Caodaism's Evolution During the Indochina War

It was the time of intricate entanglements of Caodaism's difficult relations with France, Japan, the Vietnamese Communists, and Ngo Dinh Diem's Government.

Caodaism's Evolution During the Indochina War
Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine

This article was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 29, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated this into English.

Caodaism is a native religion from Vietnam that incorporates various elements from other belief systems such as Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

Although Caodaism represents both a nationalist ideology and a new religion with great appeal, the expansion of Caodaism among the Vietnamese public led to divisions among Caodaist followers into different branches. Consequently, this has resulted in various power struggles and these different branches clashing political interests.

The internal factions within Caodaism could not escape the chaos of the era and had to make difficult choices during the Japanese occupation (1941-1945), the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the Second Indochina War and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). These conflicts have shaken the theological system that supports peace and the values of "universal brotherhood" taught by Caodaism.

From 1940 to 1965, Caodaist leaders had to make important choices regarding armed struggle, strategic cooperation, alliance selection, and diplomacy.

In Jérémy Jammes’ study titled, “Caodaism in Times of War: Spirits of Struggle and Struggle of Spirits,” the author addresses questions about the impact of these armed conflicts on Caodaist leaders, the tools they used to cope with violence during wartime, their political strategies, and their efforts to mitigate security risks, along with their plans for national unity. [1]

By focusing on the lives of three influential leaders of Caodaism: Pham Cong Tac, Cao Trieu Phat, and Tran Van Que, Jammes highlights the struggles they faced in choosing alliances, clarifies the differences in their ideas, examines their internal conflicts, and explains the critical similarity in their ultimate desire to transform Caodaism into the “national religion” of Vietnam.


The study begins by outlining the critical characteristics of Caodaism, such as its theological foundation, rituals, and ambitious aspirations for expansion. It also highlights the scope of the research in understanding the conflicts of war and religion.

The researcher discusses the political vision of Caodaism and summarizes it into four distinctive features:

  1. The use of written communication (Fuji) to connect with spiritual entities;
  2. A utopian project of forming a "national religion;”
  3. Ethical issues faced during the war, such as dealing with wounded soldiers or caring for the unemployed and displaced individuals due to warfare; and
  4. A new form of monarchy which Millennialism influenced.

Due to its size and a large number of Caodaism dignitaries present in the urban class and among state officials, this religion was able to establish a solid social management network over a portion of the population in Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam) and later in the Republic of Vietnam. In other words, with such high numbers, Caodaist followers became a driving force behind the practical and tightly-knit operation of the religion.


The study also addresses the political activities of Caodaist forces from 1940 to 1965, their scope of action, strategic military decisions, and the diplomatic efforts they carried out during this turbulent period.

Firstly, the study discusses the Defender of Dharma, Pham Cong Tac.

During the Japanese occupation, Caodaist followers participated in the Phục Quốc movement (League for the Restoration of Vietnam) led by Prince Cuong De, who was considered the direct descendant of King Gia Long. He was unrecognized by the ruling Nguyen dynasty and the French colonial regime. Pham Cong Tac openly expressed his desire to restore power to Cuong De and establish a central government with three relatively autonomous local governments.

In the 1940s, Caodaist dignitaries raised the flag to support the Axis powers. They hoped their victory would help restore the reign of Cuong De, who would declare Caodaism as the official religion of the constitutional monarchy.

However, French colonial authorities intervened by closing the Tay Ninh Holy See, suppressing Caodaist officials, and exiling Pham Cong Tac to a prison in Madagascar. In response, Tran Quang Vinh, a high-ranking dignitary under Pham Cong Tac, quickly formed a pro-Japanese Caodaist army.

Nevertheless, when they could no longer rely on the Japanese forces, Tran Quang Vinh reluctantly accepted cooperating with the Viet Minh to establish a united front against the French.

Subsequently, France reversed the situation, brought Pham Cong Tac back to Vietnam, offered a political cooperation agreement, and recognized the République autonome de Cochinchine for Caodaist followers. Upon his return from exile, Pham Cong Tac openly called on his fellow Caodaists to collaborate with the French.

In September 1946, the Viet Minh launched a bloody campaign to suppress Caodaism.

To safeguard the influence of Caodaism and protect their followers from violence and potential abuse of power by the Viet Minh, Caodaist dignitaries requested rearmament from France. France agreed to provide weapons and allowed them to participate in the "pacification" process in the province of Tay Ninh. This agreement initiated a long-term military alliance between the Tay Ninh Holy See and France.

Nevertheless, the Holy See later exploited this agreement and created its own army to protect Caodaist dignitaries, particularly Pham Cong Tac. Tran Quang Vinh and Pham Cong Tac controlled several military units, which had the dual mission of fighting against the Viet Minh and providing intelligence to the Holy See regarding the intentions and activities of France in each province.

During the French withdrawal from Indochina in 1954, Caodaist soldiers lost almost all their fighting spirit against the Viet Minh, leading to mass desertions. In response, the supreme dignitaries expanded the military structure into a new phase to strengthen their ranks.

After the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, negotiations between the French government and Ho Chi Minh in Geneva may have involved the future of Caodaism. Pham Cong Tac, as a member of the Caodaist delegation, traveled to Paris to meet with the President of France.

Upon his return, Pham Cong Tac prioritised restoring political stability in the areas that Caodaism still controlled. However, his anti-communist and anti-Catholic tone changed after the French retreat, the division of Vietnam, and the rise of Catholic devotee Ngo Dinh Diem in the southern region.

The Ngo Dinh Diem regime exerted pressure and intensified repression to eliminate the military strength of Caodaism in 1955. Pham Cong Tac was subsequently exiled to Phnom Penh. Amidst the crackdowns, many Caodaist followers abandoned their autonomy project. Others joined the Viet Minh or the forces of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, while some went into hiding.

Based on the evolution of conflicts during specific periods and locations, it can be observed that the continuous changes in the structure and tactics of Pham Cong Tac's plans reflected the political and military standing and viewpoint of the Tay Ninh Holy See.


The story of Pham Cong Tac has become widely known in political and religious spheres, overshadowing public attention on the actions of other Caodaist dignitaries who may not have necessarily complied with his decisions. One notable example is Cao Trieu Phat. His religious career, like his political decisions, can be considered unique.

After spending time in France, Cao Trieu Phat returned to Vietnam in 1922 to engage in politics and established the Indochinese Labour Party in 1926. He was later elected to the Cochin Chinese Board of Administration in 1930, but his party dissolved soon after. He officially converted to Caodaism in 1932.

He founded the Caodaist sect called Minh Chon Dao, along with Tran Dao Quang. This sect is known for being similar to Communism. In 1945, he became the chairman of the Unified Association of the Eleven Caodaist Denominations (Cao Ðài Hiệp Nhứt 11 Phái in Vietnamese), excluding the Tay Ninh sect.

Cao Trieu Phat officially joined the Viet Minh in August 1945 and became the Chairman of the Committee of National Liberation of Bac Lieu Province. The Holy See of the Minh Chon Dao sect was seen as the headquarters of Communist resistance in the area.

In early 1946, under pressure from French forces, Cao Trieu Phat retreated to the Holy See of Minh Chon Dao and established a provincial-level resistance base and a communist headquarters.

On October 14, 1947, he established the Unified Association of the Twelve Caodaist Denominations (Hội Cao Đài Cứu quốc 12 phái hợp nhứt in Vietnamese) for Patriotic Salvation with the ambition of forming a Caodaist - Communist national liberation front against colonial invasion.

Upon his death, the government, led by Ho Chi Minh, organized a solemn funeral to commemorate his contributions.

It can be seen that Cao Trieu Phat's career was closely tied to the Viet Minh and served as evidence of the vibrant expansion of Caodaism.


In his research, Jammes mentions another Caodaist leader, Tran Van Que. He argues that the story of Tran Van Que is rarely discussed in studies on the history of Caodaism, despite Tran Van Que's actions having long-lasting impacts on Caodaism's political and internal dynamics.

Tran Van Que is portrayed as a figure who was involved from the early days in the struggle against the religious schism forming among Caodaist followers. The internal division has always been seen as an inherent weakness of Caodaism. Tran Van Que saw, in that division, an opportunity to unite and develop new strategies to resist colonial forces and avoid getting entangled in the military activities of the Tay Ninh Holy See.


Clarifying the biographies and actions of key figures on the political stage is a complex yet necessary task. Moreover, the researcher effectively applies this approach in studying the conflicts in South Vietnam at that time.

On the other hand, Jammes also believes that further research should not be limited to the biographies of well-known Caodaist figures, especially considering the relationship between war and religion in Vietnam.

Jérémy Jammes studies the paths chosen by these leaders and examines various aspects, such as the short-term tactics or long-term objectives in the political, religious, and military realms. This allows readers to trace the changes in Caodaist leaders' ambitions and personalities within the context of war.

In reality, the Tay Ninh Holy See could not gain the loyalty of all Caodaist followers. Many Caodaist branches gained power and influence regarding theology and politics in the indigenous context at that time.

A diverse approach considering Caodaist followers outside the Tây Ninh Holy See helps shed light on the less noticeable characteristics in the Indochinese political arena and decipher often overlooked power relationships, strategies, and historical agents.

This research helps readers avoid the inherent misconceptions and biases in understanding Caodaism. Instead, it emphasizes the continuous dispersion, development, and expansion of Caodaist followers in various locations and the religion’s constantly changing strategies depending on the wartime context. This contributes to a new interpretation of the vibrant expansion of Caodaism.

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