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Gods, Heroes, and AncestorsAn Interreligious Encounter in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam$

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190677602

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190677602.001.0001

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(p.323) Appendix A Adriano di Santa Thecla’s Opusculum

(p.323) Appendix A Adriano di Santa Thecla’s Opusculum

Gods, Heroes, and Ancestors

Anh Q. Tran

Oxford University Press

The Opusculum de sectis apud Sinenses et Tunkinenses (hereafter abbreviated as Opusculum) is a 19 by 25 cm manuscript, preserved as the AMEP Volume 667. The manuscript is made up of 121 pages, eight of which are introductions numbered with roman numerals. It also has a two-page table of contents. There are blank pages at the end of the chapters on Confucianism, Daoism, and Fortune-tellers, and after the second chapter on Buddhism, reducing the actual text to 109 pages. The treatise was written in Latin with the insertion of passages in Sino-Vietnamese and vernacular Vietnamese written in Roman script. It also included several diagrams describing the layout of the places in which the ceremony to Confucius, the Hội Minh ceremony, and the Buddhist rite of “breaking the prison” (phá ngục) occur.

The book was a treatise on the religions of the Chinese and Tonkinese based on the observations of Adriano di Santa Thecla with additional information from the Dominican missionary Francisco Gil de Federich (1702–1745)1 and others, including the literati. Adriano wrote this treatise to explain the religions of the Chinese and Tonkinese to European readers. He included a description of all the Three Religions, as well as the development of Christianity in China and in Tonkin. Unfortunately, he never completed the work due to many interruptions—which he described as wars and other matters. As Adriano admitted, the treatise was an opportunity to expand on other missionaries’ writings about the religions of Tonkin. In the preface to Opusculum, he wrote,

The possibility of writing this treatise was provided by the Index Historicus of the Tonkin mission, which [the] illustrious Father Ilario [Hilario] di Gesù, bishop of Corycus, and vicar apostolic of East Tonkin, compiled for use by his brothers (p.324) living in this mission, in which he discussed these three sects [Tam Giáo] following the information that previous missionaries passed on in books transcribed from Chinese and Annamite script. It seemed necessary to me to re-examine and to make a new investigation of the sects and to consult the Chinese books, literati, and experts. When it was done, I discovered many contradictions and followed the most trustworthy of the suggested versions, to which I added others.2

While the work was still in its early stage, Adriano di Santa Thecla sent his manuscript to Gil de Federich to examine, correct, and add further information. He also made an inquiry about special ceremonies (for example, the Kỳ Đạo ceremony) among the court ministers and literati. In composing his work on the religions of Tonkin, Adriano acknowledges incorporating materials from Hilario’s Dị Đoan Chi Giáo and Đại Học Chi Đạo. Opusculum was highly valued among missionaries. An early version had already been sent back to Europe with an introduction by Bishop Louis Néez, the vicar apostolic of West Tonkin. In a letter to the directors of the MEP in Paris dated December 15, 1749, Néez wrote,

I have our students write [= make a copy] of the Chronology of China and Tonkin and an abridged chronology of the history of the religion, which was composed by the Reverend Father Adriano di Santa Thecla, an Italian Augustinian, missionary of the Propaganda in Tonkin. It is a new book, at least concerning Tonkin, and perhaps concerning China. Since this Father sent this work to Rome, I guessed that I would do you a favor by sending a copy to your library. I wish it had been written better and more precisely. I corrected there quite a number of mistakes. Maybe there are still many more others than these. Please be so kind as to excuse an old man who is alone and overloaded with his affairs.3

As a survey of religion, the Opusculum is a systematic treatment of the Chinese and Vietnamese religions. It is divided into six chapters discussing (1) the sect of the literati (Confucianism), (2) the cult of spirits, (3) the sect of magicians (Daoism), (4) fortune tellers and diviners, (5) the sect of the Buddha, (6) and the Christian religion among the Chinese and Vietnamese. The treatise is mainly a description of Chinese and Vietnamese religions. Unlike the author of Errors, Adriano di Santa Thecla refrained from giving his opinions on what he observed, except when he discussed the merit of sacrifices.4

The Complex Relationship Between Errors and Opusculum

A comparison of the table of contents between the two works exhibits a striking parallel in the topics discussed: (p.325) (p.326)

  • Tam Giáo Chư Vọng

  • [Errors of the Three Religions]

Opusculum de sectis apud Sinenes et Tunkineses


On the Sects of the Chinese and Annamites

  • Book 1: The Errors of Confucianism

  • Art. 1: On How the Supreme Ultimate Created Heaven and Earth

  • Art. 2: On the Origin of Pangu

  • Art. 3: On the Sovereign on High

  • Art. 4: On the Origin of the Right Way

  • Art. 5: On the Great Flood

  • Art. 6: On Sacrifices to Heaven, Earth, and the Six Spirits of Nature

  • Art. 7: On Sacrifices to the Five Emperors and the Five Spirits

  • Art. 8: On the Oath-Taking Ceremony and the Chief’s Banner Celebration

  • Art. 9: On Thành Hoàng [the Village God] and Other Spirits

  • Art. 10: On King Dóng, King Trèm, King Bạch Mã [and Princess Liễu Hạnh]

  • Art. 11: On the Kitchen God, the Household Guardian, the Land Guardian, and the Guild Founder

  • Art. 12: On the Cult of Confucius and the Great Sages

  • Art. 13: On the Cult of Thái Công and the Mighty Generals

  • Art. 14: On Funeral Rites and the Veneration of Ancestors

  • Art. 15: On Geomancy

  • Chapter 1 : On the Sect of the Literati

  • Art. 1: On Confucius, the Founder of This Sect

  • Art. 2: On the Studies, Books, and Doctrine of this Sect

  • Art. 3: On the Religion of this Sect

  • Art. 4: On the Cult of the Famous Confucius

  • Art. 5: On the Solemn Sacrifice to Confucius

  • Chapter 2 : On the Spirits and their Cult

  • Art. 1: On the Spirits of Heaven and Earth

  • Art. 2: On the Kings Called Thánh [Saints], and Especially on Those to Whom Sacrifices Are Made Four Times a Year

  • Art. 3: On the Spirits Whom the Military Worship

  • Art. 4: On the Ceremony of Tế Kỳ Đạo

  • Art. 5: On the Ceremony Hội Minh, or on Taking the Oath of Loyalty

  • Art. 6: On the Tutelary Genies Called Thành Hoàng

  • Art. 7: On the Ceremony Tạo Khoa Bạt Thần, That Is, on the Probation and Ranking of Spirit

  • Art. 8: On Vua Daóng and Vua Trèm and Several Others

  • Art. 9: On Tiên Sư, Thổ Công, Vua Bếp, and Others, Who Have a Cult Among Ordinary People

  • Art. 10: On the Spirits of the Deceased

  • Art. 11: Important Remarks on Sacrifices

  • Art. 12: On Sacrifice to Living Vua and Chúa

  • Book 2: The Errors of Daoism

  • Art. 1: On the Founding of Daoism by Laozi

  • Art. 2: On the Spread of Daoism by Zhang Yi and Zhang Jue

  • Art. 3: On the Healing Work of the Sorcerers

  • Art. 4: On the Twelve Yearly Governing Spirits

  • Art. 5: On the Nine Stars and the Thunder God

  • Art. 6: On Auspicious and Inauspicious Times

  • Art. 7: On Hà Bá, Phạm Nhan, and Liễu Hạnh

  • Art. 8: On Divination

  • Art. 9: On Astrology and Forecasting Events

  • Art. 10: On the Five Constellations

  • Art. 11: On Physiognomy and Reading Chicken Feet

  • Art. 12: On Solar and Lunar Eclipses

  • Chapter 3 : On the Sect of Magicians

  • Art. 1: On Lão Tử [Laozi], the Founder of This Sect

  • Art. 2: On the Growth of This Sect

  • Art. 3: On the Magic of This Sect

  • Art. 4: On the Religion of This Sect

  • Art. 5: On Ngọc Hoàng [the Jade Emperor], Who Are Worshipped

  • Chapter 4 : On Fortune-Tellers and Diviners

  • Art. 1: On the Fortune-Tellers Thầy Bói and Thầy Khoa

  • (manuscript ends here)

  • Art. 2: On Thầy Xem Số [Astrologist], Xem Tướng [Physiologist], Xem Giò [Reader of Chicken Feet], Thầy Địa Lý [Geomancer] (omitted)

  • Art. 3: On Other Diviners (omitted)

  • Book 3: The Errors of Buddhism

  • Art. 1: On the Origin of Buddhism

  • Art. 2: On the Spread of Buddhism to China

  • Art. 3: On the Confucian Evaluation of Buddhism

  • Art. 4: On the Buddhist Story of Creation in Nine Eons

  • Art. 5: On the Real Meaning of the Nine Eons

  • Chapter 5 : On the Sect of Worshippers of Phật [Buddha] or Fo

  • Art. 1: On Thích Ca, the Founder of This Sect Among Indians

  • Art. 2: On the Spread of This Sect in China

  • Art. 3: On the Doctrine of This Sect

  • Art. 4: On the Main Idols Worshipped in This Sect

  • Art. 5: On the Temple and People Devoted to the Cult of Phật

  • Art. 6: On the Ceremonies in Honor of Phật

  • Art. 6: On the Meaning of the Words Không [Emptiness] and Phật [Buddha]

  • Art. 7: On the Precepts Against Killing and Teachings on Reincarnation

  • Art. 8: On the “Protection for the Journey” Prayer

  • Art. 9: On the Burning of Paper Mausoleums and Joss Paper

  • Art. 10: On Hell

  • Art. 11: On Quan Âm (Avalokiteśvara) and the Wandering Souls

  • Art. 12: On the Custom of Erecting the Nêu Pole and the Sprinkling of Lime Powder on the New Year’s Eve

  • Chapter 6: On the Christian Religion among the Chinese and the Annamites

  • Art. 1: On the Christian Religion in China

  • Art. 2: On the Persecution of the Christian Faith in China

  • (manuscript ends here)

  • Art. 3: On the Christian Religion Among the Annamites (omitted)

  • Art. 4: On the Persecution of the Christian Faith in Tonkin (omitted)

(p.327) A closer examination of the materials presented in the two works reveals that both share sufficient material in common to suggest they arose from the same literary source. The question of our interest naturally is: which depends on which? Three logical solutions can be suggested for the intertextual dependency between the two:

  • Either (1) Errors is a Vietnamese adaptation of Opusculum,

  • or (2) Opusculum an expansion of Errors,

  • or else, (3) both works depend on a previous, though now lost, common source.

On the surface, it seems that if we set the dating of Errors based on internal evidence to 1752 (see my discussion in chapter 2), then the manuscript was written two years later than Opusculum, which has the explicit date of 1750. If this were the case, then Errors may be a Vietnamese adaptation of Opusculum.

However, I have strong reasons to doubt that it was the case, for several reasons.

First, Adriano di Santa Thecla admitted that he relied on previous works, notably those of Hilario di Gesù, who composed some writings on the three sects in Vietnamese for the use of his confrères in the mission. In addition, he was constantly revising the (p.328) text as more information was made available to him. The author of Errors, on the other hand, did not indicate that he relied on any previous written work on the three religions for his composition.

Second, the arrangement of the topics in Opusculum is more logical, moving from the general to the particular, and from the most compatible to the least compatible with Christianity, as the author understood it. He divided the materials on Confucianism (which were treated as one in Errors) into two chapters to reflect the difference between Confucianism and the native cult of spirits. He also did the same with material on Daoism, splitting it into two chapters, dealing with what would properly count as Daoist, and what seemingly were the practices of the popular religions. By doing so, Adriano di Santa Thecla acknowledged the existence of a separate category of religion from the traditional triple division of Vietnamese religions. If Errors was an adaptation of Opusculum, it would be difficult to explain why its author had abandoned this approach.

Third, the style of writing is quite different between the two works, even when they treat the same material. While the Opusculum is a series of essay-like articles, Errors is written in the style of a dialogue using simple sentences. The latter is imbedded with quotations from Chinese and Vietnamese sources. Some of these quotations also appear in Opusculum together with Adriano di Santa Thecla’s translation. However, the Sino-Vietnamese materials in Opusculum were mostly short sentences. The longer quotations that appear in Errors were either left out or paraphrased in Opusculum. This shows that the author of Opusculum was familiar with both Sino-Vietnamese, but not fluent enough to translate long quotations from Chinese sources into Latin. In the Opusculum we find that there are a number of misspellings of the Sino-Vietnamese.

Furthermore, judging from the handwriting, the text is not written at a consistent pace and size. The Opusculum manuscript exhibits evidence of having been written by two scribes. Someone who was familiar with Latin out the main text and left ample space for the insertion of Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese by a second scribe. This is not the case with Errors. Another particular feature is that the style of quốc-ngữ in Opusculum was closer to the orthography of late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century writing, rather than the mid-eighteenth-century style of quốc-ngữ of Errors and related materials like the 1758 Phép Giảng Đạo Thật (which I have discussed in chapter 5 above).5

Given the above observations, we must raise the question of whether the Latin Opusculum could be an adaptation of the Vietnamese Errors, rather than the other way around.

In determining the dependency of one text upon another, certain criteria worked out by biblical scholars during the debate between the primacy of Mark or Matthew in (p.329) the Synoptic Gospels could be useful. By the middle of the nineteenth century, biblical scholars had long noted the similarity between the two Gospels. They questioned whether Mark was a reduction of Matthew (Griesbach’s theory), or Matthew was an expansion of Mark (as in the two-source theory). The majority of biblical scholars today accept the primacy of Mark for several reasons. First, a later text would most likely improve upon an earlier text, refine its style of writing, and rearrange its materials in a more coherent scheme; if we have two texts of which one is coarse (Mark) and the other is embellished (Matthew), it is more likely that the unrefined one is the earlier text. Second, a later text would expand, rather than contract, the particulars of the original text, especially as regards unfamiliar concepts or customs (e.g., Matthew gives details on Jesus’s temptations in the desert). Third, the later text would keep all the relevant materials from the original and would not omit any important information. Thus, there is nothing important in Mark that is not included in Matthew. Finally, a later text would “explain away” embarrassments or mistakes in the original text, rather than the other way around (e.g., Matthew’s explanation of why Jesus needed to be baptized at all).

Applying these criteria to the comparison of Errors and Opusculum, we see a similar situation. Of all the material in common between the two works, the tendency of Errors is to be brief and Opusculum expansive. For example, in the sacrifices to Confucius, the ceremonies of Kỳ Đạo and Hội Minh, the ranking of the spirit, and the Buddhist ritual of “breaking the prison,” Opusculum gives a much longer description than Errors, including the configuration of the place of the ceremony. The tendency toward expansion rather contraction can also be seen in Opusculum treatment of Vietnamese spirits. In addition to presenting the material on King Dóng and King Trèm (an almost word-for-word translation of the accounts in Errors), it also includes an account of the spirit Sơn Tinh of Mount Tản Viên. Since Sơn Tinh was one of the major spirits of Vietnam, it is unlikely that the author of Errors omitted it, if he was adapting from Opusculum. The conflation of the Bạch Mã spirit with the Chinese general Ma Yuan appears in both texts.6 It is more likely that the author of Opusculum copied this mistake from Errors, rather than the author of Errors, who seemed to be more familiar with the Vietnamese history and language, repeats the mistakes in Opusculum. In short, there is more persuasive evidence that Errors does not use Opusculum as its source. It is more likely that the author of Opusculum relied on Errors, or at least an earlier version of it, rather than the other way around.

We then must consider the third option, that is, both were contemporary works and dependent on a previous lost manuscript (most likely the Dị Đoan Chi Giáo written by Hilario di Gesù). The author of Errors was writing to a Vietnamese audience as a didactic instrument of faith, so he presented the information that necessary for his audience to understand the danger of wrong worship. Adriano di Santa Thecla’s (p.330) concern was to explain to his missionary confrères aboirut the religious beliefs and customs of the both the Chinese and Vietnamese people. The different goals might explain why the two works were different in their presentations of the Three Religions. There are materials in Errors that Opusculum does not cover and vice versa. But since they still share a common thread, it is highly possible that their authors drew from a common source, which was available to them during the process of writing and editing. Taken together, these two works can help supplement each other’s shortcomings, and give the audience a more comprehensive view of the religious practice of eighteenth-century Vietnam.


(1.) Gil de Federich was a Spanish Dominican who came to Tonkin in 1735. Two years later he was imprisoned as a result of religious persecution and was decapitated in 1745. He seemed to be well versed in the Vietnamese language and customs and had opportunities to discuss the Christian faith with an “uncle of the Lord.” For his biography, see Marillier, Nos pères dans la foi, 2:116–17.

(2.) Opusculum, vi (Dror, A Study of Religion, 83).

(3.) Néez to the seminary directors at Paris, December 15, 1749 (AMEP, vol. 687, folio 691). Also see Marillier, Nos pères dans la foi, 2:126.

(4.) See Opusculum, Chapter 1, Article 11 (Dror, A Study of Religion, 153–57).

(5.) Dror (A Study of Religion, 31–32) notes that this text of the Opusculum is a copy, not the original written by Adriano di Santa Thecla himself, since the handwriting was different than that of Adriano’s letter, such as AMEP, vol. 689, folio 55.

(6.) See a discussion on this conflation by Dror, A Study of Religion, 42–47.