nguyên (the First Degree), Bảng Nhãn (the Second Degree), and Thám Hoa (the Third Degree). In that exam, Le Van Huu (1230-1322) got Bảng Nhãn (the Second Degree) and later became the historian who wrote Đại Việt Sử Ký (A History of Great Việt). The King also set up Quốc Học Viện (the Institute of National Learning) in 1253 to teach Sishu (the Four Books) and Wujing (the Five Classics). 3
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A Confucian teacher and his students; On the king’s behalf, the chief of Nam Định Province banqueting successful candidates (1897);
Photos: The Three Teachings of Vietnam, As an Ideological Precondition for the Foundation of Caodaism, Hue Khai

Under the reign of King Tran Due Tong (1373-1377), the Thái Học Sinh Exam was renamed as the Tiến Sĩ (Advanced Scholar Exam) in 1374.4 Under the reign of King Tran Thuan Tong (1388-1398), Le Quy Ly (1336-1407) wrote a book titled Minh Đạo (Explaining the Dao), in 1392, then translated the chapter Wuyi (Against Luxurious Ease) of Shujing (the Book of Documents), in 1394, to teach the crown prince, and Shijing (the Book of Songs), in 1396 to teach inner-palace women.

Under the Trần dynasty, civil-service exams helped to develop literature. Noted Confucian scholars included Mac Dinh Chi (1280-1346); Nguyen Trung Ngan (1289-1370) with Giới Hiên Toàn Tập (Giới Hiên’s Complete Works); Truong Han Sieu (?-1354); Chu An (1292-1370) with Tứ Thư Thuyết Ước (Concise Explanation of the Four Books), and Tiều Ẩn Quốc Ngữ Thi (Tiều Ẩn’s Poems in the Nôm Script); Pham Su Manh (Chu An’s student) with Hiệp Thạch Tập (Hiệp Thạch’s Collected Works); Han Thuyen (or Nguyen Thuyen) with Phi Sa Tập (Phi Sa’s Collected Works). What does the word ‘with’ mean in this paragraph? It appears four times. It means who wrote Le Quy Ly (1336–1407), also known as Ho Quy Ly, overthrew the Tran Dynasty and set up the Ho Dynasty. Chinese Ming aggressors robbed the national archives and took material to Jinling (Nanjing). They burnt whatever they could not take away, causing a terrible loss to Vietnamese culture. Under Ming aggression, Neo-Confucianism was brought into Vietnam.5 Under the later Le Dynasty, Confucian learning was highly valued as quốc học (national learning). Civil-service exams helped to increase the intelligentsia. In the capital there were the Quốc Tử Giám (the Imperial College) and the Thái Học Viện (High College). King Le Thanh Tong divided the territory into thirteen đạo (circuits). In most of the circuits on the plains, public schools were set up; and exam regulations were also imposed. In 1463 about 1,400 candidates took the Metropolitan Exam (thi hội) and in 1475, the number of candidates mounted to 3,000. From the Le Dynasty on, high honours were bestowed on successful candidates: ceremonies announcing advanced scholars’ names (lễ xướng danh), taking them to their native villages (lễ vinh quy, literally, glorious return ceremony), and inscribing their names on stelae housed at the Literature Temple.

Confucianism 3Candidates and proctors inside an examination site (a drawing made in 1895)

Noted Confucian scholars under the Le Dynasty included Nguyen Trai (1380-1442), Le Van Linh, Bui Cam Ho, Nguyen Thien Tich, Nguyen Truc (1417-1474), Nguyen Nhu Do (1424-1526), Luong The Vinh (1442-?), Do Nhuan, Than Nhan Trung, Luong Dac Bang (1472-1522), Nguyen Binh Khiem (1491-1585), Phung Khac Khoan (1528-1613), Luong Huy Khanh, Nguyen Du, Giap Hai (1515?-1585?), Nguyen Mau Nghi, Pham Cong Tru (1600-1675), Le Anh Tuan, Nguyen Cong Hang, Pham Dinh Trong, Le Quy Don (1726-1784), Ly Tu Tan (1378-?), Nguyen Mong Tuan, Phan Phu Tien (1370?-?), Ngo Si Lien. After defeating the Chinese Ching invaders in 1789, King Quang Trung (reign 1788-1792) set up the Sùng Chính Viện (the Institute of Governance Veneration) and appointed La Son Phu Tu Nguyen Thiep (1723-1804) head, whose important duty was to reform Vietnamese Confucian learning. La Son Phu Tu finished translating Xiaoxue (Small Learning), Sishu (the Four Books) and Wujing (the Five Classics) into the Nôm script. King Quang Trung died prematurely, leaving his reform program unaccomplished.
The learning bound up with civil-service exams declined gradually. The French conquered Vietnam and introduced European learning. Finally, the exams based on Confucian learning terminated in the North in 1915 and in Central Vietnam in 1918. The termination was earlier in the South, after the French colonialists took up occupancy of the whole of Cochinchina in the years 1862 to 1867.n
1 Tran Trong Kim 1971b: 99; 2 Tran Trong Kim 1971b: 101; 3 Tran Trong Kim 1971b: 124; 4 Tran Trong Kim 1971b: 124; 5 Tran Trong Kim 1971b: 212.

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Successful candidates in academic costumes conferred by the king; Successful candidates’ names on stelae housed at the Literature Temple; Successful candidates kowtowing before the Literature Temple (1897).
Photos: The Three Teachings of Vietnam, As an Ideological Precondition for the Foundation of Caodaism, Hue Khai

By Hue Khai



Confucianism in Vietnam

Confucianism’s originator, K’ung Fu Tzu (Latinised to Confucius), was an official in the Chinese court. During his lifetime (around 500 BC), China had broken into rival states fighting for supremacy. Confucius, comparing the turmoil of the life of the people with the formalised rituals of the court, set about creating a code to regulate social conduct, thereby enabling people to live in peace and harmony. He left the court and travelled the country, explaining his ideas.

The principles of Confucianism

At the heart of his teaching were two fundamental principles, the necessity of correct behaviour and the importance of loyalty and obedience. In each case, the message was reinforced by rites and ceremony. He made no mention of a spiritual dimension, but stressed the observance of traditional rituals. The status of Confucianism as a ‘religion’ in Vietnam is, therefore, questionable.

At that time, the philosophy was radically different. Status was to be acquired not by power and heroic actions, but by selflessness, respect for others and non-violent behaviour. It challenged the concept of lineal heredity by associating a person’s worth with learning, rather than birthright. Only intellect and erudition could give an individual a ‘Mandate from Heaven’ to be in a position of authority.

Confucian precepts

The ideas of Confucius took root in China, and developed further. Deference was central to the code of conduct: children were to obey their parents without question, wives their husbands, students their teachers and citizens their rulers. Education was the primary means of advancement.

Confucius’s ideas led to a rigidly stratified society. Children were taught their filial duties to their parents and the community to prepare them to assume their correct place in the social hierarchy and to behave accordingly. Those that succeeded in education would achieve higher rank. Those that surpassed their fellows would be able to enter the ranks of the Mandarins, a non-hereditary ruling class immediately under the Emperor.

Social stability at the expense of progress

The emphasis upon tradition and social order created stability and uniformity but, over time, diminished national and personal initiative. Progress and change slowed to a snail’s pace. Gradually Confucianism absorbed elements of Taoism, degenerating into an ideology in which the Emperor and Mandarins used their ‘Mandate from Heaven’ for their own purposes. Eventually, a stagnating China was easy prey for invaders from Europe, whose military technology had long outpaced that of the Chinese.

Confucianism in Vietnam

Confucianism was firmly implanted in Vietnam during the thousand years of its occupation by China and mirrored its development. As in China, an intellectual elite developed, and the principles of obedience and respect for education and authority were instilled throughout society, profoundly influencing the family structure and creating a tightly defined social hierarchy.

In Hanoi in 1070, the establishment of the Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), a temple of learning dedicated to Confucius, marked the emergence of Confucianism as a cult. Like China, it reached a peak during the 15th century – the ‘golden age’ of King Le Thanh Tong, then steadily decayed into decadence and corruption opening the door for the French invasion.

The influence of Confucianism in Vietnam

The profound impact of Confucianism remains strong in Vietnam. Social order is defined by its principles, and the rituals or deference and obedience are still observed. Unlike the West, teachers and education are held in high esteem, children defer to their parents, even in middle age and beyond, and most wives still follow the wishes of their husbands without question.

However, the value of Confucianism as a moderating influence upon social behaviour is being rapidly superseded by the need for flexibility and openness in a developing society.


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