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Occulting the Dao: Daoist Inner Alchemy, French Spiritism, and Vietnamese Colonial Modernity in Caodai Translingual Practice

  • Jeremy Jammes (a1) and David A. Palmer (a2)

This article takes the case of the Vietnamese Cao Dai religion to examine how Asian religious leaders and translators, in a context of colonial modernity, invested a European language with their own cosmologies and discourses, building both a national identity and an alternative spiritual universalism. Studies of translation in colonial contexts have tended to focus on the processes and impact of translating European texts and ideas into the languages of the colonized. This article discusses the inverse process, examining how Caodai textual production used French spiritist language and tropes to occult its Chinese roots, translating Daoist cosmology into a universalist and anti-colonial spiritual discourse rooted in Vietnamese nationalism. These shifts are examined through a close examination of translingual practices in the production and translation of the core esoteric scripture of Caodaism, the Đại Thừa Chơn Giáo 大乘真教 (The True Teachings of the Great Vehicle), rendered in its 1950 Vietnamese-French edition as The Bible of the Great Cycle of Esotericism. This study demonstrates how colonial religious institutions and networks of circulation in Asia stimulate the emergence of new movements and textual practices that mimic, invert, jumble, and transcend the cosmologies of both the Chinese imperium and the European colonial regime.

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