When the Sage Becomes a “God”

The Spiritualized Confucian Sect of Minh Đức Nho giáo Đại đạo in Southern Vietnam

  • Tho Ngoc Nguyen Vietnam National University, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Keywords: Minh Đức Nho giáo Đại đạo, Southern Vietnam, spiritualize, sage, god


Southern Vietnam’s tradition has been mainly built on Confucian ideology, although it is a transformed one. There have been two types of Confucianism in the region: state-sponsored and mass Confucianism. During the period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under harsh colonial rule, a number of messianic religious movements emerged. The Minh Đức Nho giáo Đại đạo sect (MĐNGĐĐ, founded in 1932 in Trà Vinh province) is one such movement. The sect takes Confucian norms and values as its basic platform and further acculturates and transforms the philosophical values and rituals of Buddhism, Daoism, and Caodaism, as well as popular religions, to consolidate its settings.
This article uses fieldwork––survey data and written documents––and applies historical particularism and acculturation theories, as well as the concepts of “standardization” and “de-standardization” by Watson (1985), to generalize the birth and features of MĐNGĐĐ in the local context. The study provides a comprehensive means to access the history of social thought in pre-modern Vietnam and possible principles of Confucian propagation and transformation in the country. The study finds that Confucianism may easily transform into a religious institution if the civilizing missions of local elites are missing.


Download data is not yet available.


Alexander, Ong Eng Ann. 2010. “Contextualizing the Book-Burning Episode during the Ming Invasion and Occupation of Vietnam.” In Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor, edited by Geoff Wade, and Sun Laichen, 154–64. Singapore: National University Press.

de Bary, Theodore. 1988. East Asian Civilizations: A Dialogue in Five Stages. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Baldanza, Kathlene. 2013. “De-civilizing Ming China’s Southern Border: Viet­nam as Lost Province or Barbarian Culture.” In Chinese History in Geographical Perspective, edited by Yongtao Yu, and Jeff Kyong-McClain, 55–70. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Berry, John W. 2003. “Conceptual Approaches to Acculturation.” In Acculturation: Advances in Theory, Measurement, and Applied Research, edited by Kevin M. Chun, Pamela Balls Organista, and Gerardo Mari. 17–37. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Brocheux, Pierre. 1995. The Mekong Delta: Ecology, Economy, and Revolution, 1860–1960. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Brown, Karen M. 1991. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Buttinger, Joseph. 1972. A Dragon Defiant: A Short History of Vietnam. New York, Washington: Praeger Publishers.

Cao, Tự Thanh. 1996. Nho giáo ở Gia Định (Confucianism in Gia Định (Southern Vietnam)). Hochiminh city: Hochiminh City Publishing House.

Chambert-Loir, Henri. 2015. “Confucius Crosses the South Seas.” Indonesia 99: 67–107.

Chan, Wing-tsit. 1963. “Dynamic Idealism in Wang Yang-ming.” In A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, translated by Wing-tsit Chan, 654–91. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Coppel, Charles. 1981. “The Origins of Confucianism as an Organized Religion in Java, 1900–1923.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12: 179–96.

Crehan, Kate. 2002. Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

Duara, Prasenjit. 2010. Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900–1942. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Duong, Ngoc Dung. 2004. “An Exploration of Vietnamese Confucian Spirituality: The Idea of the Unity of the Three Teachings (Tam giao dong nguyen).” In Confucian Spirituality, edited by Tu Wei-ming, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 289–318. New York: Crossroad Publication Company.

Dutton, George, Jayne Werner, and John K. Whitmore. 2012. Sources of Vietnamese Tradition. New York: Colombia University Press.

Elman, Benjamin A., John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms. 2000. “Introduction.” In Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, edited by Benjamin A. Elman, John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms, 1–29. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series.

Evans, Grant, and Kelvin Rowley. 1984/1990. Red Brotherhood at War: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos since 1975. London, New York: Verso.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, translated and edited by Colin Gordon. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press.

FitzGerald, C. P. 1972. The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People. London: Barrie & Jenkins.

Foster, Robert J. 1991. “Making National Cultures in the Global Ecumene.” Annual Review of Anthropology 20: 235–60.

Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Translated and edited by Quentin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers.

Giran, Paul. 1904. Psychologie du people annamite. Le caractère national. L’évolution historique, intellectuelle, sociale et politique. Paris: Ernest Leroux, Editeur.

Guo, Qitao. 2003. Exorcism and Money: The Symbolic World of the Five-Fury Spirits in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.

Ho Tai, Hue-Tam. 1983. Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Holmgren, Jennifer. 1980. Chinese Colonization of Northern Vietnam: Administrative Geography and Political Development in the Tonking Delta, First To Sixth Centuries A.D. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Huỳnh, Ngọc Thu. 2017. Đạo Cao Đài trong mối quan hệ với bên ngoài (Caodaism in its External Relations). Hochiminh City: VNU Publishing House.

Jackson, Richard H., and Roger Henrie. 1983. “Perception of Sacred Space.” Journal of Cultural Geography 3: 94–107.

Katz, Paul R. 2007. “Orthopraxy and Heteropraxy beyond the State: Standardizing Ritual in Chinese Society.” Modern China 33 1: 72–90.

Kendall, Laurel. 1985. Shamans, Housewives, and other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lewis, I. M. 1971. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Li, Tana. 1998. Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications.

McHale, F. Shawn. 2002. “Mapping a Vietnamese Confucian Past and its Transition to Modernity.” In Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, edited by Benjamin A. Elman, John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms, 397–430. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series.

McKeown, Adam. 2017. “Conceptualizing Chinese Diaspora 1842–1949.” In The Chinese Diaspora in the Pacific, edited by Anthony Reid, 306–37. Ashgate: Variorum.

MĐNGĐĐ. 1977. Thánh giáo (Teachings of the Sage). Trà Vinh: MĐNHĐĐ.

MĐNGĐĐ. 2002. Đức Trung Thiên Thánh giáo – Lê Thái Sanh, Nhị giáo tông MĐNGĐĐ (On the second master of MĐNGĐĐ, Mr. Le Thai Sanh – Duc Trung Thien Saint). Trà Vinh: MĐNHĐĐ.

MĐNGĐĐ. 2005. Nho giáo Kinh 1932-2005 (The Confucian Classics 1932–2005). Trà Vinh: MĐNHĐĐ.

Miyakawa, Hisayuki. 1960. “The Confucianization of South China.” In The Confucian Persuasion, edited by Arthur F.Wright, 27–41. Stanford. CA: Stanford Uinversity Press.

Ngô, Đức Thịnh. 1984. “Giao tiếp văn hóa và vai trò của nó đối với quy luật đổi mới cái ‘truyền thống’ Văn hóa các dân tộc Việt Nam và Đông Nam Á (Cultural Exchange and Its Role of Transforming the Traditions in Vietnam and Southeast Asia).” Dân tộc học (Journal of Ethnology) 2: 39–45.

Nguyễn, Công Bình. 1998. “Sự phát triển của cộng đồng dân tộc Việt Nam trong khai phá đất Đồng Nai – Gia Định (The Development of Vietnamese People during the Process of Land Reclamation in Dong Nai––Gia Dinh).” In Góp phần tìm hiểu lịch sử – văn hóa 300 năm Sài Gòn – Tp. Hồ Chí Minh (Contribution to the Study on Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City––300 Years of History), 69–84. Hochiminh City: Nxb. Trẻ.

Nguyễn, Khắc Viện. 1974. “Confucianism and Marxism in Vietnam.” In Tradition and Revolution in Vietnam, edited by David Marr, and Jayne Werner, 15–51. Berkeley, CA: Indochina Resource Center.

Nguyen, Ngoc Tho. 2014. “Confucianism and Vietnamese Cultural Characteristics.” China and the World, vol. 3. Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe.

––– 2016. “Confucianism and Humane Education in Contemporary Vietnam.” International Communication of Chinese Culture 3 (4): 645–71.

––– 2017. “The Confucian Transformation in Southern Vietnam: Minh Đức Nho giáo đại đạo in Trà Vinh.” In Vietnamese Studies, edited by Le Khac Cuong, and Tran Thuy Vinh, 936–49. Hochiminh City: VNU-HCM Press.

Nguyễn, Văn Trung. 2014. Hồ sơ về Lục châu học: tìm hiểu con người ở vùng đất mới: dựa và̀o liệu văn sử bằng quốc ngữ ở miền Nam từ 1865–1930 (Profile of Six Provinces in South Vietnam: Studying the People in New Lands: Based on Historical Documents by National Language in Southern Vietnam from 1865–1930). Hochiminh City: Nxb. Trẻ.

Nogami, Emi. 2015. “A Case Study of Khong Tu Thanh Dien (Minh Duc Nho Giao Dai Dao) in Cau Ngang District, Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam.” The Proceeding of the International Conference on the Religious Facilities of the Ethnic Chinese (Hoa) People in Tra Vinh Province, August 27th–28th, 2015. Tra Vinh University, Vietnam.

O’Harrow, Stephen. 1979. “Nguyen Trai’s “Binh Ngo Dai Cao” of 1428: The Development of a Vietnamese National Identity.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 10 (1): 159–74.

Ostrowski, Brian. 2010. “The Rise of Christian Nôm Literature in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam: Fusing European Content and Local Expression.” In Vietnam and the West: New Approaches, edited by Wynn Wilcox, 19–39. Ithaca, NY.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications.

Pham, Quynh Phuong. 2009. Hero and Deity: Tran Hung Dao and the Resurgence of Popular Religion in Vietnam. Bangkok: Mekong Press.

Phan, Ngọc. 1998. Bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam (Cultural Identity of Vietnam). Hanoi: Nxb. Văn hóa – Thông tin.

Reid, Anthony. 1988. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450–1680. Hew Haven, CT.: Yale University Press.

Richey, Jeffrey L. 2013. Confucius in East Asia: Confucianism’s History in China, Korea, Japan and Việt Nam. Ann Arbor: The Association for Asian Studies, Inc.

Rozman, Gilbert. 2014. “Introduction the East Asian Region in Comparative Perspective.” In The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and its Modern Adaptation, edited by Gilbert Rozman, 3–42. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Seligman, Adam, and Robert Weller. 2012. Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sharp, Lesley A. 1993. The Possessed and the Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press.

Sun, Laichen. 2010. “Assessing the Ming Role in China’s Southern Expansion.” In Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor, edited by Geoff Wade, and Sun Laichen, 44–82. Singapore: National University Singapore Press.

Sutton, Donald S. 2007. “Introduction to the Special Issue: Ritual, Cultural Standardization, and Orthopraxy in China: Reconsidering James L. Watson’s Ideas.” Modern China 33 (1): 3–21.

Szonyi, Michael. 2007. “Making Claims about Standardization and Orthodoxy in Late Imperial China: Rituals and Cults in the Fuzhou Region in Light of Watson’s Theories.” Modern China 33 (1): 47–71.

Takatsu, Shigeru. 2012. “Ngu Chi Minh Dao and Caodaism in Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.” Seisa University Research Bulletin 8: 28.

Taylor, Keith W. 1983. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

–––. 1987. “Authority and Legitimacy in Eleventh-Century Vietnam.” Vietnam Forum. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

–––. 2002. “Vietnamese Confucian Narratives.” In Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, edited by By Benjamin A. Elman, John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms, 337–69. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series.

Taylor, Rodney L. 1990. The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism. Albany, NY.: State University of New York Press.

Tominaga, Masao. 2009. “Dai 7-shō shūkyō shinkō daiissetsu dentō shūkyō’ (Religion and Faith 7 Section Traditional Religion).” In Betonamu bunka jinruigaku bunken kaidai ベトナム文化人類学文献解題 (Bibliography of Cultural Anthropology of Vietnam), edited by Suenari Michio, 50–62. Tōkyō: Tōkyō Gaikokugo Daigaku Ajia Afurika Gengo Bunka Kenkyūjo.

Trần, Hồng Liên, and Thị Thu Hiền Lâm. 2016. “Dấu ấn Nho giáo trong Minh Đức Nho giáo Đại đạo (Confucian Imprints in Minh Đức Nho giáo đại đạo).” In Nho giáo – triết lý giáo dục trong thế giới đương đại (Confucianism as World Philosophy of Education), 149–62. Hochiminh City: University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Trần, Ngọc Thêm. 2001. Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam (Identifying Vietnamese Cultural Identity). Hochiminh City: Hochiminh City Publishing House.

Trần, Văn Giàu. 1982. “Mấy đặc tính của nông dân Đồng bằng sông Cửu Long (Some Features of the Peasants in the Mekong River Delta).” In Một số vấn đề khoa học xã hội về Đồng bằng sông Cửu Long (Issues of Social Sciences in the Mekong River Delta), 197–206. Hanoi: Nxb. KHXH.

––– 1993. Sự phát triển của tư tưởng ở Việt Nam từ thế kỷ XIX đến Cách Mạng Tháng Tám (The Development of Vietnamese Ideology from the Nineteenth Century to Thang Tam Revolution (1945)). Hochiminh City: Hochiminh City Publishing House.

Truong, Van Chung. 2016. New Religion: The Cognition and Reality. Hochiminh City: VNU Publishing House.

Trần, Quốc Vượng. 2008. Cơ sở văn hóa Việt Nam (Basis of Vietnamese Culture). Hanoi: Nxb. Giáo dục.

Tu, Weiming 1994. “Embodying the Universe: A Note on Confucian Self-Realization.” In Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice, edited by Roger T. Ames, Wimal Dissanayake, and P. Thomas Kasulis, 177–86. NY.: State University of New York Press.

–––. 2004. “The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism: Implications for China and the World.” In Confucian Spirituality, vol. 2, edited by Tu Weiming, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 480–508. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Tucker, Mary Evelyn. 2004. “Introduction.” In Confucian Spirituality, vol. 2, edited by Tu Weiming, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 1–27. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Turner, Edith. 2006. Among the Healers: The Stories of Spiritual and Ritual Healing around the World. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Wang, Gungwu. 1958. The Nanhai Trade: A Study of Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea. Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Watson, James. 1985. “Standardizing the Gods: The Promotion of T’ien Hou (“Empress of Heaven”) along the South China Coast, 960–1960.” In Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, edited by David Johnson, Andrew Nathan, and Evelyn Rawski, 292–324. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weller, Robert. 1987. Unities and Diversities in Chinese Religion. London: Macmillan/Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Whitmore, John K. 1976. “The Vietnamese Confucian Scholar’s View of His Country’s Early History.” In Explorations in the Early Southeast Asian History: The Origins of Southeast Asian Statecraft, edited by By Kenneth R. Hall, and John K. Whitmore, 193–203. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

–––. 1985. Vietnam, Hồ Quý Ly, and the Ming (1371–1421). New Haven, CT: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, Council on Southeast Asia Studies.

–––. 2010. “Paperwork: The Rise of the New Literati and Ministerial Power and the Effort toward Legibility in Đại Việt.” Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor, edited by Geoff Wade, and Sun Laichen, 104–25. Singapore: National University Singapore Press.

Wolf, Arthur. 1974. Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press:

Wolters, Oliver W. 1976. “Le Van Huu’s Treatment of Ly Than Tong’s Reign (1127–1137).” In Southeast Asian History and Historiography: Essays Presented to D.G.S. Hall, edited by C. D. Cowan, and O. W. Wolters, 203–26. Ithaca, NY.: Cornel University Press.

–––. 1988. Two Essays on Đại-Việt in the Fourteenth Century. New Haven: Council on Southeast Asia Studies & Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

–––. 1996. “What Else May Ngo Si Lien Mean? A Matter of Distinctions in the Fifteenth Century.” In Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese, edited by Anthony Reid, and Kristine Alilunas Rodgers, 94–114. Sydney: Asian Studies Association of Australia, Allen & Unwin.

Woodside, Alexander. 2002. “Classical Primordialism and the Historical Agendas of Vietnamese Confucianism.” In Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, edited by Benjamin A. Elman, John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms, 116–43. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series.

Yu, Insun. 1978. “Law and Family in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Vietnam.” PhD diss., University of Michigan.

Zhang, Rongfang 張榮芳. 1995. Nanyue guoshi 南越國史 (The History of Nan-Yue Kingdom). Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe.

How to Cite
NguyenT. N. (2020). When the Sage Becomes a “God”. Asian Studies, 8(2), 17-50. https://doi.org/10.4312/as.2020.8.2.17-50