The basic tenets of Cao Dai were first revealed to Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant working in the criminal investigation department of the French administration on Phu Quoc Island, at the beginning of the 1920s. A spiritualist, Ngo was contacted during a seance by a superior spirit calling itself Cao Dai, or “high place”. This spirit communicated to him the basics of the Cao Dai creed, and instructed him to adopt the Divine Eye as a tangible representation of its existence. Posted back to Saigon soon afterwards, Ngo set about evangelizing, though according to French convert and chronicler Gabriel Gobron the religion didn’t gather steam until late in 1925, when Ngo was contacted by a group of mediums sent his way by the Cao Dai.
At this stage, revelations from the Cao Dai began to add further meat to the bones of the religion. Twice already, it informed its mediums, it had revealed itself to mankind, using such vehicles as Lao-tzu, Christ, Mohammed, Moses, Sakyamuni and Confucius to propagate systems of belief tailored to suit localized cultures. Such religious intolerance had resulted from this multiplicity, that for the third alliance it would do away with earthly messengers and convey a universal religion via spirit intermediaries, including Louis Pasteur, William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Sir Winston Churchill and Napoleon Bonaparte. The revelations of these “saints” were received using a planchette (a pencil secured to a wooden board on castors, on which the medium rests his hand, sometimes known as a corbeille-bec).
Though a fusion of Oriental and Occidental religions, propounding the concept of a universal god, Cao Dai is primarily entrenched in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, to which cause-and-effect creeds, elements of Christianity, Islam and spirituality are added. By following its five commandments – Cao Dai followers must avoid killing living beings, high living, covetousness, verbal deceit and the temptations of the flesh – adherents look to hasten the evolution of the soul through reincarnation.
The religion was effectively founded in October 1926, when it was also officially recognized by the French colonial administration. Borrowing the structure and terminology of the Catholic Church, Cao Dai began to grow rapidly, its emphasis upon simplicity appealing to disaffected peasants, and by 1930 there were five hundred thousand followers. In 1927, Tay Ninh became the religion’s Holy See; Ngo opted out of the papacy, and the first pope was Le Van Trung, a decadent mandarin from Cho Lon who saw the error of his ways after being visited by the Cao Dai during a seance.
Inevitably in such uncertain times, Cao Dai developed a political agenda. Strongly anti-French during World War II, subsequently the Cao Dai militia turned against the Viet Minh, with whom they fought, using French arms, in the French War. By the mid-Fifties, the area around Tay Ninh was a virtual fiefdom of Cao Dai followers. In The Quiet American, Graham Greene describes the Cao Dai militia as a “private army of 25,000 men, armed with mortars made out of the exhaust-pipes of old cars, allies of the French who turned neutral at the moment of danger”. Even then, however, they were feuding with the rival Hoa Hao sect, and in a few years their power had waned.
Post-liberation, the Communist government confiscated all Cao Dai land, though it was returned ten years later. Today, the religion continues to thrive in its twin power bases of Tay Ninh District and the Mekong Delta.