The serenity of renewal: Midnight on New Year's Eve at Temple of Literature

Thursday, 2018-02-15 14:14:45
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Do Ngoc Chung preparing the altar for the lunar New Year's Eve at Temple of Literature
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NDO – For those lucky enough to see in the lunar New Year at Hanoi’s ancient Temple of Literature, at midnight on New Year’s Eve there is an unforgettable experience as it is a unique time when the past and the future exist at once in the present for a fleeting moment.

As for Do Ngoc Chung, a man who has worked at the Temple of Literature for 30 years, the special moment always brings him a mixture of emotions and deep reflection.

He recalled the year of 1988, a time when the site had just reopened to the public and people’s lives were more difficult. On the last night of the year at the Temple of Literature, he could hear the distance rumble of firecrackers, which was growing ever more raucous with every passing hour up to midnight.

As the clock struck twelve, the bangs of firecrackers echoed around, as the Temple became blanketed in a cloud of smoke from the burning fireworks. The smoke mixed with the fog over the Thien Quang (Heavenly Clarity) well inside the site, and drifted through the soft spring drizzle, to create an indefinable emotion which can only be experienced on New Year’s Eve in the Temple of Literature. The shimmering reflections of fireworks on Thien Quang well painted a bright splash of colour across its surface.

On the eve of the lunar New Year, the staff of the Temple’s managing board gave a tray of offerings, including chicken sticky rice, square cake, incense, and flowers to pay gratitude to the ancestors. They then gathered together to listen to the New Year’s letter of the President over the radio, since television was such an expensive luxury in the 1980s.

When the incense sticks had burned to ashes, they enjoyed the dishes that were previously offered to the ancestors. Not all staff members are required to be present at the Temple for the last midnight of the year, but all of them want to be around to experience the transitional moment between the old and the New Year at this special historical site.

On such special nights, people often flock to the streets around the Temple. In stark contrast to the busyness of crowds outside, the space within the Temple is always extraordinarily quiet. The old man Do Ngoc Chung often walks leisurely across the the straight line linking Van Mieu gate, Dai Trung gate, Khue Van pavilion, and Thien Quang well.

On his 28th midnight of the last year at the Temple of Literature, Chung might take a serene stroll across the site as is his tradition.

It was people’s belief in the olden days, that the square shape of Thien Quang well represents the earth, while the two circular windows of the Khue Van pavilion symbolise the sky, signifying that the place is home to the essence of both heaven and earth.

The Temple of Literature has been open to the public from the first day of the lunar New Year a decade ago. Students come to the site at the beginning of the year to pray for a good academic term and for good marks in their exams. Visitors come to the Temple to ask calligraphers, who are usually Confucian scholars, for a “blessed” letter to bring good fortune for the upcoming year.

Since 1993, famous calligrapher Le Xuan Hoa has chosen the Temple for his pen-brush opening, or “Khai But” in Vietnamese - a tradition which has existed for thousands of years in Vietnam, from when scholars and writers penned a line of prose or poetry to begin a new-year writing period.

As the number of scholars coming to the Temple has increased, so too has the number of people arriving to ask for a “blessed” letter. In response, the Temple’s management board decided to set up a space along the pavement outside the Temple during the first half of the lunar New Year as a venue for those seeking a blessing from Confucian scholars. The space has now been moved to Van Lake, opposite the Temple.

In his 30 years of work at the Temple, Chung recognised that in the past people came to the Temple of Literature at a more leisurely, unhurried pace of life, while life today has become anxiously fast-paced and frantic and people seem to be always in such a rush for nothing much.

Another lunar New Year is just around the corner. On his 28th midnight of the last year at the Temple, Chung might take a serene stroll across the site as is his tradition. Over the many years of experiencing that special moment of transformation, he has held that there is nothing more illustrious or rejuvenating than the ambience of the Temple of Literature as the past year slips gently away and the new one bursts into life.

PHUNG NGUYEN