Cochinchina as a cultural precondition for the foundation of Caodaism (3)

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According to Huỳnh Lứa, “In the beginnings of its reclamation, Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] generally and the Mekong Delta particularly housed various nationalities, which is a noteworthy characteristic of this region in comparison with others in Vietnam.” ([1])

Indeed, including the Viets (also called the Kinhs), there are fifty-four nationalities (ethnic groups) in Vietnam. In Cochinchina alone, besides the Viets and the Chinese there are seven other nationalities: the Khmers, the K’hors, the Chams, the Mnongs, the Stiengs, the Mas and the Churus.([2])

The Viets. The Viets started reclaiming and settling in Cochinchina in the 17th century. The Viets’ unceasing migration took place throughout the civil war between the Trịnhs and the Nguyễns. The migration accelerated when the Nguyễn lords carried out their Southward march policy.([3])

The Chinese. In the late 18th century, according to Huỳnh Lứa, Chinese immigrants from Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Chaozhou, and Hainan came and settled down in Cochinchina (Mỹ Tho, Biên Hòa, Hà Tiên provinces and the Mekong Delta).([4])

The Khmers. Before the 17th century, according to Đinh Văn Hạnh, when Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham emigrants did not settle in Cochinchina, the Khmers with their culture was predominant in the region.([5])

According to Đinh Văn Liên, the population of the Viets, the Chinese, and the Khmers in Cochinchina in the late 19th century was as follows:([6])













The Chams. In the 17th and 18th centuries, part of the Cham ethnic group in the south of Annam (Central Vietnam) immigrated to Cambodia and Siam (Thailand), where they were in contact with and under the influence of Indian-born and Malayan-born inhabitant groups. In the 19th century, returning to Vietnam and settling down in Châu Đốc as well as in other Cochinchinese provinces, those Chams brought back what they had got from Cambodian, Siamese, Malayan, and Indian cultures.([7]) In 1880, the population of Chams in Châu Đốc province made up to around 13,200.([8])

Other ethnic groups. Besides ethnic groups living in Cochinchina before the Viets arrived, there had been other nationalities in the region. This fact was recorded in many works written in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries. For example:

Gia Định thành thông chí (Gazetteer of Gia Định citadel) by Trịnh Hoài Đức (1765-1825) reads, “Gia Định is a southern part of Vietnam. In its early time of reclamation, Vietnamese migrants lived among the immigrants from China, Cambodia, France, England, Macao, and Java. However, each ethnic group maintained their own customs and practices.” ([9])

Cổ Gia Định phong cảnh vịnh (Poems about landscape of old Gia Định), ascribed to Ngô Nhơn Tịnh (?-1813), reports that when white European and curly-haired black Javanese immigrants arrived in Cochinchina, their strange appearances made girls run away from the market square and oarsmen watch them with curiosity:([10])

Westerners with pale complexion,

deformed mouths, and strange stature,

who looked like monsters and demons,

scared away girls carrying shopping baskets.

Curly-haired and thick-lipped Javanese,

who were as black as soot,

and looked like celestial generals or thunder god,

made oarsmen watch them with curiosity.([11])

Ethnic groups arrived and settled down in Cochinchina at different times. They were much different in terms of social, economic, and religious development levels. For example, Cochinchinese villages were not as well organized as those in Annam and Tonkin. They were established when Vietnamese migrants reclaimed and shared the land with other ethnic groups (the Khmers, the Chams, and the Chinese).([12])This fact is significant in intercommunication and mutual impact of customs and beliefs among ethnic groups.” ([13]) Thạch Phương writes, “Many practical culture elements from the Chinese, the Chams and the Khmers were selectively absorbed by Vietnamese migrants without prejudice or allergic reactions.” ([14])

Due to Cochinchina’s convenient location, cultural exchange took place not only among local ethnic groups but also between natives and foreigners from Malaya, Siam (Thailand), Java and so on. Cochinchinese inhabitants also had some relations with age-old South Asian cultures.([15])

Đinh Văn Hạnh observes, “… living among other ethnic groups (the Chinese, the Chams and the Khmers), who also have religious tolerance, Cochinchinese inhabitants in Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] have a unique and diverse religious life. Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] admits more religions than any region in Vietnam, with special characteristics found nowhere else. The process of introduction, formation, and development of religious beliefs in Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] was linked with the ups and downs in history as well as socio-economic and cultural features peculiar to the region.” ([16])

● In short, before the birth of Caodaism, the coexistence of different nationalities in Cochinchina during some 200 years had enabled the new region to have an open condition for cultural exchange and association. We could say that Cochinchina had allowed a multi-cultural tendency from its very beginning, thus it showed no allergic attitude toward a syncretic belief like Caodaism. That is why the seed of Caodaism sown in Cochinchina could develop well in spite of harsh conditions in history.


The multinational feature of Cochinchina inevitably resulted in its multireligious feature explained by Hồ Lê as follows, “Lots of wars occurred in over 200 years, from the 17th to the 19th century. Lots of people were killed and lots of families were separated… To reclaim land at border regions means to risk one’s neck. In such a condition, Southern Vietnamese [Cochinchinese] people had naturally to trust in luck. And to avoid bad luck, they had to beg help and support from gods, ancestors and other invisible powers as well. Partly due to this circumstance, Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] became fertile ground for seeds of various beliefs or religions.” ([17])

Đinh Văn Hạnh confirms, “Compared with other regions, Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] has much more religions whose followers accounts for the highest rate in the whole country.” ([18])

Though the beliefs of different ethnic groups in Cochinchina have not been surveyed thoroughly, it can be briefly said that Cochinchina has a variety of religious beliefs besides the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism) and Christianity. For instance:

The Khmers follow Hinayana Buddhism (i.e., Theravada).([19]) Believing in the afterlife or rebirth (samsara), they live peacefully with others, avoiding the rat race. Having saved a large sum of money, they often help building pagodas or support monks in order to accumulate blessing for a better afterlife.([20]) Khmer boys have to spend three years in pagodas learning general subjects and Buddhist teachings. After that they can either become monks or return to secular life.([21])

The Chams follow matriarchy ([22]) and are deeply influenced by Islamism and Hinduism (Brahmanism).([23]) They believe in doomsday, the last judgement, and rebirth.([24])

The Stiengs are polytheists and their most dominant deity is sun god.([25])

The Churus follow matriarchy. Their place of worship is usually a big age-old tree near their village.([26]) In other words, they are animists.

The Chinese, arriving in Cochinchina in the second half of the 17th century, introduced their own religious practices into the new land. Moreover, they also imported their traditional tendency to form secret societies which blended politics with religions.([27])

Despite its multiple types of beliefs, Cochinchina is free from religious conflicts. Huỳnh Lứa writes, “The coexistence of residents of different origins, religions, and development levels during many centuries never hinders the solidarity between different nationalities who share the land of Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina].” ([28])

Huỳnh Lứa observes, “A remarkable feature of the spiritual and cultural life in Cochinchina is that the Viets, the Khmers, the Chinese, and the Chams, while following their diverse religions, can peacefully coexist owing to their religious tolerance.” ([29])

The Viets have numerous cultural exchanges with other ethnic groups in the region in all aspects (...). During these exchanges, the Viets absorb foreign influences selectively, thus their culture has been improved and enriched with many distinctive features.” ([30])

● Thus, with their religious tolerance, the Cochinchinese found it easy to approach Caodaism and then accept it with their open mind. For its part, Caodaism is not against other religions already present in Cochinchina.([31]) This explains why Cochinchina became a successful starting point for Caodaism in the early 20th century.


Fertile soil allows seeds to grow better than barren one does. A bonsai could not develop as fully as plants growing in a garden watered and fertilized enough. Usually, a particular species of fruit is the product favoured by a certain habitat. Sơn Nam writes, “People are flowers of soil. Each habitat brings forth its typical produce. Generally, sour oranges or sweet ones depend on their habitat, which is impossibly converted.” ([32]) It is why a well-known speciality is traditionally “labelled” with a geographic name such as Biên Hòa grapefruits, Cái Bè oranges, Cái Mơn durians, Hòa Lộc mangoes, and Lái Thiêu mangosteens, etc.

Similarly, people’s characteristics must be affected by the natural environment where they live.([33]) Thus, a glimpse into Cochinchina’s natural conditions should be essential to understand the characteristics of the Cochinchinese.


Before reclamation, Cochinchina’s natural conditions were extremely harsh. Huỳnh Lứa writes, “The rich and diverse natural environment of Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] offered pioneers several advantages and simultaneously caused them various difficulties.” ([34])

Sơn Nam describes Cochinchina as “a paradise for tigers, crocodiles, poisonous snakes, and mosquitos spreading malaria. The low-level land was dank and abundant with rivers, arroyos, lakes, and pools. Its swamps were occupied by crowded flocks of storks. The grass which had withered in the dry season sprang up and grew taller than a man when rains came.([35])

Generations of migrants unceasingly moved to Cochinchina to reclaim its wilderness and made marshy land cultivable and habitable. This reclamation movement was mobilized by the Nguyễn lords in the 17th century.

During the Southward march, early migrants had to struggle continuously against beasts, crocodiles, snakes, mosquitos, miasma and diseases. Natural conditions of then Cochinchina enriched the Vietnamese language with old folk songs and sayings handed down from pioneers:

– The buzz of mosquitos is like flute sounds,

Swimming leeches look like vermicelli.

–Into devils does grass grow,

And in the field snakes can crow.

– Covered with salt water and alkaline soil,

Here and there rampage crocodiles and slither cobras.

– One is filled with fear of crocodile bites into the legs when rowing,

Of leeches when getting into rivers, and of ghosts in forests.

– So strange a land is Đồng Nai with its shoaling fish in rivers, and roaring tigers in forests.

– Here is a strange land,

So frightening is the warbling of birds or the sudden splashing of fish.

In 1735, Nguyễn Cư Trinh (1716-1767) set foot on Cochinchina after this region had been reclaimed for over a century, but he still sadly jotted down this line: 殘荷帶濕, 折柳霑泥. (Lotus withers in humid air, and broken sonneratiaceae branches fall into mud.)

His other verses: 千家流到蠻夷土. 水多鱷魚陸蛇虎.

Thousands of families came to this wilderness,

Where rivers are occupied by crocodiles,

And fields are the home of snakes and tigers.([36])

In the 19th century, after Cochinchina had been reclaimed for 200 years, its natural conditions still frightened French invaders. According to Sơn Nam, after conquering Cochinchina, French troops were very pessimistic because they found it impossible to settle down. They were fearful of mosquitos, snakes, burning sunlight and thundering rainstorms.([37])

How did such harsh natural conditions affect Cochinchinese characteristics? Huỳnh Lứa answers, “…with its own features, the natural environment of Southern Vietnam [Cochinchina] created profound impact on material and spiritual lives and the formation of local residents’ characteristics.” ([38])

Generation after generation, the characteristics of the migrants had actively shaped those of the Cochinchinese. These characteristics strongly showed themselves in the second half of the 19th century. According to Hồ Lê, “the Cochinchinese were dynamic, less conservative, and ready to accept the new.” ([39])


a. Open-mindedness

Speaking of the Cochinchinese characteristics, Sơn Nam observes, “The most prominent characteristic of early pioneers is that they loved freedom…” ([40])

Thạch Phương writes, “Settling down in a new region, communities of migrants – through their creativity and communication – gradually got a more liberal and active way of thinking. Their sight of reality became broader and was no longer limited by bamboo hedges or dikes.” ([41])

Đinh Văn Hạnh explains, “Living in a vast, newly reclaimed land, pioneers were free from the rat race common to narrow, populous areas. They became more tolerant, broad-minded, and generous. [On their Southward march,] constraint, rigidity, and pettiness were left behind to create a more liberal and unrestrained lifestyle…” ([42])

Nguyễn Văn Xuân asserts, “The biggest benefit the Cochinchinese enjoyed was that the Confucian education they got was less dogmatic than what was taught in Central Vietnam. Moreover, staying far away from the imperial court and living in a vast, fertile delta with large orchards yielding abundant produce of high quality, their emotions could be developed and enriched a lot.” ([43])

“… migrants were plain-hearted and it seems that the farther they went Southwards, the simpler they turned out…”_([44])

“… the South was not static due to pioneers’ constant mobility. They had to be continuously in search of adventures in order that their lifestyle could be more and more diversifying. It is worth noting that both the Nguyễn lords and their mandarins, born and brought up in the newly reclaimed land full of incessant activities, held little prejudice.” ([45])

● Possibly due to their openness, the Cochinchinese felt easy about accepting an open religion like Caodaism, whose altar presents a pantheon comprising several founders of other religions.

b. Democracy and equality

Thạch Phương writes, “The farther they moved southwards, the more their feudality faded and therefore replaced by democratic and egalitarian spirits that were realized in their rural community life as well as in their family routines.” ([46])

Village ties were strengthened by profound sentimental attachment, which is also the deep root of Cochinchinese democracy and egality.([47])