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Vol. XXXIII Part 3, 1970









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The religion of Cao-Dai is fundamentally, and deliberately, syncretic. Since it includes Christ and Moses (but for some reason, not Muhammad) in its pantheon, the Western student might be tempted to see it as essentially an attempt to bridge the gulf between East and West by finding a sort of middle way between Christianity and Buddhism. It is possible that some Caodaists who have acquired a thorough Western education in France but maintained their religious belief do in fact see it in those terms, but most of the Caodaist literature indicates that the real basis of the syncretism is an attempt to bring together the three religions of the Sino-Vietnamese tradition. In this attempt, Christianity has only a peripheral position, and nothing has been adopted from Christian teachings that would seriously clash with the underlying doctrinal tolerance of East Asian religions. The most important feature of Caodaist syncretism is that it brings together elements of Taoist spirit-mediumship with a concept of salvation that was originally Buddhist. If any one of the three Sino-Vietnamese religions may be said to be dominant in Caodaism it is religious Taoism; but since the Caodaists themselves frequently refer to their religion as ‘reformed Buddhism’, that is a point which must be demonstrated rather than taken for granted. I propose to analyse some of the most obvious elements of Caodaism under four headings: spirit-mediumship; the Cao-Đài and other spirits; salvation and the apocalyptic aspect; and hierarchy and organization. A concluding section will deal briefly with the possible relationship between Caodaism and certain religious sects in China.[2]


It is hardly surprising that in the account of Caodaism compiled by Gabriel Gobron, the spiritist element stands out very sharply, since he himself appears to have become aware of the Vietnamese religion through his interest in French spiritism.[3] Probably the same was true of Paul Monet and other Frenchmen who attended séances in Saigon and agreed to propagate the religion in France. This being so, neither is it surprising to find occasional references in Vietnamese writing to the European spiritist movement. French spiritism, as an organized movement, had come into being at the same period as the French moved into Cochinchina. Its founder, L. H. D. Rivail (1804-69), better known from 1856 till his death by the pseudonym Allan Kardec, was the proprietor of a school in Paris and a proponent of the ideas of Pestalozzi, at whose Swiss school he had been educated. He fell in with the fashion of playing with tables tournantes which developed in France about the years 1854-5; but he took it more seriously than most and in 1856 published a book, Le livre des esprits, consisting of answers to his questions about philosophy and ethics received at a number of séances.[4] It was followed in 1861 by his Livre des mediums, and in the meantime he launched the Revue Spirite at the beginning of 1858. By his death, he had created an organization capable of surviving him, which still existed in France in the 1920’s. It was a distinctive feature of the spiritism of Allan Kardec (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon ‘spiritualism’) that messages from the beyond were always received in written form, by means of the table tournante, the ‘ouija-board’, or the corbeille à bec. Caodaism too accepted only this form of communication with spirits, and it would seem that these European methods were sometimes used at Vietnamese séances. In particular it is noted that the Phò-Loan group of Phạm Công Tắc, when it began to hold séances in 1925, practised the ‘European method’; and it is worth recalling in this connexion that the ouija-board was perfectly suitable for the Vietnamese language, once it had begun to be written in the roman script of quốc-ngữ instead of in characters.

However, it would be a serious mistake to conclude from the evidence of this connexion with French spiritism that the Caodaists, or any other Vietnamese, owed either the idea or their techniques of spirit-mediumship to the mission civilisatrice. The practice of spiritism can be traced far back into the past of the Vietnamese and Chinese traditions; and whereas in the West the orthodoxy of Christianity was thoroughly opposed to spirit-mediumship, as a black art, in China the Confucian orthodoxy never attempted to stamp out spiritism as such. De Groot, one of the few Western writers to be interested in the practice and not merely the texts of Chinese religion, was able to supplement his own observation of spirit practices in nineteenth-century Fu-kien by reference to several textual accounts of earlier times. A document relating to the Tang period describes how ‘it was customary for the people to take a wicker rice-tray and dress it with clothes, and insert a chop-stick into it by way of beak, which they caused to write on a platter covered with flour in order to divine’.[5] An early form, indeed, of the beaked basket. Further evidence of Chinese mediumship by means of ‘automatic writing’ is found in Mr. A. J. A. Elliott’s account of spirit cults in Singapore, based on observations made in the years 1950-1; he emphasizes that it is quite separate from the ‘speaking-kind’ of mediumship, in which the medium talks while possessed by a spirit, which is the main subject of his book. He describes a technique in which a Y-shaped stick is held by two people, one of them a medium, and writes out messages on a tray of sand, one character after another. It is necessary, of course, to have an interpreter to identify the characters at great speed.[6] Sometimes, he says, this kind of mediumship leads to the formation of associations of people willing to follow the injunctions received by way of spirit-writing. Very often, however, the invocation of spirits has no deeper motive than the simple desire of those attending to ask questions about their own future. In China, under the Ch'ing (and doubtless earlier), scholars would consult the spirits in this way to find out whether they would pass the examinations: an example occurs in Wu Ching-tzu's The scholars, where the spirit of Kuan Yuš, ‘conqueror of the devils’, foretold the future of one of the characters in the novel.[7] Another description of a Chinese spirit séance worth mentioning is one by W. A. Grootaers, who attended a Buddhist séance in Peking in 1948, when messages were received from three Buddhist deities of the Western Paradise.[8] It is clear that spirit-mediumship was not the monopoly of any one of China's three religions but was judged compatible with all of them.

There are no detailed accounts of Caodaist séances by outside observers  like de Groot or Grootaers, and so no comparison can be made on that level. But it seems clear from the vocabulary of Vietnamese writings on Caodaism that they fit into the Sino-Vietnamese tradition. Two phrases occur noticeably often: cầu-tiên (Chinese ch'iu-hsien), meaning to ‘invoke the spirits’ (literally, ‘immortals’); and đàn-cơ (Chinese t'an-chi), meaning the place at which the séance took place, or perhaps more specifically the tray on which the spirits wrote their messages. The Caodaists appear to have used the word where the Vietnamese dictionaries (related most closely to the North Vietnamese dialect) would give ; it seems to indicate a traditional Sino-Vietnamese technique of spirit-writing, but it is possible that the same word was used also for the European type of planchette as well. The use of the term đàn in this context, may have some significance; it is also the term used for the altar on which the imperial sacrifices to Heaven and Earth were made, and it is not inconceivable that spirit-mediumship originally partook of the nature of a sacrifice to spirits as well as communication with them. The terms cầu-cơ• and cầu-đàn also occur in the Caodaist literature.[9]

It would seem that there were certain places in Cochinchina that were especially noted as important đàn (or đàn-tiên) where communication with spirits could be most effectively made. One of these was at Cái-Khế (Cần-Thơ), and was where Ngô Minh Chiêu held some of his early séances in the period 1917-20; several đàn are mentioned there in the period 1907-37, notably the đàn Quang-Xuân, which appears to have been subsequently renamed the đàn Hiệp-Minh. About 1931, Ngô Minh Chiêu established another, the đàn Chiếu-Minh.[10] Another famous centre of mediumship was Cao-Lãnh; at the đàn there, established early this century, it was well known that Lý Thái Bạch came to write verses.[11] There is no reference, in the documents used for the present study, to Caodaist séances being held there; but that possibility can certainly not be ruled out. Nor should it be forgotten that Cao-Lãnh was an important centre of unrest in 1930, in which Caodaists were accused of being involved. Indeed spirit-mediumship of this kind may well have been more wide-spread than any of the source material on Cochinchinese history before 1920 indicates. Phan Trường Mạnh mentions a séance at Cao-Lãnh in 1908, when Thủ-khoa Huân communicated a. message.[12] Is it not possible that spirit-mediumship was also an element in the secret society activity of 1912-16, about which we have only French source material? Was there, for example, any connexion between spirit-communication and the making of the amulets which Coulet regarded as so important? There is one small clue pointing in that direction in Đồng-Tân’s account of Ngô Minh Chiêu's early career: after he had sought a cure for his mother by invoking spirits, about 1917, Chiêu and a number of friends used a technique of spirit-writing in order to obtain amulets to be used for medicinal purposes.[13] The curious composition of some of the amulets illustrated by Coulet might be explained more easily, if they were actually produced at séances; but at present this can be no more than a speculative suggestion.

The ‘theology’ underlying the spirit-mediumship of the Chinese and Vietnamese tradition is a subject which has been very little studied, and which cannot be thoroughly investigated here. But there is one passage in Gobron which suggests that, in spite of his own emphasis on French spiritism, the Caodaist séances were based on Taoist beliefs about the nature of spirits. He indicates the importance of âm and dương (Chinese yin and yang) in the arrangement of offerings to the spirits; a little later he speaks of the tam-tài, or three essential elements of the universe (Heaven, Earth, and Man), and then of the three constituent elements of man: tinh ‘matter’, khí ‘vital essence’, and thần ‘spirit, soul’.[14] This is the vocabulary of religious Taoism, and it was the Taoists in the Chinese tradition who knew most about how to deal with spirits of all kinds. Amongst their beliefs was the notion that the best person to communicate with spirits was a young boy in whom the dương ‘male’ element was very strong: such a medium was called đồng-tử, meaning literally a boy who had just attained puberty. The Caodaists also refer to their mediums as đồng-tử, though in practice they were by no means always young boys. It is unfortunate that no copy seems to be available, outside Caodaist circles, of the book which Ngô Minh Chiêu used as his source of the technique of mediumship. It is referred to under the title Vạn-pháp quy-tông.[15] But the mere fact of reference to that manual indicates that the Caodaists depended mainly on Sino-Vietnamese knowledge of mediumship, and that the existence of such practices amongst a small minority of Frenchmen in the 1920’s is merely incidental to an understanding of the religion.


As with the techniques of mediumship, so with the identity of the spirits invoked, Western impressions of Caodaism tend to place special emphasis on the European figures whose spirits have entered into the séances, and far less attention has been paid to Chinese and Vietnamese spirits. Particularly prominent amongst the former is Victor Hugo; another often mentioned is Jeanne d'Arc.[16] Hugo's writings, especially Les misérables, made a deep impression on French-educated Vietnamese readers; and it would seem that he also had the reputation amongst Caodaists of having been himself interested in spiritism. (He was an exile in the Channel Islands during the 1850's and 1860's, but may well have indulged there in a pursuit which was fashionable in many parts of France at the time when Allan Kardec founded his movement.) But one cannot dismiss the possibility that the main reason why early Caodaists mentioned Hugo so frequently in talking with Europeans was a desire to impress them with their high degree of loyalty to French culture, and perhaps thereby to cover up the more essential features of their cult. For men like Ngô Minh Chiêu and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương, Vietnamese and Chinese spirits must surely have been more important than those of any Frenchman.

It is possible for almost any spirit to be invoked, or to reveal himself, at a séance; usually, it would seem, the name of the spirit is not known until it has been communicated, and Caodaists do not set out to obtain messages from particular spirits decided upon by themselves in advance. Obviously we have information about only a small number of the spirits who revealed themselves at Caodaist, and pre-Caodaist, séances in the period 1917-37. Moreover, it is likely that only politically unharmful spirits would be mentioned in published accounts of the early séances. Phan Trường Mạnh records a message received from the South Vietnamese patriot Thủ-khoa Huân at Cao-Lãnh in 1908; Thủ-khoa Huân being the leader of a famous rising against the French in Mỹ-Tho province in 1874.[17] It is not impossible, despite the absence of documentary evidence, that the Caodaists also received communications from spirits of that ilk. Might there, one wonders, be some significance in the fact that Ngô Minh Chiêu (on Phú-Quốc) and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương (at Hòn-Chông) developed their early interest in spirit-mediumship in places which had been associated with the resistance movement of Nguyễn Trung Trực in 1867-8? [18] This possibility can be the subject only of speculation; it is the religious and literary figures whose spirit-revelations appear in the published sources.

One of the most frequently mentioned of these is the Tang poet Li Po, known in Vietnamese as Lý Thái Bạch. According to Gobron, it was Lý Thái Bạch who appeared at the first séance attended by Lê Văn Trung in 1925; it was his spirit too which propounded the principal doctrines of Caodaism at a séance attended by several Frenchmen in January 1927.[19] Mention has already been made of the association of that spirit with the đàn at Cao-Lãnh. Clearly he was of considerable importance for the early Caodaists, for at Tây-Ninh his spirit was made ‘titular’ Giáo-Tông or head of the religion –– earthly occupants of the office being regarded as merely temporary incumbents.[20] The reason for his prominence is not made clear in the Caodaist literature. The poet was however a well-known Taoist: Arthur Waley's short biography of him describes how in the 720's he met the Taoist master Ssu-ma Ch’eng-cheng (d. 735), patriarch of the Shang Ch'ing school, and also how he qualified for a Taoist diploma at a temple in Shantung about 745.[21] If nothing else, the importance of his spirit in Caodaism is another indication of the Taoist, as opposed to Buddhist, affiliations of the religion. Another Taoist spirit who is mentioned in Caodaist works is Kuan Ti, the Chinese god of war: in Vietnamese, Quan-Thánh-Đế-Quân. One of his messages, received by a Caodaist group in Châu-Đốc province at an unspecified date, is printed by Phan Trường Mạnh.[22] We know too that Ngô Minh Chiêu grew up very close to a temple dedicated to that deity, and that as an adult he venerated (thờ) Kuan Ti especially.[23]

The most important of all the Caodaist spirits was of course the one who called himself Cao-Đài Tiên-Ông ‘His Excellency the Grandfather Immortal’. The term Cao-Đài, which in some contexts has the literal meaning of ‘high tower’ or ‘high palace’, is commonly used in Chinese as a term of deepest respect, and as such was chosen by the Protestant missionaries as a translation of Jehovah in the Old Testament.[24] Tiên (Chinese hsien) is usually translated as ‘immortal’; but as we have seen, in the phrase cầu-tiên it is used by Caodaists to mean ‘spirit’, where others might have preferred the word thần (Chinese shen). Ông is a Vietnamese word, without Chinese derivation, which in current usage often means simply ‘Mr.’, but in this context denotes extreme respect of the kind usually accorded to a grandfather. It is similarly used in other spirit connexions: for example, Ông Táo is the ‘hearth god’ found in some form or other in all Vietnamese households, whilst Ông Cọp is the Tiger in his spirit-manifestation, widely venerated by Vietnamese. The curious thing is that none of these words indicates any specific identity for the supreme Caodaist spirit: was this a spirit which never had any previous existence before his appearance at séances around 1919? Or can he be identified with a spirit already recognized by Taoists in China and Việt-Nam? The former impression is created by some accounts, which emphasize the gradualness of the way in which he revealed his identity to those who became his first Vietnamese adepts. Gobron, speaking of Ngô Minh Chiêu’s invocation of spirits on Phú-Quốc in 1919 (an error for 1920), says that ‘among the communicating spirits he discovered one named Cao-Đài, in whom he became particularly interested’.[25] This discovery is described in greater detail by Đồng-Tân.[26] Gobron also reports the early séances of the spiritist group which included Cao Quỳnh Cư and Phạm Công Tắc in 1925: ‘One of the communicating spirits became particularly noticeable by his high level of moral and philosophical teachings. This spirit, who signed himself under the pseudonym “AAA” [in fact, A=Ă-Â, the first three letters of the Vietnamese alphabet, with different diacritical marks] did not wish to reveal himself in spite of the entreaties of his hearers’.[27] The spirit did eventually reveal himself as the Cao-Đài Tiên-Ông. But Nguyễn Trung Hậu describes how this latter revelation came about, in greater detail than Gobron, and in so doing he indicates the real identity of the Cao-Đài spirit: at a séance on Christmas Eve 1925, this spirit announced his name as Ngọc-Hoàng Thượng-Đế viết Cao-Đài giáo-đạo Nam-Phương. The English version of his account translates this as ‘Emperor of Jade, alias Caodaist God for the South', but a more literal rendering would be ‘Jade Emperor, Supreme Deity, alias Cao-Đài, religious teacher of the Southern Quarter’.[28] The Cao-Đài Tiên-Ông was in fact none other than the Supreme Being himself, and Đồng-Tân confirms this by his references to the spirit as Cao-Đài Thượng-Đế. The Jade Emperor was the Supreme Being of the Taoist pantheon, a personal deity of the highest order. Đồng-Tân also tells us that when Ngô Minh Chiêu returned to Saigon in 1924 he stayed some of the time at a temple in Da-Kao called the ‘Jade Emperor Palace’, which seems to confirm his connexion with the cult of this deity.[29] That temple is arranged as a Taoist temple. Here again, careful study of Caodaism seems to indicate that its origins were Taoist.


It lies beyond the scope of the present study to attempt a full analysis of the spirit-messages, which form the principal source for all the details of Caodaist belief and symbolism. One element in those beliefs, however, is indicated by the very title of the religion, and is of key importance: the belief in salvation and in the imminent end of the world as we know it. It will be recalled that when Ngô Minh Chiêu parted company with Lê Văn Trung and the other Caodaist leaders in April 1926, the former established the vô-vi section of the religion, whilst the latter established the phổ-độ section.[30] The full official name of Caodaism, as used at Tây-Ninh, at Bến-Tre, and also by the ‘United General Assembly’ of 1936, is Đại-Đạo Tam-Kỳ Phổ-Độ ‘the Great Way of the Three Epochs (or Third Epoch) of Salvation’. The idea of three epochs of spiritual development is a Buddhist rather than a Taoist idea, at least in origin, and amongst Mahayanists is often associated with belief in the three Buddhas: of the past (Amitabha, Vietnamese Di-đà), of the present (Sakyamuni, Vietnamese Thích-Ca), and of the future (Maitreya, Vietnamese Di-Lặc). Some Buddhists (by no means all) regard the ‘coming of Maitreya’ not as a distant event, of no immediate concern to the present, but as an imminent day of judgement which could come at any time. The essentials of this apocalyptic form of Buddhism were incorporated into Caodaism. But in place of the ‘coming of Maitreya’, the Caodaists believe in the inauguration of the third epoch by the Cao-Đài spirit (that is, the Supreme Being or Jade Emperor) at their séances, beginning around 1920. Since this ‘epoch of salvation’ has already begun, the salvation of souls is of the greatest importance for all mankind, but above all for the Vietnamese since it was in Việt-Nam that the Cao-Đài chose to reveal himself. The question of the precise meaning of the term phổ-độ ‘salvation’ in the Buddhist context, and differences between it and the Christian idea of salvation, are matters which must be left to specialists in Chinese Buddhism.

Of the Caodaist writings used for the present study, those of Phan Trường Mạnh place the greatest emphasis on this apocalyptic element of Caodaism; it occurs more briefly in the short history of Nguyễn Trung Hậu. Both writers were associated with the Liên-Hoà Tổng-Hội of 1936, and by 1950 with the Institut Caodaðque in Saigon, rather than with the Tây-Ninh branch of the movement. There is not enough evidence, however, to conclude that the division between these two groups in the 1930's had any doctrinal cause. In 1950, Phan Trường Mạnh published (in French) a tract entitled La voie du salut caodaðque, which contained translations of some of the most important messages from the Cao-Đài and other spirits. One of these is particularly interesting since it outlines the creation of the world by the Supreme Being, and then goes on to describe the three manifestations de la miséricorde divine, or alliances (between the Supreme Being and Man?) which have occurred in the history of the world. The first of these saw the sending to earth of les archangel des trois sectes: Amitabha (Di-đà), the spirit Thái-Thượng, and the mythical first ruler of China Fu Hsi (Phục-Hi). In the second manifestation, made necessary by man's moral decline since the first, each of these three beings appeared again in a new form: Amitabha as the Sakyamuni Buddha, Thái-Thượng as the sage Lao Tzu (Lão-Đam), and Fu Hsi as Tố-Vương, identified by Mạnh as Confucius. Here we have the figures usually recognized as the founders of the three religions united in Caodaism. The message goes on to explain how, also in this second ‘epoch’, God sent his only son to earth in the West, to reveal his teaching. In the third manifestation there is no indication of a triad, nor even a mention of Maitreya, who would have been the logical third manifestation of Amitabha and Sakyamuni. There is, however, a noticeable emphasis on the fact that the Supreme Being on this occasion chose to reveal himself to the Vietnamese, which made them a sort of chosen people.[31]

The central position afforded to the Thái-Thượng spirit and Lao Tzu in these triads may well signify that, as the founders of Taoism, they were slightly superior to the Buddhist and Confucian figures named. The Thái-Thượng spirit is mentioned in at least one other Caodaist context: Dr. Hickey found that he was one of the deities honoured by the Caodaists of the Ban-Chỉnh Đạo and the Tiên-Thiên sects in the village of Khánh-Hậu (Tân-An province); his festival was on the fifteenth day of the second lunar month, and the former sect referred to him as Thái-Thượng Lão-Quân.[32] The pattern of three sacred figures in each ‘epoch’ also suggests affinities with the Tam-Thanh ‘three holy ones’ of the Taoist pantheon.[33] It would seem that the Caodaists have combined into a single system the Buddhist concept of three ages and the Taoist concept of three deities, and in this respect their religion is a genuine fusion of at least two Chinese religions.

In another work, an article in the Revue Caodaðque of the Institut Caodaðque, Phan Trường Mạnh discussed the progress of the newly-dawned third epoch of salvation and predicted that the ‘era of incarnation’ would be superseded by the ‘era of disincarnation’ in the year 1978; a war of 18 years would then be followed by a golden age beginning in 1996.[34] It was in this article that he discussed the significance of the term long-hoa (Chinese lung-hua, meaning literally ‘dragon-flower’), which symbolizes the forthcoming end of the world. The term also occurs in Nguyễn Trung Hậu’s short history, where the three ‘epochs of salvation’–– described in approximately the same terms as those of Phan Trường Mạnh's tract –– are called the three ‘dragon-flower assemblies’: long-hoa hội.[35] Dr. Topley found references to the dragon-flower as a symbol of the coming of Maitreya in her study of sects in Singapore. She explains that the third Buddha will judge men's souls whilst sitting under a tree of which the long-hoc will be the flower.[36] Phan Trường Mạnh attempted to deduce the date of the forthcoming end of the world (1978) from the structure of the two Chinese characters making up this phrase.


The pattern of three, and also patterns of five and nine, are reflected very strongly in the organization of Caodaism, as it is described both by the English edition of Gobron (relating especially to Tây-Ninh) and by Nguyễn Trung Hậu (presumably with reference to the groups associated with the union of 1936). Their accounts are not identical. According to Nguyễn Trung Hậu the three principal organs of the religion were the Bát-Quái Đài, the Cửu-Trùng Đài, and the Hiệp-Thiên Đài.[37] Gobron (or rather, the editor of the English edition) also lists three organs, but he omits all reference to the Bát-Quái Đài; his third organ is called the Cơ-Quan Phước-Thiện.[38] For reasons which will become apparent, I propose to regard the former of the two frameworks as the more fundamental grouping of three organs.

(1) Bát-Quái Đài ‘Eight Trigrams Palace’.

Nguyễn Trung Hậu calls this the vô-vi ‘non-action’ palace, governed by the Supreme Being (Thượng-Đế), which implies an association between this organ and the v6-vi side of Caodaism established by Ngô Minh Chiêu in 1926 when he withdrew, leaving Tây-Ninh to become the centre of the phổ-độ ‘salvation’ side. This might explain why there is no mention of the Bát-Quái Đài in Gobron’s account relating specifically to Tây-Ninh. The union of Caodaists to which Nguyễn Trung Hậu seems to have belonged did in fact include the Chiếu-Minh group at Cần-Thơ, and hence had closer links with the vô-vi. The eight trigrams were another element of traditional Chinese (Taoist) symbolism that was incorporated into Caodaism. Nguyễn Trung Hậu reproduces a photograph of Ngô Minh Chiêu in his white ceremonial robes, on which the eight trigrams are clearly inscribed. They are also marked on the white robes worn by Nguyễn Ngọc Tương in at least one picture taken after he had become Giáo-Tông at Bến-Tre.

(2) Cửu-Trung Đài Nine Spheres Palace’.

This organ, again according to Nguyễn Trung Hậu, is the ‘palace of hữu-hình’, the material world. The phrase cửu-trùng is sometimes used to indicate the ‘nine spheres’ of the universe, associated with the eight cardinal points and the centre; it is also used in connexion with the nine steps before the imperial throne. In Caodaism the Cửu-Trùng Đài is the administrative organ, or ‘executive body’, and is headed by the highest-ranking Caodaist, the Giáo-Tông. An editorial addition to the English version of Gobron lists the nine ministries (viện) amongst which the various executive responsibilities were divided, from rites to education to public works. Gobron's own account indicates a more important division of the Cửu-Trùng Đài into three larger sections. Each of these three sections is identified with one of the ‘three religions’; it also has a name and a colour, as shown in the table which follows. The table also gives the names of the people who, under Lê Văn Trung, occupied the highest filled positions in the three sections in 1931. Their religious names comprise three elements: the name of the section (for it would seem that individuals were assigned to a particular section for life); the personal (third) name of the individual; and lastly the word thanh, meaning 'pure', which may also have been an appellation for life, or may conceivably have reflected a status which would change. Lê Văn Trung’s religious name was Thượng Trung Nhựt, which indicates that he belonged to the Taoist (Thượng) section; the element Nhựt means ‘sun’.[39] It is interesting to find that the colour symbolism recorded by Gobron is found confirmed by one of the few published colour photographs of a Caodaist ceremony at Tây-Ninh, taken about 1961.[40]

The Cửu-Trùng Đài






Phối-sư in 1931

Ngọc ‘Jade’



personnel rites order

Ngọc Trang Thanh
(Lê Bá Trang)

Thái ‘High’



finance building works

Thái Thơ Thanh
(Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ)

Thượng ‘Supreme’



interior education charity

Thượng Tương Thanh (Nguyễn Ngọc Tương)


The Cửu-Trùng Đài embraces nine grades (phẩm) of adepts of the religion; the higher grades are limited in numbers, but their complements are not necessarily full at any particular date.[41]
















no limit

no limit

no limit

Gobron's list contains twelve grades, because he counted as a separate grade the three Chánh-Phối-Sư ‘principal Phối-Sư’, and also counted separately the three sub-grades within that of Chức-Việc.[42] The grade of Chánh-Phối-Sư was certainly in existence by 1931, when it was one of the highest effective grades since the higher ones were for the most part unfilled. Trần Đạo Quang, who had left Tây-Ninh in 1928 and later founded the Minh-Chơn-Đạo, was apparently Chưởng-Pháp before he went, a high position which he may have owed to the fact that he was already a sort of priest at the time when Caodaism was inaugurated in 1926.[43] Before 1933, Lê Văn Trung himself was only a Đầu-Sư, and he was the highest dignitary at Tây-Ninh in 1931, being followed by the three Cháinh-Phối-Sư whose names are given in the table on p. 583.

(3) Hiệp-Thiên Đài ‘Union with Heaven Palace’.

Nguyễn Trung Hậu says that this organ stands between the Bát-Quái Đài and the Cửu-Trùng Đài, being the ‘palace’ where the Giáo-Tông goes to communicate with the Supreme Being (Đức Thượng-Đế), and with the Buddhas (Phật), the Holy Ones (Thánh), and the Immortals (Tiên), in order to establish the way to salvation (phổ-độ) and the release of souls (siêu-rỗi toàn-linh). He goes on to say, ‘the Bát-Quái Đài sets forth the pháp and establishes the đạo; the Cửu-Trùng Đài maintains the pháp and executes the đạo; the Hiệp-Thiên Đài protects the pháp and defends the đạo’.[44] The terms pháp and đạo are important for the structure of this third organ, because together with thế they occur as the names of the three sections (chi) into which it is divided. Thế, in this context, clearly means the material world; đạo probably means here the practice of religion; and pháp might be translated as ‘rule’ or ‘method’, since the translation ‘law’ implies a meaning closer to the Christian concept of divine law than is ever found in Chinese and Vietnamese religions. In fact, pháp seems to refer to the techniques or methods of mediumship, and the French version of Nguyễn Trung Hậu translates Hiệp-Thiên Đài as palais de médiumnité; the officials of this organ were probably all mediums. Thus Phạm Công Tắc, who, held the position of Hộ-Pháp by 1934 and still held that position during later years when he was referred to in English-language sources as ‘Pope’, was the chief medium. As such he could hold a position not open to Lê Văn Trung. There is no firm evidence of any overlapping of personnel between the Hiệp-Thiên Đài and the Cửu-Trùng Đài, though it is impossible to be certain that there was none at all, since full lists of office-holders are not available. Indeed the relationship between the two organs is an important problem upon which the sources I have used throw very little light. There is no indication of any correspondence between the three sections of one and the three sections of the other, nor any suggestion of any colour symbolism in the Hiệp-Thiên Đài. Nor is it clear which of the two bodies was superior in practice. It is not impossible that precisely this question was at issue in the conflict between Phạm Công Tắc and Nguyễn Ngọc Tương during the years 1932-5.

The Hiệp-Thiên Đài


Pháp section (‘Method’, i.e. mediumship)

Đạo section (‘Religious practice’)

Thế section (‘Material world’)

(1) Heads of sections: ‘Defenders’






(2) ‘Protectors’ Bảo-Pháp



(3) ‘Administrators’ Hiến-Pháp



(4) ‘Propagators’ Khai-Pháp



(5) ‘Continuators’ Tiếp-Pháp




The third organ in the English edition of Gobron, the Cơ-Quan Phước-Thiện, is not mentioned by Nguyễn Trung Hậu, and not a great deal can be said about it.[45] Its name means literally ‘Organ of Good Works’, and it is described as a ‘charitable body’. Twelve grades of membership are listed, the head being called Phật-Tử; the highest actual office-holder at the time of writing (1949-50) belonged to the seventh grade, Chí-Thiện, but his identity is not given. It seems that the principal work of this body concerned the development of the social community of Caodaists at Tây-Ninh, established in 1930, and it probably did not play any important role in the politics of the movement. The same addition to Gobron goes on to describe briefly the provincial hierarchy of the religion. There were at this time (1949-50) five trấn (provinces or circuits), each headed by a Khâm-Trấn-Đạo who must be of the grade of Giáo-Sư. Below them came, in order, the châu, the tộc, and the hương; and below that the hamlets. These terms are not exclusively Caodaist; trấn and châu are found in the vocabulary of traditional Vietnamese imperial administration at different periods; toc means in other contexts ‘clan’ or ‘lineage’; and hương (in Cochinchina) seems to have been interchangeable with , since the village officials are known as hương-cả, hương-chủ, etc.[46]

Finally, returning to the account of Nguyễn Trung Hậu, it is possible to note the existence of a number of different kinds of Caodaist assembly.[47] Starting at the lowest level and working upwards, they were (and presumably still are)

 (i) Hội-Nhơn-Sanh: comprising the lowest grades of adept, up to and  including the Lễ-Sanh; it is not clear whether its meetings involved the  attendance at Tây-Ninh (or any other centre) of adepts from the provinces,  but that would seem very likely.

 (ii) Hội-Thánh: the ‘Sacred Assembly', comprising the grades from  Giáo-Hữu up to and including Phối-Sư. It is interesting to note that in  Gobron’s account of the elevation of Phạm Công Tắc to a position of leadership at Tây-Ninh in 1935, it is stated that he was entrusted with the task by the Hội-Nhơn-Sanh and the Hội-Thánh, and no higher councils are mentioned.[48] Conceivably it was by using these assemblies against the higher ones that Phạm Công Tắc had been able to outpace his rival Nguyễn Ngọc Tương.

(iii) Thượng-Hội: the ‘High Assembly’, comprising the highest grades of  the Cửu-Trùng Đài, upwards from Chánh-Phối-Sư. It cannot therefore have  included more than ten people at any one time, and was probably much smaller  than that.

 (iv) Đại-Hội Vạn-Linh: the ‘Great Assembly of the Ten Thousand Souls’, embracing all the other three assemblies. It was at a meeting of this  assembly that Nguyễn Ngọc Tương denounced Lê Văn Trung and his group  in June 1933, following on from an earlier denunciation in the Thượng-Hội in  the previous April.[49] It is mentioned on that occasion that the Hộ-Pháp)  (Phạm Công Tắc) was absent, which presumably implies that he could have  attended. Since the assemblies are described in terms of the grades in the Cửu-Trùng Đài, it is once again difficult to know what their relationship was  to the offices of the Hiệp-Thiên Đài.


If nothing else, this discussion of beliefs and organization has shown that Caodaism, for all its claims to be an entirely new religion, has affinities with older religious movements. It seems indeed to belong to a sectarian tradition which developed in China over many centuries. This is reflected in the existence, both in China and amongst the overseas Chinese of the Nanyang, of a number of similar or related cults in the twentieth century. A notable example is the Tao Yiian sect (also known, in its charitable work, as the ‘Red Swastika Society’), which was established at Tsin-an in 1921 and which spread to the Nanyang during the 1930’s.[50] It claims to unite five religions –– Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam –– but at its core stands belief in a supreme spirit, not unlike the Cao-Đài spirit. In this case the supreme being is T'ai-i Lao-jen, who at a series of spirit-séances has revealed the truth and established the means to salvation. Neither the terminology of this religion nor its administrative structure resemble very closely those of Caodaism, but the similarity of the fundamental tenets of the two religions suggests that they belong ultimately to the same tradition.

Another sect, or group of sects. with some similarities to Caodaism, has been studied by Dr. Marjorie Topley in Singapore: they are known sometimes as p'u-tu (phổ-độ) sects, and sometimes by the name Hsien-t'ien Ta-tao (Tiên-Thiên Đại-Đạo).[51] The adepts of this group of sects place great emphasis on salvation through self-purification, abstinence, and vegetarianism, and like the Caodaists, they believe in the imminence of the third epoch of salvation. The Buddhist (or rather, salvationist) element is much stronger here than in Caodaism, and the Taoist element is not at all prominent. The symbolic figure of three seems to relate entirely to the three epochs, and the greatest emphasis is on the three Buddhas, Dipankara, Sakyamuni and Maitreya. Whereas the colour symbolism of Caodaism relates to the three divisions within the religious structure, in the Hsien-t'ien religion the three colours of blue, red, and white are related respectively to the three salvation periods. Dr. Topley is able to show, moreover, that the famous ‘White Lotus’ society of Chinese tradition originally belonged to a similar religion, in which white was the symbol of the coming of Maitreya. The sects which she found in Singapore traced back their origins far into the past: with some degree of credibility to the. seventeenth-century patriarch Lo Wei-ch'un, but also far beyond that period to the sixth Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist patriarch of the Tang period, Huineng. However, the line of patriarchs is not the only source of authority within the religion: there is also an element of spirit-mediumship, even here, and the adepts follow the dictates of a spirit called ` Mother' (Wu-sheng Lao-mu, also known under other names), who reveals her intentions at séances with the planchette. (This same spirit was also important in the cult of the Peking group one of whose séances was described by Grootaers as mentioned above.) Again there is no direct correspondence of terminology or structure between the Hsien-t'ien sects in Singapore and Caodaism in Viet-Nam, but the basic similarities are obvious. Moreover, there exists in South Viet-Nam one branch or sect within Caodaism which calls itself the Tiên-Thiên.[52] Unfortunately very little is known of its beliefs or organization, which may not necessarily be identical with those described in the present article.

Reference has already been made to the writings of de Groot. He too found evidence of sects, in Fu-kien and elsewhere, which appear to have belonged to the salvationist-spiritist tradition. Two of them he describes in some detail, under the names Hsien-t'ien and Lung-hua.[53] Once again, neither resembles Caodaism in detail, but an indirect relationship might be postulated. Recent research into the history of rebellion in China has found evidence of sects of this kind in much earlier periods. As early as 515 and 613, for example, there were revolts in which belief in the apocalyptic coming of Maitreya played a prominent part; and the same belief is found amongst many of those who rebelled against the Yušan dynasty in 1351.[54] Revolt by a Taoist sect is found as far back as A.D. 184, when adepts of the  ‘Way of the Five Bushels of Rice’ rose under Chang Heng and established a hierarchy held together by veneration of ‘the Spirit’ (Kuei).[55] No doubt the potentially rebellious political activities of the various kinds of sects that appeared in traditional China is part of the explanation why the Confucian officials sought to prevent them from developing; and precisely because of that, information about their internal organization and beliefs is so limited.

Caodaism, then, fits into a long religious tradition whose roots lie deep in Chinese history. The question naturally arises: how far was it Vietnamese at all, and how far was it merely a Chinese accretion? How, indeed, did it arise in Việt-Nam at all? One aspect of Caodaism deserves special emphasis in this respect: Caodaism was peculiar to the area which the French called Cochinchina. Where it appeared in central and northern Việt-Nam, it was as a result of attempts to spread it there from the south.[56] It was not therefore a direct product of the Nam-Tiên movement of the Vietnamese, by which that people gradually expanded to settle in areas further and further south, from the fifteenth century onwards. Nor should it be confused with other spiritmediumship cults in other areas of Viet-Nam, such as those studied by Durand in Tongking, in which the medium was possessed by the spirit and spoke its words, rather than writing them down.[57] It seems highly probable therefore that the antecedents of Caodaism are to be found amongst cults introduced directly into Cochinchina by migrants from China: Such migration began in the seventeenth century, with the establishment of Chinese colonies at Biên-Hoà, Mỹ-Tho, and Hà-Tiên; and the first Chinese to settle in those places were none other than political refugees from a South China recently conquered by the Ch'ing, who were quite likely to have had connexions with secret religious societies. Other Chinese migrants followed, and by the late nineteenth century they were coming in considerable numbers. If not in the seventeenth century, then at some later date it would seem that the Chinese introduced the syncretic tradition to which Caodaism belonged, and in particular the Minh sects out of which it grew.[58] It will be recalled that the founder of the Ngọc-Hoàng temple at Đa-Kao was a Chinese; and Âu Kích, head of the Minh-Lý sect by 1950, was a minh-hương –– half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese.[59] Nevertheless, the Chinese were quickly assimilated into the Vietnamese society of Cochinchina, and this would explain why any cult introduced by them could very easily become Vietnamese, accepted by people without any Chinese blood. The long establishment of sects of this kind in Cochinchina, combined with an element of ‘Vietnamization’, would also explain why the actual structure and terminology of Caodaism were quite different from those of similar sects elsewhere.

It will be evident that the foregoing study has not by any means answered all the questions that ought to be asked about the nature, origins, and history of Caodaism. My purpose has been to suggest lines of inquiry which might in time be followed up by other researchers. Nor should Caodaism be seen as of interest merely to specialists in the history of South Viet-Nam. It is very probable that in due course a comparative study relating it in closer detail to the various Chinese sects will also throw some light on the origins and development of the latter.


Using Vietnamese sources it is not always possible to be certain of the Chinese characters corresponding to quốc-ngữ words. The following, however, would appear to be the Chinese equivalents of the most important of the terms used in the foregoing article:

Bát-Quái Đài



cơ (kê?)

Cửu-Trùng Đài

Đại-Đạo Tam-kỳ Phổ-Độ




Hiệp-Thiên Đài





Thượng Đế




期 普 度

教 宗

協 天 臺

護 法

龍 華

上 帝

仙 天

無 為


[1] For part I see BSOAS, XXXIII, 2, 1970, 335-49.

[2] I am very much indebted to conversations with Dr. Marjorie Topley and Mr. Michael Saso for several of the ideas followed up in the present article; neither of them, however, should be held responsible for any particular statement herein, save where directly acknowledged; still less for any errors.

[3] The word spiritism will be used here merely because it was preferred by the French spiritists, with whom the Caodaists had much closer contacts (and more in common) than with AngloSagon ‘spiritualists’.

[4] cf. Allan Kardec (L. H. D. Rivail), Oeuvres posthumes, Paris, 1912, which includes a biographical memoir reprinted from Revue Spirite, mai 1869; and Allan Kardec (L. H. D. Rivail), The spirits' book, translated with an introduction by Anna Blackwell, London, 1875.

[5] J. J. M. de Groot, The religious system of China, repr., Taipei, 1964, VI, 1310.

[6] A. J. A. Elliott, Chinese spirit-medium cults in Singapore, London, 1955, 140-5.

[7] Wu Ching-tzu, The scholars, English translation, Peking, 1964, 126 ff.

[8] W. A. Grootaers, ‘Une séance de spiritisme dans une religion secrète à Péking en 1948’ Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, IX, 1948-51, 92-8.

[9] For all these Vietnamese terms, see, e.g. Đồng-Tân, Lịch-sử Cao-Đài, I. Phần Vô-vi, Saigon, 1967, referred to subsequently as Lịch-sử, 53 ff.

[10] ibid., 53, 129 ff.

[11] Huỳnh-Minh, Cần-Thơ xưa và nay, Gia-Định, 1966, 222.

[12] Phan Trường Mạnh, La voie du salut caodaðque, Saigon, 1950, 48.

[13] Lịch-sử, 57.

[14] G. Gobron, History and philosophy of Caodaism, Saigon, 1950, 135, 124.

[15] Lịch-sử, 57-3; Gouvernement-Général de l'Indochine, Contribution à l'histoire des mouvements politiques de l'Indochine française, VII, Hanoi, 1934, referred to subsequently as Contribution, VII, 54-5.

[16] Gobron, op. cit., 46, 51 ff.; Contribution, VII, 58-9.

[17] cf. supra, p. 576.

[18] Nguyễn Phút Tấn, A modern history of Viet-Nam, Saigon, 1964, 410-22.

[19] Gobron, op. cit., 26, 31 ff.

[20] ibid., 149 ff.

[21] Arthur Waley, The poetry and career of Li Po (701-762), London, 1950, 7, 29-31.

[22] Phan Trường Mạnh, La voie du salut, 101-4.

[23] Lịch sử, 43, 58.

[24] Contribution, VII, 27.

[25] Gobron, op. cit., 19.

[26] Lịch-sử, 59 ff.

[27] Gobron, op. cit., 21.

[28] Nguyễn Trung Hậu, Lược sử Đạo Cao Đài: A short history of Caodaism, Tourane, 1956, 8. The word viết is here the Vietnamese form of the Chinese yušeh, meaning ‘to say’', ‘namely’.

[29] Lịch-sử, 81-2;  cf. BSOAS, XXXIII, 2, 1970, 349.

[30] cf. BSOAS, XXXIII, 2, 1970, 341.

[31] Phan Trường Mạnh, La voie du salut, 50-8; it is worth noticing that Dr. Topley found the pattern of three Buddhas in the sects she studied in Singapore, but with Dipankara in place of Amitabha, BSOAS, XXVI, 2, 1963, 371.

[32] G. C. Hickey, Village in Vietnam, New Haven, 1964, 69, 71.

[33] For this comparison, and information about the Taoist San Ch'ing (Tam-Thanh), I am indebted to Mr. Saso.

[34] Revue Caodaðque, IIIe An., décembre 1950, 67-92.

[35] Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 10-11.

[36] M. D. Topley, The organization and social function of Chinese women's chai-t’ang in Singapore (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1958), 131.

[37] Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 17-19.

[38] Gobron, op. cit., 153 ff.

[39] Tiểu-sử Đức Giáo-Tông Nguyễn Ngọc Tương, Saigon, 1958, referred to subsequently as NNT, 19 ff.

[40] National Geographic Magazine, CXX, 4, 1961, 464-5.

[41] Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 18.

[42] Gobron, op. cit., 154.

[43] NNT, 19; he belonged to the Ngọc division.

[44] Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 18.

[45] Gobron, op. cit., 156-7.

[46] ibid., 157-8.

[47] Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 19.

[48] Gobron, op. cit., 71.

[49] NNT, 31.

[50] Hou Su Shuang, Important points of Tao Yuan at a glance, Singapore, 1932; I am grateful to Dr. Topley for drawing my attention to this source.

[51] Marjorie Topley, ‘The Great Way of Former Heaven: a group of Chinese secret religious sects’, BSOAS, XXVI, 2, 1963, 362-92; the subject is treated more fully in her unpublished thesis cited above, p. 581, n. 36.

[52] cf. BSOAS, XXXIII, 2, 1970, 345-6.

[53] J.J. M. de Groot, Sectarianism and religious persecution in China, repr., Taipei, 1963, I, ch. vi-vii.

[54] Y. Muramatsu, ‘Some themes in Chinese rebel ideologies’, in A. F. Wright (ed.), The Confucian persuasion, Stanford, 1960, 246-8.

[55] Vincent Y. C. Shih, ‘Some Chinese rebel ideologies’, T'oung-Pao, XLIV, 1-3, 1956, 150-226.

[56] Nguyễn Trung Hậu, op. cit., 21 ff., deals at some length with the mission to establish Caodaism in central Việt-Nam from 1937 onwards. There were also a few Caodaists in Hải Phòng and possibly Hà Nội.

[57] M. Durand, Technique et panthéon des médiums vietnamiennes, Paris, 1959.

[58] cf. BSOAS, XXXIII, 2, 1970, 348-9.

[59] According to a relative.

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