Cochinchina as a cultural precondition for the foundation of Caodaism (2)

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Cochinchina consists of the eastern region stretching 27,920 square kilometres (10,78 square miles) and the Mekong Delta covering 39,950 square kilometres (15,425 square miles). Occupying an area of 67,870 square kilometres (26,205 square miles), Cochinchina is the biggest delta in Asia and Vietnam as well.([1]) Situated at the centre of Southeast Asia, Cochinchina has long been regarded as “the most convenient position for connecting and communicating with neighbouring countries in the region”.([2])


Cochinchina has been considered as a crossroad of flows of migrants and cultural intercourses.([3]) That is why it has long become an open and dynamic convergence of both oriental and occidental cultures.([4]) The spirit of religious tolerance in Cochinchina is also one common characteristic of Southeast Asian religions, which accepts co-existence without discrimination, conflicts, or holy wars.([5])


Cochinchinese rivers and canals are numerous and intertwined. According to an author, the total length of Cochinchinese waterways amounts to 5,000 kilometres (3,125 miles).([6])

The Mekong Delta borders seas on both sides. In the same delta lots of rivers run in opposite directions: some flow to the South China Sea in the east, others to the Gulf of Thailand in the west. Moreover, with an interlaced system of canals connecting these opposite currents, the sea-water in the east and the one in the west seem to converge.([7])

In western Cochinchina, according to Vũ Tự Lập, “Besides large rivers deriving from the Mekong, (…) there are numerous canals and small rivers. In the southwestern delta, rivers and canals are intertwined and flow to either the South China Sea or the Gulf of Thailand under the strong impact of tides which make water flow alternatively from east to west or vice versa. Thanks to this feature, traffic on the water route becomes very convenient.” ([8])

Đinh Văn Hạnh asserts that this unique feature of Cochinchinese waterways is an “outstanding advantage (…) that makes this delta open to all foreign influences.” ([9])

● What could be drawn from the above observations? ([10]) With its intertwined waterways open to a convergence of both eastern and western cultures, Cochinchina is apt to produce open-minded people who are inclined to synthesize Eastern and Western influences. Cochinchinese physical geography might be regarded as a favourable precondition for the birth of Caodaism, a religion that “selects the crucial elements of all past and present religious teachings and harmoniously combines the East and the West cultural values.” ([11])



a. An open terrain

According to Huỳnh Lứa, in Cochinchina, especially the Mekong Delta, villages “are generally formed along rivers and arroyos. Often along both waterway banks sit hamlets with no surrounding bamboo hedges. Usually in the middle of orchards are houses facing a waterway with passing-by boats. Behind the houses are rice fields.” ([12])

In more details, Thạch Phương divides Cochinchinese villages into four main groups:

i. “The most common group includes villages lying along waterways. In the villages, orchards join orchards or alternate with rice fields.”

ii. “The development of roads gave rise to roadside villages where, unlike the first group, houses and orchards do not join together.”

iii. “The third group includes villages found at river mouths or meeting places of flows (under influence of tides). These places tend to develop into marketplaces or towns where stores, inns, warehouses and repair shops were built.”

iv. In eastern Cochinchina, “villages emerge on hills or raised level areas…” ([13])

Lacking bamboo hedges, Cochinchinese villages are not isolated or separated from one another like those in Northern Vietnam.([14])

On the openness of Cochinchinese villages in comparison with Tonkinese ones, worth noting is an opinion given by Trần Đình Hượu, an author from the North. He considers each northern village as an island isolated by bamboo ramparts with only one road leading to a village brick gate with ironwood doors. Therefore, Tonkinese villages look more defensive, unfriendly, and less hospitable.([15]) In his Paysans du Delta Tonkinois, P. Gourou also observes that each village in Tonkin is a closed community surrounded by bamboos and each house has its own hedge or surrounding wall.([16])

b. Open institutions

In addition to their open terrain, Cochinchinese villages also enjoy open institutions.

Explaining why Cochinchinese villages enjoy institutions absent in Tonkin and Annam, Thạch Phương argues that Cochinchina was the new land reclaimed by migrants, and “its villages, therefore, have a shorter history in comparison with those in Tonkin and Annam. Community activities are also free from strict rules, complicated rituals, and practices common to villages in other regions.” ([17])

Cochinchinese villages have no village codes, divine legends, and records.([18]) Thus, according to Thạch Phương, “Cochinchinese villages, even the quite long-established ones, have no strict institutions. (…) In general, unlike those in the North and Central Vietnam, Cochinchinese villagers are not bound by any strict codes and regulations.” ([19])

Sharing the above view, Huỳnh Lứa argues that villages in the newly reclaimed land “were not bound to complicated and strict village codes and practices. There was no discrimination between age-old settlers and newcomers. After the Nguyễn dynasty had established and consolidated its administrative machinery, the situation underwent some changes. However, in general, southern village institutions were still looser than those in the Northern delta.” ([20])


Most Tonkinese villages are age-old. Each often has its own traditions and villagers are proud to preserve their old traditions. Thus, Tonkinese villages are often communities of some clans. Contrarily, Cochinchina is the newly reclaimed region attracting people of diverse origins. Therefore, Cochinchinese villages have dynamism as a common attribute of newly reclaimed regions. The main factor creating this dynamism is migrations, and nothing else.

Historical documents provide specific evidence of this dynamism. Indeed, after suppressing uprisings in An Định village (Châu Đốc province), with a view to control the village population, French colonials carried out a census in 1887. The result showed that 407 families in the village had come from 13 different Cochinchinese provinces. Following their tracks backwards, the very origin of those migrants was Central Vietnam.([21])

Due to their diversified origins, most families in Cochinchina lack genealogies. Sơn Nam explains, “There are almost no genealogies in Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina]. Pioneers reclaiming this region kept no records in order to hide their identity as a precaution against the feudal law executing a culprit’s three families (i.e., those of his father, his mother, and his wife).” ([22])

The agricultural dynamism of Cochinchinese villages can be found in phụ canh rice fields, which are almost rare in Tonkin. What are phụ canh rice fields? Trần Thị Thu Lương explains, “Phụ canh rice fields are those owned by non-natives of the hamlet or village where the fields lie.” ([23])

Nguyễn Công Bình writes, “While phụ canh rice fields only exist in some villages in the Red River Delta, they are widespread in the Mekong Delta, where peasants often own rice fields far from their native village. Several families possess such fields lying in other villages, communes, cantons, districts or even provinces. One family may simultaneously own several phụ canh rice fields in various hamlets, villages, cantons, or districts.” ([24])

Studying the land registers of 92 communes where private fields were scattered among 8 Cochinchinese cantons in the early 19th century, Trần Thị Thu Lương finds out phụ canh rice fields existing in 76 out of 92 communes. Their owners amount to 1,159, accounting for 24.2% of 4,793 peasants. The total area of phụ canh rice fields adds up to 17,635.6 hectares, accounting for 28.35% of private fields (62,202.3 hectares).([25])

From the result of her study of Cochinchinese land in the 19th century, Trần Thị Thu Lương observes, “The presence of phụ canh rice fields in then Cochinchina reflects the openness of the region in terms of land ownership interchanged among hamlets and communes. It also reflects the strong mobility of Southern [Cochinchinese] peasants.” ([26])

● In short, openness and dynamism are characteristics of Cochinchinese villages as well as those of Cochinchinese people. This fact of course results in their open-mindedness and readiness to contact and accept what is new. Cochinchinese people are, as a result, easy to tolerate, admit, and actively support the new. Their mentality and behaviour are most favourable for the birth of a new religion like Caodaism.

Indeed, instead of being allergic to the new, Cochinchinese people were prompt and eager to follow, en masse, such a new religion as Caodaism. They quickly shaped an extraordinary phenomenon in history, which was later called a “new wave” or a “movement” by Western scholars. These two terms might not be appropriate when referring to a religion, but they to some extent reflect the fast spread of Caodaism in Cochinchina.

(to be continued)



(RELIGION Publishing House, 2012, p.61-68)

[1] [Huỳnh Lứa 1987: 17, 19].

[2] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 12].

[3] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 13].

[4] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 13].

[5] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 308].

[6] [KHXH 1982: 54].

[7] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 14].

[8] [Vũ Tự Lập 1978: 161-162].

[9] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 14].

[10] After having presented other authors’ observations, I try to elicit some remarks on the whys of the Caodai birth in Cochinchina. My elicitations are marked with the sign ●.

[11] [Lê Anh Dũng 1996: 15].

[12] [Thạch Phương 1992: 38].

[13] [Thạch Phương 1992: 55].

[14] [Nguyễn Phương Thảo 1994: 10].

[15] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 301].

[16] [Nguyễn Phương Thảo 1994: 9].

[17] [Thạch Phương 1992: 59].

[18] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 302].

[19] [Thạch Phương 1992: 55].

[20] [Thạch Phương 1992: 38].

[21] [Phan Quang 1981: 214].

[22] [Sơn Nam 1993: 31].

[23] [Trần Thị Thu Lương 1995: 177].

[24] [Nguyễn Công Bình 1995: 77].

[25] [Trần Thị Thu Lương 1995: 178-179].

[26] [Trần Thị Thu Lương 1995: 182].