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Vol. XXXIII Part 2, 1970






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Few phenomena in the modern history of Asia can have been so completely misunderstood by Westerners as the Vietnamese religions (and political) movement known in European languages as ‘Caodaism’. Based upon a syncretic approach to religion, in which a key role is played by spirit-seances, it has inevitably been regarded by Christian writers with the same suspicion (if not contempt) as occidental ‘spiritualism’; and this initial lack of sympathy is compounded by the fact that the spirits who have revealed themselves at Caodaist seances include such familiar figures as Victor Hugo and Jeanne d'Arc. Then there is the show-piece temple of the Caodaists at Tây-Ninh, which drew forth Mr. Graham Greene's description of ‘Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor’.[1] This superficial notion of the religious element in Caodaism fitted in very well with the cynicism of political observers, notably Bernard Fall, who saw in Caodaism no more than a political movement anxious to preserve its private armies and local power, using its religious ideas merely to dupe a credulous peasantry.[2] In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the real nature and origins of Caodaism have been lost from view, and even its history has never been adequately summarized in any Western language. The present article will attempt to fill the historical gap, by tracing the history of the religion from 1925 to 1936; and then looking at its by tracing and antecedents. A subsequent article (to appear in BSOAS, XXXIII, 3. 1970) will analyse the various beliefs which have been incorporated into this essentially syncretic cult.

To some extent Western ignorance about Caodaism is the responsibility of the Caodaists themselves. In the early days it was their deliberate intention to conceal their activities from the French, except in so far as it was necessary to offer the authorities a faade in order to obtain formal permission to open ‘oratories’ (thánh-thất). Moreover, it is in the tradition of Vietnamese religious sects to keep their innermost beliefs secret, not only from the authorities but from all outsiders. They did, it is true, put out a small amount of literature in French and English (especially around 1950-1, when there was a possibility that they might attract American support); but it is not easy to interpret correctly unless one is able to relate it to a wider background of Chinese and Vietnamese religious practices.[3] Moreover, it is very easy to be misled by then works into thinking that they contain the whole truth, whereas in fact they give only a few clues. It is only in recent years that a number of more detailed accounts of the early history of Caodaism have been published, in Vietnamese, and it is those works which form the most important source material for the present article. The author has probably not found all available writing, of this kind, but in the present state of Western knowledge one may hope that it is excusable to publish an article based on incomplete material. The most important works used are a history of Caodaism by Đồng Tân, of which that first volume appeared in 1967; and a biography of Nguyễn Ngọc Tương published in 1958.[4] Another valuable source is the number of the bilingual Revue Caodađque for December 1950, which contains some material about the early history of the religion.[5] In addition mention may be made of two Western-language accounts by people who were not themselves Caodaists: that compiled by the French colonial Suâreté in 1933-4,[6] and that written by the American anthropologist Dr. G. C. Hickey, relating particularly to the village of Khánh-Hậu (Long-An province) in the 1950's.[7] Finally, it is possible to glean a little additional information from contemporary accounts in the Saigon press, notably the Écho Annamite (1920-42), whose director was for a long time Nguyễn Phan Long, a sympathizer and eventually an active member of the Caodaist movement.


The formal inauguration of the Cao Đài religion took place at a ceremony near Tây-Ninh, on 18 November 1926. Tây-Ninh has remained ever since the most publicized centre of Caodaist activity, though not necessarily the most important at all periods. As a centre its scale has increased with the passage of time. The inauguration ceremony took place in the village of G̣-Kén, five km. south of the town of Tây-Ninh, where the Từ Lâm Tự temple had just been built by a Buddhist monk, the hoà thượng Giác-Hải, of Chợ-Lớn. He was a convert to the new religion, and had eagerly made over his new temple io its leaders; but the laymen who had subscribed funds to construct the temple were less happy with the arrangement, and consequently the Caodaists had to leave and find a new home as early as March 1927.[8] They moved to another village, Long-Thành, not far away, and began to construct a new temple of their own with funds donated by Madame Lâm Thị Thanh, a businesswoman of Vũng-Liêm (My-Tho), who was rewarded by becoming the first woman to hold high office in the Caodaist hierarchy, with the grade of Phối-sư.[9] The present temple was presumably the result of this donation, though the date of its final completion is not recorded in any of the materials used for this study. But it was not merely the temple which made Tây-Ninh so important as a Caodaist centre. In August 1930 there were press reports that the Caodaist leader, Lê Văn Trung, had appealed to followers living in various parts of French Cochinchina to move to Tây-Ninh to settle on 500 hectares of land which the movement had acquired.[10] A description of the Caodaist settlement as it was in 1932 indicates that the movement had two ‘concessions provisoires’ at Long-Thành, amounting to 196 hectares (none of it rice-land) and in addition an unspecified area of rice-land at the village of Hiệp-Ninh, a little towards the north.[11] There were also workshops of various kinds, and the community living there had (in the early days at least) something in common with the self-sufficient communities favoured by Gandhi in India. Indeed, given the considerable interest in Indian affairs shown by some of the Saigon press at that time, it is not impossible that Gandhi provided the inspiration for the Tây-Ninh community. But in the details of its administration, as well as in its religious content, Caodaism was thoroughly Vietnamese. Nor is it likely that Gandhi would have approved the development of Tây-Ninh into a military centre, which was to happen in the years after 1945 when the Caodaists created their own private army.

In some respects Tây-Ninh was recognized by all Caodaists as the focal point of their religion. But it would be wrong to regard Caodaism as in any sense a monolithic movement, always focused upon a single centre; nor would it be correct to accept 18 November 1926 as the date of its first beginning. The history of Caodaism cannot be written in terms of the history of Tây-Ninh, nor in terms of the careers only of those Caodaists who played a leading role there.

The official ‘founder’ of Caodaism was a man who had very little to do with Tây-Ninh. He was Ngô Văn Chiêu (1878-1932), sometimes known as Ngô Minh Chiêu, a Vietnamese official in the French colonial administration of Cochinchina. The son of a rice-mill employee, he was born at B́nh-Tây (Chợ-Lớn), but from the age of seven he lived with his aunt (his father's sister) at Mỹ-Tho. With financial help from a friend of the family, he was able to go to French schools (first the collège of Mỹ-Tho, then the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon) and so to qualify for entry into the administrative service in 1899. But he was never able to study in France, and Vietnamese cultural and religious influence inevitably counted for much more in his life than his French education. Having served for 10 years in Saigon, he was transferred to a post at Tân-An in 1909, and remained there for a further decade. The remainder of his official career consisted of periods in Hà-Tiên (1920), on the island of Phú-Quốc (1920-4), and once again in Saigon (from 192 till his retirement in 1931).[12] It was on Phu-Quoc that he first became an adept of the spirit ‘Cao-Đài’.

The evocation of spirits was traditionally a common pastime amongst Vietnamese (as amongst Chinese) officials, but Ngô Minh Chiêu appears to have taken it more seriously than some, especially after about 1917 when he sought by this means to obtain a cure for his sick mother. About the period 1917-19, he used to attend séances at a temple at Cái-Khế (near Cần-Thơ). later known as the Hiệp-Minh temple; and it was then that the spirit called ‘Cao-Đài-Tiên-Ông’ first appeared to him.[13] At Hà-Tiên, he made further contacts with that spirit, in séances at the tomb of Mạc-Cửu (the Ming refugee who had founded Hà-Tiên around 1690). But it was after he moved to Phú-Quốc that the Cao-Đài spirit began completely to dominate the life of Ngô Minh Chiêu. At Tết (8 February) 1921, he accepted an instruction to adopt the discipline of vegetarianism; and in April of that year he had the vision which led him to adopt the great Eye as a symbol of the Cao-Đài spirit.[14] By the time of his return to Saigon in 1924, he was sufficiently confident of the importance of this spirit to begin to convert his friends to its worship. Those who became adepts of Cao-Đài during 1925 were Vương Quan Kỳ, a fellow-official in Saigon; Đoàn Văn Bản, who was in charge of a primary school at Cầu-Kho (Chợ-Lớn) where he subsequently founded a Caodaist temple; and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương, an official at Cần-Giuộc (Chợ-Lớn).[15] Then in December of that year, Ngô Minh Chiêu was visited by a quite separate group of spiritist adepts, known as the Pḥ-Loan group, and it is from that meeting that we can perhaps date the beginnings of Caodaism as an organized movement. The following month (January 1926), the cult of Cao-Đài began to be organized under the leadership of Lê Văn Trung.

About some of the early converts little is known beyond their names and profession; but a few can be studied in greater depth. Notable amongst them was Nguyễn Ngọc Tương (1881-1951), an official of about the same generation as Ngô Minh Chiêu, and one whose career was in many respects similar. Born at An-Hội, near the town of Bến-Tre, he was educated in Chinese at home and in French at the collèges of Mỹ-Tho and Chasseloup-Laubat. He entered the administrative service in 1902, and from 1903 till 1919 served in his own province of Bến-Tre. Then from 1920 till 1924 he was district chief at a place called Ḥn-Chông, not far from Hà-Tiên, where the population was mainly Chinese and Cambodian.[16] It was whilst he was there (and interestingly enough, these were the same years that Ngô Minh Chiêu spent on Phú-Quốc) that he began to lead an ascetic life and to study the religion of the Minh-Sư sect, with which Chiêu had also had connexions.[17] In 1924 he was transferred to the district office of Cần-Giuộc, where he remained till 1927: it is said in his biography that lie was moved from Cần-Giuộc to the more remote district of Xuyên-Mộc (Bà-Rịa) as a result of his proselytizing activities for the new religion. In due course, towards the end of 1930, he would leave government service altogether to take up an administrative position at Tây-Ninh, where we shall meet him again.

The background of the Pḥ-Loan group is somewhat different, for they appear to have had no education in Chinese culture or religion, and apparently some of them were originally Catholics. We first meet with them in July or August 1925, when they were practising spiritism ‘in the European manner’: that is, using the ouija-board.[18] The two most prominent figures in the group were Cao Quỳnh Cư (1887-1929), a clerk in the railway ofce at Saigon, and Phạm Công Tắc (1893-1958), who held a similar position in the customs department. Phạm Công Tắc, and probably other members of the group, belonged to a slightly younger generation than Ngô Minh Chiêu and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương. He was born in Tân-An province, and had entered government service in 1910: he served in the customs department from then until January 1928, when he retired to devote all his time to religion. Although he was by no means a young man by 1926, he was not merely an organizer of spirit-séances, but also a medium himself.[19] This notwithstanding, his whole career suggests that he was more interested in politics than religion, though it is not clear whether at this stage he was already a supporter of the Vietnamese pretender, Prince Cường-Để, then living in Japan. Certainly he had contacts with him later on, in 1941-2.

Finally, something must be said of the career of Lê Văn Trung (1875-1934). He too was of roughly the same generation as Ngô Minh Chiêu, and to begin with they had similar careers.[20] Born in Chợ-Lớn province (canton of Phước-Điề-Trung), he was the son of a small farmer, but was able through hard study to Gain entry to the Collège Chasseloup-Laubat whence he graduated in 1893. He entered the administrative service soon afterwards, and advanced by the normal stages until 1905. But in that year he left to enter a business enterprise, and when it succeeded he resigned his government position for good. Subsequently he was elected to the Conseil Colonial of Cochinchina and later was chosen by the authorities to serve on the Conseil Supérieur de l’Indochine; he resigned from the latter in October 1925. By that time hr had suffered some severe financial set-backs. especially in 1921; also., he had become interested in Caodaism. There are two different versions of his first attendance at a séance. According to one story, he was taken to a séance at Chợ-Gạo in June 1925 by his friend the Conseiller Nguyễn Hữu Đắc; the same account mentions that he was also a friend of the brother of Vương Quan Kỳ, one of Ngô Minh Chiêu's first converts.[21] The other version tells how Lê Văn Trung was introduced to a séance by ‘a relative’, who was a member of the Minh-Lư sect, and how the spirit of Lư Thái Bạch (Li Po, the Tang poet) predicted a spiritual future for him: whereupon he gave up all hip vices overnight.[22] Whatever the origin of his connexion with Caodaism, there can be no doubt that he was in touch with the Pḥ-Loan group by 18 January 1926, when a séance was held at his house attended by Cao Quỳnh Cư, Phạm Công Tắc, etc., and it is from that date that he appears to have begun the organization of Caodaism as a formal religious movement.[23]

It was Lê Văn Trung who in May 1926 sought government permission for the opening of 21 ‘oratories’ in various parts of east and central Cochinchina, most of which had been permitted to open, under strict conditions for worship, by the end of the year.[24] It was he too who organized the petition of 7 October 1926, addressed to Le Fol, the Governor of Cochinchina, in which 28 Caodaists appealed for the official recognition of their movement as a religion.[25] Besides Lê Văn Trung, and also Madame Lâm Thị Thanh, the signatories included Nguyễn Ngọc Tương, Lê Bá Trang, and Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ (who by 1931 occupied the three highest offices at Tây-Ninh under Lê Văn Trung); two of Ngô Minh Chiêu's first converts, Vương Quan Kỳ and Đoàn Văn Bản; and also the five members of the Pḥ-Loan group. Two other names which figured prominently in the list were those of Lê Văn Lịch and Trần Đạo Quang, both of whom are described as thầy-tu (religious masters). They are mentioned in another context by Gobron: Lê Văn Lịch as head of the Minh-Đường sect, and Trần Đạo Quang as head of the Minh-Sư sect.[26] Their presence in this list of October 1926 confirms the impression that at its roots Caodaism must have had some connexion with the Minh sects.

The letter of October 1926 was not, however, signed by Ngô Minh Chiêu himself. His connexion with the Pḥ-Loan group and with Lê Văn Trung proved to be very short-lived. As one source put it, ‘used to his solitude, he was annoyed by the influx of adherents, who bothered him’.[27] In April 1926 he had already decided not to become involved in the politics of the new religious organization, and handed over his leadership to Lê Văn Trung. Shortly afterwards he organized his own small following at Cần-Thơ, and for the remainder of his life he was associated only with that place. It was to Cần-Thơ (in fact, Cái-Khế) that he retired in 1931, and there that he died the following year. His followers became known as the Chiếu-Minh sect of Caodaism. But behind this apparent schism there was another distinction: between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ aspects of the religion, or between ‘nonaction’ (vô-vi, Chinese wu-wei) and ‘salvation’ (phổ-độ, Chinese pu-tu): it was in the nature of this type of religious movement that some of its members should go out into the world and proselytize, whilst others remained aloof from lay contact, and also from politics.[28] It is not necessary therefore to suppose an open quarrel at this stage in the development of Caodaism, although we cannot of course be certain that none had occurred. We do not even know whether Ngô Minh Chiêu attended the formal inauguration of the Cao-Đài religion, of which he was ostensibly the ‘founder’, at the ceremony at Tap-Ninh in November 1926.


The movement which had thus been launched expanded rapidly during the next three years. Lê Văn Trung, in a letter defending Caodaism against the attacks of Ernest Outrey (the Cochinchinese Deputy in the French Assembly), claimed in October 1928 that the religion had over a million adepts; but that was almost certainly an exaggeration. More credible is the report of 100,000 adepts in June 1927; and when a year later an article in L'Opinion suggested that there were as many as 7100,000 adepts, even the less credulous Maurice Monribot agreed that there must be at least 200,000.[29] The number of oratories rose from about 20 at the end of 1926 to over 100 by 1931.[30] To begin with, the religion was mainly centred on east Cochinchina, but as time went on it became equally popular in the provinces of the centre (along the Mekong), and began to spread to the west (the Transbassac). Gobron, for example. notes that all the early séances took place at Chợ-Lớn, Cần-Giuộc, Lộc-Giang, Tân-Định and Thủ-Đức: all places in the vicinity of Saigon.[31] And of the 21 ‘oratories’ (thánh-thất) for which Lê Văn Trung sought government permission in May 1926, 13 were in Saigon and the provinces of Gia-Định and Chợ-Lớn, and another 2 in Tây-Ninh and Biên-Hoà; the remaining 6 were in provinces of the centre, Mỹ-Tho and Bến-Tre (2 each), Sa-Đéc and Vĩnh-Long.[32] But by 1932 there were said to be about 35,000-50,000 adepts in each of the provinces of Chợ-Lớn, Gia-Định, Bến-Tre. and Mỹ-Tho; by then, too, there were ‘rival’ Caodaist centres at Mỹ-Tho and Bạc-Liêu. Down to 1930, most Caodaists (with the exception of those in the Tiên-Thiên sect, of which we must treat separately) accepted in principle the hegemony of tile ‘holy see’ (toà-thánh) at Tây-Ninh. There seems to have been some kind of disagreement within the movement in 1928, as a result of which the ‘oratory’ of Cầu-Kho (Saigon) came to be regarded as a dissident centre, but this does not appear to have amounted to a major breach.[33] It was not until 1930 that a real split began to develop, which produced rival centres of Caodaism.

What happened in that year must be seen against the background of growing concern on the part of the authorities that Caodaism was merely a cover for nationalist and perhaps also Communist activities. The attack by Outrey in 1928 has already been mentioned. About the same period there were other attacks in the Saigon press: some colons merely objected that the spiritism of the Caodaists was a superstition unworthy of men who had at least some French education; others went further, seeing in Caodaism a disguised revival of the secret societies which had endangered the security of the colony in the years before 1916. One writer suggested that the temple at Tây-Ninh was built on the precise spot where two Frenchmen had been murdered during the troubles of 1866.[34] A feature of the religion which especially alarmed the authorities at that time was its popularity amongst Cambodians, many of whom came across the border on pilgrimages to the ‘holy see’ during 1927. As a result, on 23 December 1927 the King of Cambodia issued an ordinance condemning the new religion as a heresy, and for the time being these pilgrimages came to an end.[35] Then in 1930 came the most serious unrest in Cochinchina since 1916, with many and frequent demonstrations by gatherings of peasants, which were obviously the work of some kind of organization. Whilst the most concrete. evidence seemed to attribute the unrest to the Communists. It was alleged by several people that the Caodaists were equally involved.[36] In vain was it pointed out that the worst trouble was in the provinces of the centre, whilst Tây-Ninh remained completely calm.[37] Whatever secret relations may have existed between the Caodaists and followers of the Việt-Nam Communist Party or of Nguyễn An Ninh’s secret society left no tangible evidence, and it is impossible to know whether or not Caodaists actually were involved in the demonstrations. But the crisis of these years was sufficient to make the government more watchful in its desire to keep organizations like Caodaism under control. This in turn forced the leaders of the movement to consider carefully their attitude to the authorities.

The occasion of the first major Caodaist split appears to have been a decision, sometime towards the end of 1930, that all dignitaries of the religion above the grade of phối-sư should go to live permanently at Tây-Ninh. One of the three men holding that grade in 1930 was Nguyễn Văn Ca, whose home was at Mỹ-Tho and whose family was, it would seem, opposed to his commitment to the religion in this way. After considerable hesitation, during which time he is said to have visited the dissident ‘oratory’ at Cầu-Kho, Nguyễn Văn Ca decided not to go to Tây-Ninh but to establish his own ‘holy see’ (toà-thánh) at Mỹ-Tho.[38] It was said that there had been a long-standing rivalry between Ca and Lê Văn Trung; it was also said, that at this stage the Mỹ-Tho group had the tacit support of the French administration, and even implied that the latter was trying to use Nguyễn Văn Ca to create an alternative focus of loyalty amongst the Caodaist faithful in order to draw them away from Tây-Ninh. During 1931-2 rivalry between Tây-Ninh and Mỹ-Tho became acute, and it would seem that many adepts transferred their allegiance to Mỹ-Tho. It was at this point, in 1931, that Lê Văn Trung transferred his administrative responsibilities at Tây-Ninh to Nguyễn Ngọc Tương, who had taken over Ca’s place as chánh-phối-sư, when he had gone to live permanently at the ‘holy see’ late in 1930.[39] Tương was able to persuade another chánh-phối-sư, Lê Bá Trang, to return from Mỹ-Tho to Tây-Ninh in November 1932, and these two men worked in close collaboration for the next four years, but Tương was unable to heal the breach entirely.[40] In August of that year a council at Tây-Ninh issued a decree outlawing Nguyễn Văn Ca and his followers as ‘rebels’ against the ‘holy see’ (of Tây-Ninh). But it was evident from the poor attendance at the Tây-Ninh festivities to celebrate the anniversary of the religion in November 1932, that its support had dwindled away.[41] Moreover, in the meantime yet another ‘holy see’ had been created at a place called Giồng-Bướm, in Bạc-Liêu province. This was established by Trần Đạo Quang, who had been a high dignitary at Tây-Ninh from 1926 to 1928, but then had gone to live at Cầu-Kho, and eventually moved to Bạc-Liêu in 1931.[42] The centres at Mỹ-Tho and Bạc-Liêu were probably on good terms with one another, though there were doctrinal differences between them. Their new forms of the religion were called respectively the Minh-Chơn-Lư and the Minh-Chơn-Đạo.

The crisis at Tây-Ninh had by 1932 produced serious internal disagreements between the leaders who remained there. The principal rivalry was between Nguyễn Ngọc Tương and Lê Bá Trang, on the one hand, and Phạm Công Tắc and Lê Văn Trung on the other. Phạm Công Tắc, who held the position of hộ-pháp, was head of the Hiệp-Thiên Đài (the organization of mediums), whilst Lê Văn Trung was the highest member of the administrative organization, the Cửu-Trùng Đài. As we have seen, Tương and Trang held the slightly lower grade of chánh-phối-sư in the latter organ. But in addition, by 1932 Phạm Công Tắc had created his own inner sect, the Phạm-Môn, which was named after his own family and consisted of at most 500 of his own closest followers.[43] The conflict came to a head during the first half of 1933. In January of that year, Lê Bá Trang and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương sent out a circular requiring adepts to obey the French administration. It was possibly at this time that Nguyễn Phan Long intervened with Governor Krautheimer to secure the reopening of 92 Caodaist oratories which had been closed: the date of that event is unfortunately not clear.[44] What is certain is that Tương and Trang saw some show of obedience to the French as essential if their ‘holy see’ was to recover its position. In April 1933, Phạm Công Tắc and Lê Văn Trung decided to use this fact against them, and held a secret council meeting to condemn Trang and Tương as ‘Francophiles’. But they were not yet strong enough to carry the day: on 16 April a formal meeting of the Thượng-Hội council was held at Tây-Ninh, at which Lê Văn Trung and Phạm Công Tắc were condemned (in their absence).[45] In September, Lê Bá Trang made complaints against Trung in the French tribunal at Tây-Ninh town, and actually went as far as to have another of his opponents Lê Văn Bảy arrested at Phnom-Penh.[46] The situation was such that by the end of the year Lê Văn Trung and Phạm Công Tắc had to come to terms with Trang and Tương, and an agreement was signed between them on 27 December 1933.[47]

Such an agreement was, however, of no permanent value in a situation of this kind, and it is not surprising to find that once he was strong enough to do so, Lê Văn Trung denounced his rivals once again. It would seem that Lê Bá Trang and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương were much weaker now than formerly, and in March 1934 Tương withdrew from Tây-Ninh. He went first into seclusion in Bà-Rịa province, then to his home at An-Hội (Bến-Tre, where he began to organize the creation of his own ‘holy see’ and the reform of Caodaism: he called his new branch of the religion Ban-Chỉnh-Đạo.[48] The first assembly of adepts at An-Hội had just begun in November 1934, when news arrived of the death of Lê Văn Trung at Tây-Ninh. Nguyễn Ngọc Tương now recalled the agreement which he said had been made between himself and other leaders as long ago as 1928, to the effect that he himself was to be the successor of Lê Văn Trung in the highest office of giáo-tông.[49] But Phạm Công Tắc, although not strong enough to seize the position of giáo-tông for himself (he remained hộ-pháp as late as 1950), was able to prevent Nguyễn Ngọc Tương from succeeding to it. It was at An-Hội, therefore, that Tương was inaugurated as giáo-tông on 9 May 1935.[50] In November of that year, Phạm Công Tắc held his own council at Tây-Ninh, at which he had himself proclaimed Lê Văn Trung’s successor as Caodaist ‘superior’.[51] Whilst the Tây-Ninh group alleged later that the Bến-Tre centre was supported by a mere few hundred adepts, the biography of Nguyễn Ngọc Tương insists that (to begin with at least), he was supported by 96 out of the grand total of 135 Caodaist ‘oratories’. Whatever the truth of these claims, it would seem that by November 1936, Tắc had restored the fortunes of Tây-Ninh sufficiently to be able to attract 20,000 people there to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the religion.[52]

By 1935, therefore, the original group which had founded Caodaism at Tây-Ninh nine years earlier had split into four different and rival centres: Tây-Ninh, Mỹ-Tho, Bạc-Liêu, and Bến-Tre. In addition there was a dissident group at Cầu-Kho (Saigon) which did not claim the status of a toà-thánh or ‘holy see’. But this does not account for all those who called themselves Caodaists at this period. There was in addition a sixth group which was probably quite as important but about which very much less is known, at least before 1936. It is sometimes referred to as the Tiên-Thiên sect of Caodaism; but it is also known as the Tây-Tông ‘Western Sect’, supposedly to differentiate it from the original group at Tây-Ninh which in this connexion (but in none of their own literature) is referred to as the Đông-Tông ‘Eastern Sect’.[53] Its leaders were Nguyễn Bửu Tài (b. 1882) and Nguyễn Hữu Chính. Of the former, we know that he was a native of the Ba-Tri district of Bến-Tre province and that he became a school-teacher, first at Bến-Tre and later at Biên-Hoà. He also became interested in religion, and is said to have been a tu-đơn, a kind of religious practitioner. When Caodaism was founded at Tây-Ninh in 1926, Tài (who was apparently in touch with Ngô Minh Chiêu and Lê Văn Trung) founded his own new sect, the Tây-Tông, in his own province. If this account is correct, then one cannot say he split off from the Tây-Ninh Centre. Chính on the other hand, possibly in 1927, is said to have left Tây-Ninh in order to establish a sect of his own at Mỹ-Tho.[54] It would seem that the Tiên-Thiên was much less organized than the ‘Eastern Sect’, or at least less openly organized. It did not acquire its own toà-thánh until 1957, when one was established at Sóc-Sải: at that period the sect seems to have expanded, whilst the Tây-Ninh Caodaists were in decline, and it was then that Nguyễn Bửu Tài finally took the title giáo-tông.[55]

Whilst the Tiên-Thiên sect seems to have had few if any connexions with Tây-Ninh in the 1930’s, it would seem to have been in closer contact with the Caodaists of Mỹ-Tho and Bạc-Lieu, and also with the ‘esoteric’ group at Cần-Thơ. In 1936 these various groups formed a ‘Caodaist Union’, the Liên-Hoà Tổng-Hội, with its centre at Cầu-Kho (Saigon).[56] An attempt to create some kind of union had already been made two years previously, with the participation of Đoàn Văn Bản and Vương Quan Kỳ (both at Cầu-Kho), Nguyễn Văn Kiên (at Mỹ-Tho), Cao Triều Phát and Trần Đao Quang (both at Bạc-Liêu), and also several other people including Phan Trường Mạnh. But all these people belonged to what seems to have been essentially a single group anyway, since both the Mỹ-Tho and the Bạc-Liêu Caodaists had been associated from the start with the ‘oratory’ at Cầu-Kho. In 1936 two new elements in the situation made possible a more worth-while union. First, the initiative was taken by a leading Conseiller-Colonial Nguyễn Phan Long, whose sympathies with Caodaism had been well known since he defended the religion in his newspaper Écho Annamite in 1927, but who had not previously played any ostensible role in the movement. He now became openly a Caodaist, and presided over the Liên-Hoà Tổng-Hội. Second, this new union had also the participation of the Tiên-Thiên sect, and Nguyễn Bửu Tài and Lê Kim Tỵ were amongst those mentioned as its leading members. It is not clear how deep the union was, but they seem to have played a full part in the first achievement of the Liên-Hoà Tổng-Hội, which was to spread Caodaism to Tourane (Đà-Nẵng) and other parts of central Việt-Nam.[56]

Thus by 1936 one can discern three broad alignments in the Caodaist movement: the Tây-Ninh group, led now by Phạm Công Tắc, with an important branch in Phnom-Penh presided over by Trần Quang Vinh; the Bến-Tre group, led by Nguyễn Ngọc Tương; and the Liên-Hoà Tổng-Hội, embracing the Tiên-Thiên, the Minh-Chơn-Lư, and the Minh-Chơn-Đạo, whose followers were mainly in the centre and west of Cochinchina. Given the material at present to hand, that is as far as one can reasonably hope to take the attempt to compile a detailed account of the history of Caodaism. More recent developments can only be studied when more ‘inside’ information becomes available.


One major question concerning the early history of Caodaism remains to be raised: that of its origins and antecedents. The whole tenor of Caodaist publications is to emphasize that this was a new religion, which suddenly burst upon the world in 1926 and attracted immediately a large following of ordinary people. But when we come to examine the doctrines of the religion it will be clear that there was much in Caodaism that had deep roots in Sino-Vietnamese tradition, and that it must be seen against the background of earlier religious movements. We know that several of the leading Caodaists had had religious interests and experiences before 1925-6, notably Ngô Văn Chiêu and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương. Did they do so entirely outside any previously existing religious organization? On the face of things, it seems unlikely.

That secret organizations of a religious (and also political) nature had esisted in South Việt-Nam in earlier periods is well known. They were particularly prominent in the periods 1860-85 and 1905-16. In the former period, the French conquest of Cochinchina was opposed most strongly by a gronp identified as a religious sect with the name Đạo-Lành.[57] Following a French decree of 1873 prohibiting that sect, it is said to have reorganized under the name Đạo Phật Đường. It was held responsible for ‘rebellions’ in Mỹ-Tho and other provinces in 1874 and 1878, and for the disturbances of 1885 which included an attack on Saigon.[58] But the French do not seem to have penetrated the organization of the movement, and there is no account of it in any printed or archival source-material I have seen. Concerning the secret society movement of the years 1905-16, which culminated in another abortive attack on Saigon, followed by a great many arrests, there exists the fascinating account by Coulet, based on detailed police records. But even there we do not have a detailed picture of whatever religious organization underlay the movement: Coulet gives only occasional translations of ‘captured documents’, and reproduces a number of amulets written in Chinese characters. The religious propaganda of Caodaism was certainly a new phenomenon amongst Vietnamese secret sects, and because we have no comparable material concerning earlier groups it is impossible to make detailed comparisons, in such matters as doctrine, ritual, or organizational hierarchies. We cannot say, therefore, to what extent (if at all) these earlier movements represent an earlier stage in the same line of development which eventually produced Caodaism. Nor is there so far any evidence to link the personalities of Caodaism with earlier movements: a fact which in itself proves nothing, of course, because it was unlikely that a newly organized sect would choose its leaders from amongst those whose leadership of the earlier movements was already well known to the police. There is, however, one interesting detail which should not be allowed to pass unnoticed, and which suggests that there may indeed have been connexions between these movements of different periods. In a Caodaist tract, published in French by Phan Trường Mạnh in 1950, there is a reference to a spirit-séance held at Cao-Lănh in 1908, in which a message was received from the spirit of the ‘laureate’ (thủ-khoa) Huân, a leading figure in the revolt of 1874-5 which the French had attributed to the Đạo-Lành sect. The message, moreover, includes two references to the Cao-Đài.[59]

That same tract has another reference which suggests a slightly different line of inquiry in our search for Caodaist antecedents. Another amongst several earlier references to the Cao-Đài, cited by Phan Trường Mạnh, comes in a prayer which he says has been recited for about 40 years (i.e. since about 1910) by adepts of the religious sect called Minh-Sư.[60] We have already met references to this sect in the early careers of Nguyễn Ngọc Trang, who came into contact with it around 1920, and Ngô Minh Chiêu, who is said to have been friendly with a high dignitary of the Minh-Sư around 1919.[61] But it was in fact only one of a number of sects of this kind which were associated with Caodaism. In the English edition of Gobron, there has been added a list of the various phái ‘divisions’ of the religion, including the Minh-Chơn-Lư, the Minh-Chơn-Đạo, the Tây-Tông, and so on, which is then followed by a list of the five chi ‘branches’ of Caodaism, together with the names of their heads:[62]

Minh-Lư                       Âu Kích

Minh-Sư                      Trần Đạo Quang

Minh-Tân                     Lê Minh Khá

Minh-Thiện                   ‘Đạt’ and ‘Mùi’

Minh-Đường                Lê Văn Lịch

We have already met two of these men in connexion with Caodaism: Trần Đạo Quang (later founder of the Minh-Chơn-Đạo at Bạc-Liêu) and Lê Văn Lịch, who were amongst the signatories of the letter seeking French recognition for the new religion in October 1926.[63] Concerning the Minh-Đường, the Minh-Tân, and the Minh-Thiện, there is no other information. But the Minh-Lư figures elsewhere in Gobron’s account. It was to this sect that one of Lê Văn Trung’s relatives belonged in 1925, and possibly through this connexion that Trung was first introduced to spirit-séances. At a later stage (the date is not given) we find Phạm Công Tắc insisting on the distinction between Caodaism and ‘Minhlism’: the latter ‘is separated from us by a mystical and philosophical point of view’.[64] His vagueness on the actual doctrinal differences suggests that he had some political reason for making the distinction, but we have no means of knowing what it was.

All these references to the Minh ‘branches’ relate to the period after about 1919: they nevertheless seem to suggest that when Caodaism first emerged there already existed a number of sects in which some of its doctrines and rituals were already familiar. Might not these sects have existed for long before, and have provided the religious background to earlier movements? There is one last piece of evidence concerning the Minh-Sư which seems to point in that direction. Ngô Minh Chiêu, following his return to Saigon in 1924, spent a good deal of time at a temple in Đa-Kao (a suburb of the city) called the Ngọc-Hoàng-Điện ‘Jade Emperor Palace’. That temple had been built in the years 1900-6, by a Chinese businessman called Lưu Minh, a member of the Minh-Sư vegetarian sect which in China was at that period dedicated to the cause of overthrowing the Manchu dynasty and restoring the Minh.[65] Do we have here a clue to the real roots of Caodaism?


1.   Graham Greene, The quiet American (Penguin Books, 1962), 81.

2.   B. B. Fall, ‘The political-religious sects of Viet-Nam’, Pacific Affairs, XXVIII, 3, 1955, 235-53.

3.   The best-known of these works is G. Gobron, Histoire du Caodaïsme, Paris, 1948 (English translation, Saigon?, 1950); except where otherwise stated, references here will be to the English version, which includes additional material but omits an important chapter. See also Nguyễn Trung Hậu, Lược sử Đạo Cao Đài: A short history of Caodaism (in Vietnamese, French, and English), Tourane, 1956.

4.    Đồng Tân, Lịch-sử Cao Đài, 1. Phần Vô Vi, Saigon, 1967, referred to in subsequent pages as Lịch-sử; Anon., Tiểu sử Đức Giáo Tông, Nguyễn Ngọc Tương, Saigon, 1958, referred to subsequently as NNT.

5.   Revue Caodaïque, IIIe An., décembre 1950; this periodical should be carefully distinguished from Revue Caodaïste, published in the years around 1930. I have not seen any copies of the latter, but it is cited in Gobron, op. cit., and in Contribution, VII (see n. 6 below).

6.   Gouvernement-Général de l’Indochine, Contribution à l'histoire des mouvements politiques de l’Indochine française, VII. Le Caodaïsme, Hanoi, 1934, referred to subsequently as Contribution, VII.

7.   G. C. Hickey, Village in Vietnam, Yale, 1964, 66-73, 290-4.

8.   Écho Annamite, 19 November 1926; Gobron, op. cit., 29.

9.   Contribution, VII, 33-4.

10.   La Dépêche d’Indochine, 28 and 30 August 1930.

11.   Contribution, VII, 64-7.

12.   There is a very full account of his life in Đồng-Tân, Lịch-sử.

13.   Lịch-sử, 53 ff.

14.   ibid., 66 ff.; this episode is also mentioned briefly in Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 7-8.

15.   Lịch-sử, 82-92; Nguyễn Ngọc Tương is not mentioned there, but his conversion late in 1925 is indicated by NNT, 13.

16.   NNT, 5-6.

17.   ibid., 13.

18.   Lịch-sử, 88 ff.; Gobron, 20-1, refers to this group without mentioning names.

19.   The fullest account of Phạm Công Tắc’s early career is in Contribution, VII, 87-90.

20.   On Lê Văn Trung, see ibid., 27-32; also Gobron, 26 ff.

21.   Lịch-sử, 91.

22.   Contribution, VII, 29-31, and Gobron, 26-7; both it would seem based, at this point, on material in Revue Caodaïste, no. 3, p. 315.

23.   Lịch-sử, 91.

24.   Contribution, VII, 81.

25.   Lịch-sử, 108-10, gives the Vietnamese text of this letter and a full list of the actual signatories; there was an additional list of 247 adepts, but I have not seen and record of their names, Cf. Contribution, VII, 32, 81, where it is noted that no formal recognition of Caodaism was given at this time, despite Caodaist claims.

26.   Gobron, 151; cf. infra, p. 349.

27.   Gobron, 27.

28.   Lịch-sử, 129 ff.

29.   Écho Annamite, 13 June 1927; La Presse Indochinoise, 9 June 1928 (comment by the editor Monribot on an article in L'Opinion).

30.   Contribution, VII, 80-1. Tây-Ninh controlled 100 thánh-thất in 1931, and 128 in 1932, but it is not clear whether ‘dissident’ oratories at that time are excluded from these totals.

31.   Gobron, 28.

32.   Contribution, VII, 81.

33.   Gobron (French edition), 98 ff.: a whole section of this edition, relating to schisms within the movement during the period 1928-31, was omitted in the English version, for reasons which can only be guessed. Cf. also NNT, 20.

34.   La Presse Indochinoise, 9 June 1928, citing a recent article in L'Opinion. The Frenchmen referred to were Captain de Larclauze and Lieut. Lesage, who were killed in an attack on Tây-Ninh by 2,000 Cambodians in June 1866; A. Schreiner, Abrégé de l'histoire d'Annam, Saigon, 1906, 277.

35.   Contribution. VII, 35-7.

36.   e.g. by R. Vanlande, L'Indochine sous la menace communiste, Paris, 1930, 118-19. For an account of the disturbances in Cochinchina, between May 1930 and March 1931, see Gouvernement-Général de l'Indochine, Contribution à l'histoire des mouvements politiques de l'Indochine française, IV, Hanoi, 1934.

37.   Écho Annamite, 23 May 1930.

38.   Gobron (French ed.), 98 ff. There is a slightly different account in Hickey, op. cit., 292-3, which says that Ca left Tây-Ninh in 1931 after receiving a spirit-message instructing him to do so and that he went first to Rạch-Giá before settling at Mỹ-Tho in 1932. Hickey's information presumably came from Caodaists he interviewed at Khánh-Hậu (Tân-An province), where the Mỹ-Tho sect had some members in 1958.

39.   NNT, 21-4; the letter written by Tương to inform the Governor of Cochinchina of the change of direction is there reproduced, dated 1 September 1931.

40.   Contribution, VII, 90.

41.   ibid., 86-7, 90-1.

42.   Gobron (French ed.), 101 ff.; cf. Revue Caodaïque, IIIe An., décembre 1950, 93-107.

43.   Contribution, VII, 86-90.

44.   ibid., 92; Revue Caodaïque, IIIe An., décembre 1950, 67-92.

45.   Contribution, VII, 93; NNT, 31.

46.   Contribution, VII, 94, 100.

47.   NNT, 32-4.

48.   ibid., 34, 37.

49.   ibid., 41-5.

50.   ibid., 48.

51.   Gobron, 71-2.

52.   ibid., 74.

53.   The only account of the Tiên-Thiên sect which does more than merely note its existence is the biographical notice on Nguyễn Bửu Tài contained in a recent monograph of the former Bến-Tre province: Huỳnh-Minh, Địa-linh nhơn-kiệt: Kiến-Hoà xưa và nay, Gia-Định, 1965, 196-9.

54.   Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 20.

55.   Hickey, op. cit., 293-4. The Tiên-Thiên sect appears to have co-operated closely with the Communists since 1960: one of its leading members, Nguyễn Văn Ngôi, sat on the Central Committee of the National Front for the Liberation of South Việt-Nam from 1961 till at least 1964; Douglas Pike, Viet Cong, Cambridge, Mass., 1966, 429.

56.   Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 20; Revue Caodaïque, IIIe An., décembre 1950, 67-92.

57.   According to some sources (e.g. Coulet, 122 ff., cf. infra), this is Đạo-Lành, which would mean ‘Religion of the Good’; but according to others (e.g. a report by the Administrateur of Sóc-Trăng in 1883) it should be Đạo-Lănh, which might mean ‘Way of the Leader’.

58.   A. Schreiner, op. cit., 315; G. Coulet, Les sociétés secrètes en terre d’Annam, Saigon, 1926, 122 ff.

59.   Phan Trường Mạnh, La voie du salut Caodaïque, Saigon, 1950, 48-9.

60.   ibid., 48.

61.   Lịch-sử, 57.; cf. supra, p. 339.

62.   Gobron, 151.

63.   supra, p. 340, n. 35.

64.   Gobron, 108 ff.

65.   Vương Hồng Sển, ‘La Pagode de l’Empereur de Jade à Dakao’, Notes et Documents (Bull. de l'Association Viet-Nam France), janvier 1963, 26.


Part of the material on which this article is based was collected during a visit to Saigon in 1967, financed by the London-Cornell Project for East and South East Asian Studies, financed jointly by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Nuffield Foundation.


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