I came across a “secret” report that the Indochina Section of the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Ministry of Information in New Delhi filed in 1944. It is an account of Caodaism that was written “by an Annamite who was educated in France and, later, was deported from Indochina for writing anti-French and anti-Japanese articles.”
I don’t know who this author was. However, his account is quite interesting. Much of what he wrote is by now well-known, but there are little details here and there that are fascinating. Perhaps those who know more about Caodaism than I do (and I don’t know much) are aware of everything that is in this report. Nonetheless, I think it is worth sharing.
The report opens with a passage on the origin of Caodaism and the circumstances of its birth. The author states that “Caodaism made its appearance in Cochinchina about 1927. According to Phạm Công Tắc, one of the founders of this new religion and interim ‘Pope,’ this religious movement was born from a chance event.”
“A group of Indochinese officials and intellectuals amused themselves evoking spirits by table turning. Accidentally, the spirit of ‘God’ interposed itself and announced itself as the ‘Master of [the] Universe.’ On the advice of the ‘Master” a new religion was created, giving as its aim the salvation of the Indochinese population from their present misfortunes and the unification of all the faiths into one religion which was henceforth called Cao Đài (in Chinese 高枱) which means High Altar.”
While this author says that Caodaism was “was born from a chance event,” he says that “socially speaking this movement was not accidental but coincided exactly with the decline of the nationalist movement in Cochinchina.” In particular, “the imprisonment of nationalist leaders such as Nguyễn An Ninh. . . [and] the betrayal of Bùi Quang Chiêu. . . as well as the repression against strikers had for effect the demoralization of the partisans of Cochinchinese nationalism.”
The author then states that “The state of mind found its manifestation in the orientation of nationalists towards this ‘neo-Buddhist’ religion which claimed to be able to seek the aid of gods and goddesses for solving political as well as social questions. Caodaism was therefore the issue of this desperate situation of the Cochinchinese nationalists and the fruit of political events of that time.”
I find the use of the term “Cochinchinese nationalists” in this report intriguing. Did the author mean “Vietnamese” nationalists from Cochinchina? Or did he see these people as Cochinchinese who promoted Cochinchina as a nation?
The report goes on to talk about the idea of Caodaism, its organization, the history of the movement, and its various sects. In talking about the main sect based in Tây Ninh, the author provides some interesting information about activities at the time World War II began.
“With the Japanese threat in the Pacific and the growing military strength of Germany, the political character of Caodaism declared itself. The predictions made by the “cơ” [i.e., spirit writing brush] about certain victory of the Axis powers in the coming war as well as the sanctification of the heads of these governments as disciples of the “Master,” sent on earth to reorganize the world, were whispered among the Caodaists without their leaders daring acknowledge publicly its authenticity.”
The Caodai leaders, however, did dare to seek to contact the Japanese, and this author contends that they did so through “the intermediary of a Chinese called Xoi living at Phnom Penh.”
According to this author, however, the ultimate ambition of the Cao Đài leader, Phạm Công Tắc, “was to have the Catholic religion liquidated to the advantage of his own religion and this, with the aid of Japan. His talks about patriotism or racialism were nothing but a screen.”
The author goes on to state that “At the declaration of war by France, being conscious of the dangerous consequences of his acts, [Phạm Công Tắc] for a change proposed to M. Catroux, Governor-General of Indochina at that time, to accept the mass enlistment of Caodaists for the European front, on condition that they were authorized to wear their religious costumes.”
“The strange offer,” the author states, “was rejected.”
There is also a passage here on one Cao Đài sect, the Tiên Thiên sect, that is quite interesting.
In the 1940s this sect was led by Lê Kim Tỵ. The report states that “During big ceremonies he liked to wear theatrical costumes and gave himself the title of ‘Great General of the Master.’ He professed the strict observation of vegetarian diet and the training of the ‘Ascension.’”
What was the Ascension?
“Following his advice, his followers, after a long period of fasting and meditation, tried to jump into space, from the top of towers built for this purpose, and some got their arms broken while others their legs, but they never gave up this attempt for the ‘ascension,’ pretending that their failure was due to the insufficiency of their observation of divine laws.”
The author of this report clearly did not believe in Ascension. He stated that “This ridiculous practice formed the object of public ridicule and contributed very little to the development of this sect.”
[I found this report in the Australian National Archives. See, NAA: A1067, PI46/2/4/1 Gazeteer of Indo China. Far Eastern Bureau, pages 161-168.]