Cochinchina as a cultural precondition for the foundation of Caodaism (4)

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Influenced by the Three Teachings (Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism), according to Sơn Nam, Cochinchinese residents “have built up a spiritual life that is quite warm, egalitarian and based on the brotherhood and loyalty to one another in times of trouble. Actually, the Three Teachings have crystallized into the Cochinchinese lifestyle.” [1]

His opinion is quite right. However, through the analysis of the setting of Cochinchina in its early days of reclamation, the impact of the Three Teachings was widespread but unnoticeable. In fact, the Three Teachings were not leading the migrant spiritual life in Cochinchina on the whole.


In Sơn Nam’s opinion, Cochinchina was a new land where “Confucius was not well-known; if any, this sage was not much respected.” [2] However, Confucianism still “permeated slightly among the common people”.[3] Its impact on Cochinchinese lifestyles and their way of thinking was not so strong as that on Tonkinese and Annamese (i.e., Northern and central Vietnam) because indomitable migrants tended to demolish every binding form of old social conventions and practices.


The profound Buddhist teaching began to decline more and more from the 15th to the early 20th century. Settling in a newly reclaimed land full of hardship, lacking genuine religious guidance, rebellious souls were apt to cast off their poor remaining knowledge of Buddhism on the Southward march. Đinh Văn Hạnh observes, “Buddhism, therefore, was short of suitable circumstances to permeate through the spiritual life of most peasants.” [4]

Sơn Nam outlines a Buddhist setting in the new land as follows, “Buddhism should be suitable for illiterate people. Thus, its essence was blended with folk beliefs and Daoist spells and mantras [5]; “… Daoist gods like Local Princess, Guanyu (War Lord) were worshipped in pagodas [6];Formerly, pagodas did not strictly belong to a particular school [7];Pagodas in a newly reclaimed land generally did not attach importance to training qualified monks but focussed on rituals in order to spread ethical concepts, karmic retributions, nirvana, Western Buddhaland, and hell. Rituals should fit folks as much as possible.” [8]

In his stories such as Hương rừng Cà Mau (The scent of Cà Mau forests), Vạch một chân trời (Opening a new horizon), Hai cõi U Minh (The two worlds of U Minh, i.e.,, Upper and Lower U Minh in Cà Mau province), Sơn Nam vividly portrays harsh and risky life of migrants in Cochinchina: they had to eat everything they got, even snakes or turtles, and fight against boas, boars, tigers, and crocodiles, etc. By a fire to ward off mosquitoes, a bottle of rice alcohol was the simplest way to help migrants forget their sorrow and solitude in the middle of nowhere. In such a situation, how could pioneers observe some Buddhist precepts (not to kill, not to eat meat, not to drink liquor)?


Like Confucian metaphysics and Buddhist mahayana, Daoist philosophy of nonaction (wuwei) and tranquility was too profound to fit migrants’ souls in early times of Cochinchinese reclamation. Cochinchina became a fertile ground for variations of folk Daoism. According to Sơn Nam, “the masses did not use the exact term of Daoism or distinguish between Daoist sects. Immortality cult was the common name instead.([9])

Folk Daoism could attract peasants and assemble forces to fight against foreign invaders, cruel landlords and village tyrants. Chinese immigrants brought with them the tendency to set up secret societies in order to protect their colonies or engage in political activities. Heaven-Earth Society was an example.

In the late 19th century, folk Daoism and its variations became the mainstream of fervent spiritual activities in Cochinchina and had close connection with patriotic movements against the French colonialism.


According to Huỳnh Lứa, “a group of Vietnamese migrants, most of whom were Catholics, fled from religious persecution and settled down in Cái Mơn and Cái Nhum in the early 19th century. Later, some of them went to Sóc Sãi, Ba Vác, Pang Tra Thom and Mỏ Cày after local Khmers had left these places.” [10]

Cái Mơn used to be of Vĩnh Long province; today it is in Vĩnh Thành commune, Chợ Lách district, Bến Tre province. According to another source, Catholicism has been in Cái Nhum (Long Thới commune today, Chợ Lách district, Bến Tre province) since 1731 (

According to Hall, in Hòn Đất (Hà Tiên province) in the second half of the 18th century, there was a small Catholic bamboo chapel for some forty seminarists from Vietnam, China, and Siam (Thailand). Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau, a French priest, came there in 1765.[11]

Sơn Nam adds that many Catholics escaping from persecution came to Hậu Giang area and settled in Cái Đôi and Cù Lao Giêng (1778), Bò Ót (1779), and Năng Gù (1854).[12]

Cù Lao Giêng is an islet in the middle of the Tiền river, of Tấn Mỹ commune, Chợ Mới district, An Giang province. There the French built a church used as a Catholic seminary until 1946, and a convent also used as an orphanage and old-age home operated by nuns of the Providence order.

According to a report dated 14 December 1934 sent to the Governor General of Indochina by Cochinchinese Governor Pagès, Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam in 1596 by Portuguese Dominican missionaries, who were followed by French Jesuits. In 1924, there were about 80,000 Catholics in Cochinchina, 156 parishes, 38 French missionaries, and 28 Vietnamese priests.[13]

However, as remarked by Trần Thị Thu Lương and Võ Thành Phương, “despite the fact that numerous Catholic communities existed in Vietnam in the 19th century, and that a number of Catholics fled to the Mekong Delta due to the Nguyễn dynasty’s prohibition against Catholicism, the influence of this religion was not strong enough.” [14]

Đinh Văn Hạnh estimates, “Throughout a long period of time, inhabitants of the South [Cochinchina] had been affected by neither governing ideology nor leading religion. Instead, they were influenced simultaneously by various religions and thoughts, new and oldat tholicismmmune, Chợ Mới district, An Giang province. .” [15]

As emphasized by Đinh Văn Hạnh, migrants and pioneers were in great need of religions and spiritual life; nevertheless, due to various reasons, available religions and ideologies at that time failed to meet their need.[16]


Đinh Văn Hạnh’s above-mentioned opinion is shared by other authors. Sơn Nam writes, “Generally speaking, under the French colonialists’ dominant rule, Southern [Cochinchinese] inhabitants adapted themselves to the situation and old ideologies had lost their vitality.” ([17])

On the expression of the Cochinchinese’s spiritual need in the late 19th century, some authors merely regard it as “a psychological gap” urging them to look for a new religion.[18] Nevertheless, Jayne Susan Werner exactly names it an ideological gap in Cochinchina before the 20th century: “There had been a decline of Buddhism and Confucianism, leaving a cultural vacuum propitious to the creation of new doctrines aimed at the renewal of Vietnamese culture.” [19]

That gap resulted from the fact that Cochinchina had been conquered and turned into a French colony. Werner writes, “... the decline of Confucianism and Buddhism following the French conquest. Learned Buddhist and Daoist practitioners were practically nonexistent in the south in the 1920s. Confucianism had lost its force as a political and social doctrine, although it continued to have some appeal as the basis for family morality in the 1920s and 1930s.” [20]


Pointing out the ideological gap in Cochinchina in the early 20th century, Werner explains why Caodaism strongly appealed to Cochinchinese inhabitants: “Indeed, the Cao Dai cult can be seen in part as an attempt to revitalize the Buddhist faith - traditional religious leaders such as ‘Buddhist’ monks, Daoist priests, and Minh sect practitioners flocked to Caodaism when it was first founded. Cao Dai organizers also used Buddhist pagodas for their services throughout Cochinchina, before their own temples were built, and some of the bonzes who headed these pagodas converted to Caodaism. In areas swept by Caodaism, pagoda congregations were known to switch en masse to the sect.”_[21]

● In short, in the new land of Cochinchina − despite the presence of local ethnic groups’ indigenous beliefs, of old-age religions brought southwards by migrants, and of Catholicism introduced by Europeans − the Cochinchinese’s soul was occupied by a void due to a spiritual need unsatisfied.

The Cochinchinese in the early 20th century really needed another expression of spirituality, newer but not completely strange, which they did not feel allergic to or unfit for. To fill that ideological gap, the Cochinchinese could find many values in Caodaism, new but familiar, mysterious but friendly, simple but well-organized in a colourful form.

That is why the Cochinchinese followed Caodaism en masse as soon as it came into being although its founders were not professionally trained missionaries. Indeed, most of the earliest Caodaist apostles were from many social strata, of different educational backgrounds, and they had never taken any seminary courses before their fervent missionary work.


The above overview certainly cannot describe all relations between natural, social factors in Cochinchina and the birth of Caodaism in the region. The main points of this thin monograph can be summed up as follows:

– Cochinchina was a new, open and dynamic region where Western and Eastern cultures, and where different ethnic groups, religions and beliefs converged.

– Living in a multi-cultural environment, the Cochinchinese developed their own characteristics which were equalitarian, democratic, open-minded, and keen to accept the new.

– Cochinchina and its people were, therefore, ready to absorb and support the new, especially when the new was not only familiar to their mentality but also able to fill their ideological gap in the early 20th century.

Founded in Cochinchina in such a historical, natural and social context, Caodaism soon attracted the Cochinchinese en masse within a short period of only a few years.

It is worth noting that the Cochinchinese’s zeal for a new religion like Caodaism possibly reflected their subconscious desire to escape from traditional moulds of old-age cultural mainstreams to find a new horizon. Caodaism, however, did not encourage its followers to cast off tradition in exchange for modernity.

In other words, Caodaism provides a renovation based on sieved traditional values:

It’s Me [God] who came to Vietnam,

On this soil,

To sow the seed of Caodaism,

Water and fertilize the existing Three Teachings tree,

And better its foliage,

To help Man harmonize with the Dao.[22]

As a young religion founded on the soil with long-established ones which deeply impacted the Vietnamese historically, culturally, and psychologically, Caodaism developed its own approach by basing the modern on the tradition and Vietnamizing foreign cultures to make them suitable for Vietnamese mentality:

Embracing, profound and comprehensive,

The teaching of Caodaism with its new thoughts,

Has gone into the ancient religious legacy,

Given its sound foundation.[23]

To turn Cochinchina into a fertile region like present-day southern Vietnam, it took some 300 years for generations of pioneers who had to fight unceasingly against wild beasts and harsh natural conditions to survive and develop the new land for their posterities to enjoy fresh water, sweet fruits, and immense rice fields.

Of those 300 historical years, Caodaism covers less than one third. Innumerable hardships and perilousness suffered by Caodaist founders are possibly not much different from those endured by generations of pioneers in Cochinchina. They all yearned to open a bright horizon for their descendants.

To some extent, surveying Cochinchina helps to understand better the beginnings of Caodaism, a belief imbued so much with the national spirit.



(RELIGION Publishing House, 2012, p.86-95)

[1] [Sơn Nam 1971: VI].

[2] [Sơn Nam 2000: 58].

[3] [Sơn Nam 2000: 60].

[4] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 34-35].

[5] [Sơn Nam 2000: 70].

[6] [Sơn Nam 2000: 66].

[7] [Sơn Nam 2000: 71].

[8] [Sơn Nam 2000: 66].

[9] [Sơn Nam 2000: 60-61].

[10] [Huỳnh Lứa 1987: 53].

[11] [Hall 1997: 630].

[12] [Sơn Nam 1959: 59].

[13] [Werner 1976: 5], footnote 5.

[14] [Trần Thị Thu Lương 1991: 42].

[15] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 37].

[16] [Đinh Văn Hạnh 1999: 37-38].

[17] [Sơn Nam 2000: 58].

[18] [Nguyễn Phương Thảo 1994: 28].

[19] [Werner 1981: 56].

[20] [Werner 1981: 13].

[21] [Werner 1981: 13].

[22] [TGST 1966-67: 34].

[23] Li Taibai, Spiritual Pope of Caodaism (16 November 1986).