Caodai spiritism : hybrid individuals, global communities
The Caodai religion of Vietnam has often been labeled as a peasant-driven, politico-religious sect due to its anti-colonial activities during the first half of the 1940s. This paper conducts an historical analysis of Caodaism’s formative years (1926-1941) to show that the religion was in fact primarily managed by Cochinchinese (South Vietnamese) elites who appropriated many of the governance and economic models introduced by the French colonial government. Combining their knowledge of Western bureaucratic systems with Asian religious traditions into a form of hybridity that exhibited both cultures, these elites founded the religion of Caodaism. The paper uses the concept of hybridity to look at how other aspects embody the negotiation and reappropriation of ideas by Caodaists. These include the concept of salvation, the religion’s spirit pantheon, Caodaism’s most famous Western convert (Gabriel Gobron), and the Caodai community in Tay Ninh province. I argue that these hybrid forms allowed Caodaists to overcome a sense of cultural inferiority by establishing cultural parity with the West.
Furthermore, I look at the recent developments within Caodaist communities that have formed in the wake of the 1975 Vietnamese Diaspora. I first examine the influence of restrictive state policies on Caodaists in the homeland and compare it with the experiences of diasporic Vietnamese in rebuilding their religion outside of Vietnam. I find that these diasporic communities are caught between two poles in their attempts to revive the religion. Some overseas Caodaists feel that it is necessary to preserve the tradition by supporting mainland Caodaism from the outside. Others find it more suitable to begin reinventing the religion to cater to diasporic needs and challenges. This tension, I argue, also constitutes a type of hybridity in which individuals must delegate between these two approaches to decide the future of their religion.