Cochinchina as a cultural precondition for the foundation of Caodaism (1)

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In her monograph titled Peasant politics and religious sectarianism: Peasant and priest in the Cao Dai in Vietnam, Jayne Susan Werner writes, “The Cao Dai cult was founded in Saigon in the year 1925 (...). Soon after its founding, the new religion gained a wide following throughout Cochinchina.” ([1])


According to the “Estimate of Cao Dai following given by the French Governor of Cochinchina, in a report to the Governor General of Indochina, Saigon, 14 December 1934. Personal Files of Governor Pagès...” ([2]) Werner writes, “Five hundred thousand to a million peasants were converted by 1930, out of a total population of 4 to 4.5 million.” ( [3])

In fact, the number of five hundred thousand or a million Caodaists as quoted above has produced controversies. As a primary summing-up, Victor L. Oliver writes:

Statistical data on the growth of Caodaism during these earliest years is unreliable and confusing. Nguyen Van Tam states they won almost 30,000 converts in six months. By October 1926 the membership had increased to 50,000.([4]) Duncanson, who is critical of the Caodai, insinuates that Le Van Trung, as a labor contractor of some frame, was able to muster the claimed 50,000 people present at the official inauguration. He implies that these members must be considered to be questionable ‘followers’.([5]) In 1928 Le Van Trung claimed over one million followers. In the same year, the newspaper L’Opinion published a membership figure of 700,000. This figure was rejected by Maurice Monribot in La Presse indochinoise who wrote that there were only about 200,000 Caodai members.([6])

Nguyen Tran Huan writes that by 1931 the Caodai had about 500,000 followers.([7]) Other writers have contradicted this estimation. For example, Ellen J. Hammer believes that the Caodai had over one million followers by 1930;([8]) Meillon in Les Messages spirites states that by 1930 the Caodaists consisted of about one-eighth (500,000) of the entire South Vietnamese population;([9]) G. Abadie writes that in 1932, Caodaism’s followers in Cochinchina numbered ‘more than one million out of three and a half million inhabitants.’ ([10])

The divergence of opinion on the actual numerical strength of the Caodai from 1925-1932 seems to indicate reluctance, on the part of some, to admit the success of Caodaism. On the other hand, extravagant claims by others suggests a defensive posture in the face of criticism. These inflated estimates were an attempt to over-exaggerate the movement’s success and to improve the image of the religion for the public.” ([11])

Having accounted for the controversial number of early Caodaists, Victor L. Oliver affirms, “The author believes a conservative estimate of Caodai membership (adults and children) in 1930 is 500,000. In any case, even in terms of the most modest estimates, the rapid growth in the early years is significant.” ([12])

Agreeing with Oliver on the number of five hundred thousand to a million Caodaists in 1930, Werner affirms, “Caodaism was the first large mass movement to appear in Cochinchina...” ([13])

Why did Caodaism appear and develop quickly in Cochinchina in the early 20th century rather than any other regions and other periods? One of various factors helping explain the question is that Cochinchina contains a cultural precondition appropriate to the foundation of Caodaism.

According to Thạch Phương, the striking cultural feature of Cochinchina is its openness in communications, its keenness towards the new, its spirit of democracy and equality, its righteousness, benevolence and tolerance, and its unrestraint against the rigid framework of feudalism.([14]) This feature might have made the Cochinchinese soon accept Caodaism although the new belief seemed to be different from other existing religions.

In addition, it is worth noting that specific natural conditions of Cochinchina inevitably have its own effects and strong impression on material, mental and spiritual lives of local residents. Trần Thị Thu Lương and Võ Thành Phương observe, “When the world’s major religions had no conditions to strongly exert their influence, Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] during the 18th and 19th centuries became favourable for the emergence of local religions…” ([15])

Consequently, when surveying the birth and growth of Caodaism in Cochinchina, one needs to explore Cochinchina and its people that created and have fostered Caodaism, an indigenous religion whose ideal of global salvation was declared even in its early beginnings.

* * *

Why does the title of this monograph includes Nam Kỳ (Cochinchina) instead of Nam Bộ (Southern Vietnam) or another name?

The term Nam Kỳ appeared for the first time in 1834 under the reign of king Minh Mạng. Literally, Kỳ 圻 means “a region”, and Nam Kỳ means “southern region”. The term Nam Bộ was not used by the press in place of Nam Kỳ until May 1945, after the Japanese army had overthrown the French colonial rule.([16]) Literally, Bộ 部 means “part”, and Nam Bộ means “southern part”.([17])

Caodaism was officially founded in 1926 long before the term Nam Bộ appeared. Thus it is reasonable enough to use the term Nam Kỳ in the monograph.([18]) This designation can be herein considered as a cultural one that refers to the period from the 1920s (when Caodaism came into being) backwards to the 17th century (when the first Vietnamese migrants under the Nguyễn dynasty settled in the southern region). The chosen term is not restricted to the period from the year 1834 onwards, when the name Nam Kỳ Lục Tỉnh (six Cochinchinese provinces) was officially recorded in historical works.

* * *

As mentioned above, the term Nam Kỳ is used in its cultural aspect without any political and historical significance. The title of the essay comprises “a cultural precondition”. What is meant by the term culture in this context?

I would like to use it with the meaning which was adopted by the international community at the intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies held in Venice in 1970 and was reported by Federico Mayor, Director-General of Unesco, as follows: “... culture englobes everything - from the most sophisticated products to beliefs, customs, ways of living and working - which differentiates one people from another.” ([19])

With this meaning, cultural preconditions refer to all culturally necessary conditions prior to the birth of Caodaism so that this new religion, just when apprearing in Cochinchina, could not only accommodate to the local inhabitants’ lifestyles, customs, habits, and beliefs, but also have special features different from those of other beliefs already existing in the region.

* * *

On seeing that cultural preconditions are typicality of the South, we, as Sơn Nam says, will “understand further why the South has some religious features which the North and the Central lack.” ([20]) As seen by Đinh Văn Hạnh, the reason is that in Cochinchina there have been “profound preconditions for the characteristics of cultural, mental, and spiritual life of the Vietnamese” living in the region.([21])

Preliminarily surveying Cochinchina as a cultural precondition for the foundation of Caodaism, the monograph examines five aspects as follows:

i. The openness of Cochinchinese physical geography;

ii. The openness and dynamism of Cochinchinese villages;

iii. Multiracial and multi-religious features of Cochinchina;

iv. Cochinchinese characteristics; and

v. Spiritual needs of Cochinchinese inhabitants.

In presenting these five aspects, I am trying to sieve and make the best use of publications of both Vietnamese and foreign authors who are non-Caodaists, hoping that their professional view-points could helpfully offer an objective understanding of the birth of Caodaism in the early 20th century Cochinchina.

In other words, by following Confucius’s principle of “transmitting and not making”, I am wishful that the arguments presented in this monograph would be free from subjective judgement and bias so that they might help form an insight into the cultural precondition for the foundation of Caodaism, a young religion which has really existed in the spirituality of the Vietnamese people for over three-fourths of a century.



(RELIGION Publishing House, 2012, p.55-61)

(to be continued)

[1] [Werner 1981: 4]. N.B. – This footnote indicates that the above quotation is from a Werner’s book published in 1981, page 4. For the related source in details, see “Bibliography” at the end of this monography (p. 95).

[2] [Werner 1981: 72].

[3] [Werner 1981: 4].

[4] [Nguyễn Văn Tâm 1949: 4-5].

[5] [Duncanson 1968: 125-126].

[6] [Smith 1970: 341].

[7] [Nguyễn Trần Huân 1958: 273].

[8] [Hammer 1954: 79].

[9] [Meillon 1962: 14].

[10] [Gobron 1950: 103].

[11] [Oliver 1976: 41-42].

[12] [Oliver 1976: 42].

[13] [Werner 1981: 15].

[14] [Thạch Phương 1992: 249, 253, 254, 258].

[15] [Trần Thị Thu Lương 1991: 42].

[16] [Bằng Giang 1992: 11, 14].

[17] [Bằng Giang 1992: 11, 14].

[18] The name Nam Kỳ herein does not refer to the short period from 1 June 1946 to 19 May 1948, when a puppet administration was formed by the French colonialism. When quoting other writers, in the English text, I thoughtfully insert [Cochinchina] right after “Southern Vietnam” which means “Nam Bộ” in their original texts.


[20] [Sơn Nam 1971: VII].

[21] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 30].