Alexandre de Rhodes and the Vietnamese language

Hien V. Ho


Among the East Asia countries under the Chinese cultural  sphere of influence; only Vietnam got rid completely of Chinese characters from its written language. Chinese scripts, used for centuries, were scrapped and replaced with a phonetic alphabet (1). Whether this was a blessing or a curse to Vietnamese cultural heritage (8), it cannot be denied that it has played a pivotal role in the development of modern Vietnamese identity and even Vietnam ¡¦s current political and economic position in the world. The story spans over three centuries, and the unlikely hero of the early period was a man from a distant place, Alexandre de Rhodes.


The missionary from Avignon

Alexandre de Rhodes was a Jesuit missionary born in Avignon , a city on the Rhone River , in the South East of France, on 3-15-1593. Avignon is well known for its Palais des Papes ( Palace of Popes ) and was the siege of the papacy from 1309 to 1376. During the Great Schism of the West (Grand Schisme d¡¦Occident) (1378-1417) when the French and the Italians elected different popes, French Popes called ¡§of Avignon ¡¨ resided here. Pope Clement VI bought it from the Queen of Sicily in 1348 and it became reunited to France only in 1791. This is to say that technically, Alexandre de Rhodes was born in a papal territory, and although his birthplace is now a part of France he was not French by birth. This is an important point because in diverse discussions regarding his role in the development of modern Vietnamese history, a few Vietnamese have pointed to his supposedly French origin and accused him of being instrumental in the French colonization of Vietnam in the 19th century, a matter that we will come back to later.


The Society of Jesus.

De Rhodes started his initiation to priesthood in Rome at the novitiate of the Society of Jesus on April 24, 1612. The Society of Jesus had been founded as the Company of Jesus by Ignatius of Loyola and other students at the University of Paris in 1534. By the end of the 16th century, this order, known for its missionary works and its evangelization efforts, already had important religious and humanitarian activities in far away places. Francis Xavier spent a decade of evangelization in India and died in China ; for seven years early missions were granted a feudal fiefdom of Nagasaki in Japan , and in South America Jesuits founded controversial Christian Native American city-states   (¡§reductions¡¨), to prevent the Spanish and Portuguese colonists from making slaves of the native populations (2). However, efforts of the Catholic Church in spreading, and sometimes imposing, its faith also met with resistance due to religious and cultural conflicts, local governments¡¦ hostility toward the European priests was mounting and persecution against the missionaries became rampant. The missionaries knew that they were risking their lives when they went to those far away places, partly due to the long travels across oceans and deserted lands to reach their destinations and to the nature of their works.


The voyage to the Orient

De Rhodes left Lisbon , Portugal , on April 4th 1619 and wanted to go to Japan . The sea trip was arduous. A fierce and eighteen day long tempest made them think ¡§they were going to paradise soon¡¨. Also, on the sixth month of their long travel, five people died of scurvy, which he attributed to the air at sea and the consumption of too much salted meat. They arrived in Goa ( India ) after six months and five days. There, they waited for a propitious moment to sail to Japan . However, the situation in Japan deteriorated, persecution of Christians became intolerable and Rhodes was ordered to switch his destination to Macao (May 1623), the portal to China .


Macao in China

De Rhodes spent six years in evangelization between Macao and Goa .

¡§The Chinese are very surprised when they saw our maps, he wrote. Their great country is only a speckle in the immense universe. In the contrary, in their own maps representing a square earth, their country is in the middle of everything, exactly as its name implies (Middle Kingdom). Besides that, they draw a sea below their country, with several small islands, marked as Europe, Africa and Japan ...¡¨(3)

De Rhodes stayed at the college Madre de Deus in Macao ¡§where all academic subjects were taught as in any great European university¡¨ (8). He learned Chinese and about Chinese religions. For him, however, they were nothing more than ¡§superstitions,¡¨ ¡§idolatries,¡¨ and ¡§sorceries (8).¡¨However, his attitude towards the natives was more liberal than that of most other 17th century missionaries. He noticed that the missionaries were usually very forthcoming toward the native before they became Christians, but after their conversion, they did not care about them any more, and even forced them to change their customs, like their traditional Chinese tunics and their pigtail hair styles, making it difficult for them to find jobs and to move freely in their own country.


A divided Vietnam in the 17th century

In 1624, de Rhodes arrived in the Southern part of then Vietnam , usually referred to as Đàng Trong in Vietnamese (the Inner Region, known to the West as Cochinchina). Since the end of the 16th century, Vietnam, although under the nominal rule of the Lê Emperor, was effectively divided in two separate political entities, at a frontier line slightly above the 17th parallel: The Inner Region in the South, under the control of the Nguyen Lords, and the Outer Region in the North (Đàng Ngoài, known to the West as Tonkin, after the name of its capital Đông Kinh or Thăng Long, now Hà Nội)), governed by the Trịnh Lords. Starting in 1627, wars between the two regions persisted until 1672, during the Trịnh vs. Nguyễn struggle period (Trịnh Nguyễn Phân Tranh). Vietnam was not reunited until 1802 under Gia long, the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.

De Rhodes was surprised by the exotic tonal sounds of the Vietnamese language. Early 1625, he was in Hải Phố (¡¥ Seaside Town ¡¦ or Faifo) or in the surrounding area, in modern Central Vietnam , accompanied by four other Jesuits priests and a Japanese catholic. Hải Phố, now known as the touristic town of Hội An and a World Heritage site, was bustling with trade during the 16th and 17th centuries, with settlers from different provinces of China, Japan, India and Holland. Among the Japanese immigrants were Catholics who had fled religious persecution in their own homeland.

Although he was already fluent in several languages, when de Rhodes first came to the South of Vietnam, and listened to the native language, especially when spoken by women, it sounded to him like the ¡§twittering of birds¡¨, and felt so desperate about ever being able to speak such a language. However, Rhodes started immediately to learn to speak the local Vietnamese dialect. ¡§Everyday I was given lessons, he said, which I studied with the same application as I once studied theology in Rome .¡¨ This early period in his study of Vietnamese in Central Vietnam would influence the Vietnamese of his dictionary many years later, even when the latter was mostly based on a slightly different Vietnamese spoken in Northern part of Vietnam (Đàng Ngoài). He took a Vietnamese name Đắc Lộ, which sounds somewhat similar to ¡§de Rhodes¡¨, and meaning ¡§The one who found the path¡¨.


De Rhodes¡¦s teachers of Vietnamese

One of his initial teachers was an 11-12 year old Vietnamese who managed to teach him all the tones and correct pronunciation of Vietnamese in just within three weeks. Even without any background in European languages, in the same short period, the boy was able to learn enough of the missionary ¡¥s language to understand most of what he said and wanted him to do. The child, who later took the name of Raphael Rhodes, also learned to read and write Latin and Portuguese and assisted the priest at his mass. He impressed the priest tremendously with his intelligence and his ability to memorize, and later became his loyal assistant in his evangelical work in Vietnam and neighboring Laos (3).

However, his main teacher of Vietnamese was Francisco de Pina, a Portuguese priest who first arrived in Vietnam in 1617 and who later died of drowning in 1625. Among the missionaries, de Pina was the only one who spoke Vietnamese fluently, and did not need interpreters to communicate with the natives. This is the main reason why critics refuse to recognize de Rhodes as ¡§the Father of quốc ngữ¡¦ and would rather give this title to de Pina. However, despite his proficiency in its use, de Pina apparently did not write or publish about the Vietnamese language. De Rhodes fully acknowledged, in his dictionary, the contribution of de Pina as his Vietnamese teacher and the role of other two Portuguese missionaries, Gaspar do Amaral (1592-1645) and Antonio Barbosa (1594-1647). Do Amaral had shown a remarkable mastery of the alphabetization of Vietnamese, better than de Rhodes¡¦, in his annual reports to his superiors and had composed a Diccionario anamita-portugues-latim. Barbosa had prepared a  Diccionario portugues-anamita. De Rhodes said that he relied on both dictionaries (now lost) to prepare his own Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary (8).


Evangelization activities

As Vietnam became de Rhodes¡¦ second country, his evangelization efforts became very successful, according to his reports that some critics believed were somewhat inflated for the purpose of getting more backing from Europe . However, there were still episodes of hostility toward the missionaries, mostly based on the accusation that Christians abandoned the cult of ancestors. De Rhodes was expulsed from the country no less than six occasions but he always tried to come back even had the opportunity to meet with influential people. In general the missionaries were welcomed by both Lords, the motive being their desire to obtain their alliance and to exchange commerce with the Portuguese, as explained by Baldinotti, another Jesuit who arrived before de Rhodes. But as soon as they realized that the priests were not useful to them anymore, they expelled them (8).

In March1627, de Rhodes because of his fluency in Vietnamese was sent to Đàng Ngoài in North Vietnam . He boarded a Portuguese merchant ship and arrived in Cua Bang. (present day Ba Lang). Lord Trinh Tráng was on his way to fight Lord Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên for the first time, bringing King Lê with him. Portuguese merchants met him on his way to the South. The lord received the Portuguese delegation and the missionaries rather warmly. He asked the Portuguese ships to stay with his boats reserved for his royal maids and family members at a section of a river in Thanh Hóa, then left to fight his war against Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên. During several months, while waiting at this river section, Alexandre de Rhodes began his evangelizing work and baptized a certain number of people, among them two belonging to the intellectual class, a scholar and a monk, who took the baptismal names of Joseph and Ignatius.¡¨

¡§Back from his defeat, Trịnh Tráng still received warmly the delegation. The Portuguese offered him a defense weapon; Rhodes gave him a treatise of Euclidean mathematics printed in Chinese characters by missionaries in China , a mechanical clock and an hourglass. Trịnh Tráng appeared to be very pleased. And he took the delegation upstream the Đáy River to Kẻ Chợ (the capital). At the beginning, Rhodes lived in the Trịnh Lord ¡¥s palace, but afterward, he got the permission to move outside so that people who wanted to learn about his religion could come to him easily.¡¨(4)

Four months later, the Trinh Lord ordered him to build a nice residence and beautiful church. So many people came to listen to his homilies that he had to hold four to six sessions a day. A sister of the King, several members of the royal family and a few mandarins and generals were converted. At one point, there were a hundred catechists who studied in his seminary funded by the Catholic community.

Lord Trịnh Tráng¡¦s sympathy toward the missionaries faded when suspicion against them was aroused by diverse groups of people who felt menaced by their presence: the concubines who were dismissed by men when they converted, the eunuchs who were afraid of losing their jobs if their lord converted, the monks who lost their followers.. Then an accusation of collaboration with the lord¡¦s enemies led to an edict in 1628 forbidding people to contact the missionaries and to embrace their religion. De Rhodes received an edict of expulsion but tried to stay around for another two years. He finally was expelled for good from Đàng Ngoài in May 1630 and returned to Macao where he spent the next ten years as a professor of theology. In February 1640, he came back to Đàng Trong in the South (8).


The end of his stay in Vietnam

De Rhodes traveled all over South Vietnam but most his activities were in the areas of Huế and Đà nẵng, with the help of hundreds of catechists that he trained, until in 1645 when he was condemned to death by decapitation. In 1644, he had to witness the execution of one of his auxiliary, a catechist named André (thầy giảng Anrê  Phú  Yên). He received Andr顦s corpse and later brought his severed head back to Rome as a relic. De Rhodes¡¦ own sentence was fortunately commuted  to perpetual exile. He was definitively banned from the country by Lord Nguyễn. ¡§I left Cochinchina in my body, he said, but certainly not in my heart; and so it is with Tonkin . My heart is in both countries, and I don¡¦t think it will ever be able to leave them.¡¨(8)

De Rhodes returned to Rome by 1649 and pleaded for increased funding for Catholic missions to Vietnam , telling somewhat exaggerated stories about the natural riches to be found in Vietnam . Around 1650, he reported to Rome that there were about 200,000 baptized Vietnamese, and every year there were 15,000 new converts (9). Those numbers turned out to be inflated, in retrospect, there were probably 60,000 Catholics in Vietnam at the end of de Rhodes¡¦stay. De Rhodes reportedly pleaded the King of France, ¡§the most devout country¡¨, to send ¡§plusieurs soldats¡¨ (a few soldiers) for the ¡§conquête de l¡¦Orient¡¨ (for the conquest of the East). [In Vietnam , this has been a subjet of heated debate. Leftist Vietnamese historians see it as de Rhodes¡¦ appeal to French colonizing ambition and appetite, while those favorable to the role of the Catholic church want to  think that France did not have any ambition of colonizing East Asia in the 17th century, and his call for more  ¡§soldiers¡¨ from France meant a call for more missionaries to the cause of God¡¦s Kingdom on earth.]  However, the Church sent him to Persia where he was the director of the Jesuit mission in that country and studied Persian well enough to be able to preach in that language. He died in the ancient capital city of Isfahan on November 16th 1660, at the age of sixty seven.


The works of Alexandre de Rhodes:  

1)      History of the Kingdom of Tonkin , printed in Italian in 1650, in French in 1651 (Histoire du Royaume du Tonkin) and in Latin in 1652 ("Tunchinensis historiæ libri duo" ( Lyons , 1652)). Originally written in Latin in 1636 in Macao . He expanded it and prepared the Italian version to attract attention from Church authorities. As Borri did in his own book, Rhodes divided his book in two parts, with the first part devoted to the geography, culture and history of Đàng Ngoài (¡§Outer Region¡¨, i.e. the Northern part of Vietnam, under the Trinh Lord), and the second part devoted to the history of missionary works in Đàng Ngoài  from 1626 to 1646. The French edition has 326 pages.

2) Report about Đàng Trong (¡§The Inner Region¡¨, i.e. the Southern part of Vietnam , under the Nguyen Lord), written in Macao in 1645, printed in Paris in 1652, 132 pages. In fact it is a report about Rhodes¡¥s activities in Đàng Trong in 1644-1645. It was written in Macao , before his return to Europe . In this book, he related the persecution of Christians in 1644 and the martyrdom of catechist André.

3) Travels and Missions (¡§Les Divers Voyages et Missions du Père Alexandre de Rhodes)(1653). Part one: 5 years: Rome , France to Lisbon , around African coast to India , through Malacca Straight to Macao in 1623.

Part 2:1624-1645, Đàng Trong, Đàng Ngoài, then Đàng Trong, including 10 years in Macao (1630-1640).

Part 3: travel by sea from Macao , through Malacca, to the Persian Gulf, then by land through Aaspan, Ivran, Erzeroun, to Smyrne (Asia Minor), in dangerous Islamic territories, to Persia , to the Mediterranean Sea , then sailing to Roma.

Modern Catholic historians praise de Rhodes for his pioneering adaptation of his religion to local culture. This process of ¡§critical interaction and exchange between the Christian faith and cultures¡¨ (Peter Phan), formerly called indigenization, is now given a new name ¡§inculturation.¡¨(8) However, some religious practices and events reported by de Rhodes in a matter of fact way, such as performing miracles, faith healing, raising of the dead, have been used by some modern Vietnamese critics to demonstrate his lack of scientific objectivity and credibility .

4) Cathechismus (Phép Giảng Tám Ngày) (in Latin and Vietnamese ( Rome 1651).

It is not in the usual form of questions followed by answers to be memorized but was an exposé for catechists, preachers. It is not divided in chapters, but in 8 ¡§days¡¨: the first two days are for discussions about profound human aspirations, the position of man in the universe, and the origin of the all things. The third day is about the creation of the universe according to the Bible¡¦s Genesis, which may resonate well with the traditional Vietnamese concept of Ông Trời (¡§the Sky¡¨ or ¡§Heaven¡¨). In the fourth day, after a discussion of the Deluge, Noah¡¦s Ark and Babel¡¦ Tower, there is a critique of the three traditional religions of Vietnam: Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.[ According to Nguyễn Khắc Xuyên, a Catholic priest who has studied Rhodes extensively, this part contains ¡§subjective, biased judgments due to the author¡¦s lack of understanding of these profound doctrines which have for many generations contributed to the making of the Vietnamese identity¡¨. This part is often quoted by critics who argue that the missionary had a colonist¡¦s condescending view of Vietnam ]. The fifth day is about the mystery of the Trinity and the redemption of man¡¦s sin. The eighth day discusses the Ten Commandments, and the conditions for baptism. (4)

Robert J. Schreiter, in his foreword to Peter Phan¡¦s landmark book on Alexandre de Rhodes, Mission and Cathechesis, wrote about Cathechismus: ¡§He adapted the form of the Christian message to Vietnamese culture in such a way that Christianity was able to enter more fully into Vietnamese culture. Indeed some of the Vietnamese words he proposed to translate western theological concepts remain part of the Vietnamese theological vocabulary to this day. In the process, the European Christianity de Rhodes brought was amplified by encounter with a culture already three millennia old¡¨ (8).  

5) Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary (printed in 1651): 450 pages of Viet-Portuguese-Latin and 175 pages of Latin-Vietnamese.

Vietnamese Grammar (31 pages); this short treatise in Latin analyzes Vietnamese grammar using the method of French textbooks of Latin grammar (4).

According to Vietnamese linguist Dinh Hoa Nguyen: ¡§This was truly the first dictionary printed in the Roman script: published in Rome in 1651 it gives some 8,000 Vietnamese entries with glosses in Portuguese and Latin.... The De Rhodes trilingual dictionary is important for two reasons; it includes a Brief Declaratio on Vietnamese grammar, and it records among other things some consonant clusters /bl- ml- nh- tl-/ that reflect the pronunciation of the time, thus constituting a valuable document in historical linguistics (Nguyen 1986a, b; Gregerson 1969).¡¨ (10). De Rhodes¡¦ works would be emulated later by other Catholic priests such as Pierre Pigneau (Bishop of Adran) and Bishop Taberd.

6) Diverse publications; The Glorious Death of André the catechist (in Italian, Rome 1652; in French, Paris 1653 ¡§La glorieuse Mort d¡¦ Andre¡¨)

Missions in Japan (1649)

Missions in Persa (Paris 1659), one year before his death in 1660. (4)

7) The introduction, printing and distribution in Vietnam of the solar-based Gregorian calendar for use in Catholic services.




Alexandre de Rhodes is considered to be the founder of the Vietnamese Catholic Church. It was through his effort that the Vietnamese hierarchy with two apostolic vicariates was established in Vietnam in 1659, with one bishop for Tonkin (North Vietnam) and another for Cochinchina (South Vietnam). Besides his obvious contributions to the Catholic Church, de Rhodes is an important figure in the history and in the making of modern Vietnam. He was among the first few from the West who studied Vietnamese geography, culture and history and more importantly, published his observations in the languages of the West. He was a witness of current political and religious conditions of Vietnam in a very tormented period when it was divided between the Nguyễn Lord in the South and the Trịnh in the North. As he covered both opposite areas of the country, he and his assistants might, to some extent have served as connections, cultural, religious and possibly economic and political, between the two isolated worlds and between Vietnam and the outside world. It is interesting to note here that, while we recognize him as one of the earliest students of Vietnam, in certain circles, especially among leftist Vietnamese writers, he has been sharply criticized as an instrument of the Catholic Church and French colonialism in their alliance to conquer the Orient, including Vietnam, in the 19th century .

His statue, erected in Hanoi in 1940, to recognize him as the ¡§creator of quốc ngữ (national script)¡¨, was removed around 1956 after the communist take over of North Vietnam in 1954. However, recently there was some revisionist movement within Vietnam to try to rehabilitate his reputation as a contributor to modern Vietnamese language and culture .

Regarding his most important contributions to the development of modern Vietnam, the creation of the first Vietnamese dictionary and grammar treatise, it took along time for the quốc ngữ to have the opportunity to grow and eventually to displace totally Chinese script (characters) as an effective, comprehensive written expression of the Vietnamese language. For the next two centuries, even Catholic catechisms and tracts were published not in Romanized script but in Chinese, nôm, or Latin. The most famous Vietnamese piece of literature, Nguyen Du¡¦s The Tale of Kieu was written in classic nom characters more than a century after Rhodes published his dictionary.

In 1861, the situation changed when the French colonists, only a few years after their conquest of part of Cochin-China, set up a printing press in Saigon to print documents in Vietnamese Romanized script as well as French. In 1865, Gia Dinh Bao, the first modern script Vietnamese newspaper was published in Saigon. The French colonists wanted to eliminate the millennial Chinese cultural presence in their new colony, and needed a replacement, which at least temporarily, would serve the need of the administration until French was fully implemented. In 1909, a decree, signed by French Governor Paul Doumer in 1898, came into effect and mandated the use of the Romanized script in civil service examinations. In 1917, an imperial decree abolished traditional forms of educations in favor of those based on the new script and French (8). Not long after, Vietnamese intelligentsia and politicians were quick to recognize quốc ngữ as an efficient, easy to master means to obliterate illiteracy, of educating the masses and creating a national consciousness. The rest is history; within a few decades, quốc ngữ unexpectedly helped transform Vietnamese into a full fledged written as well as spoken language, which can be used to ¡¥conduct all important affairs-political, military, economic, scientific, and academic.¡¨(7). More than three hundred years, after de Rhodes¡¦ death, it seems that almost everybody agrees on this point, that at the root of all this development of modern Vietnamese language, lie the contributions of this obscure missionary from a far distant land.  




(1) Hannas, WMC, 1997, Asia Orthographic Dilemma, Honolulu, University of Hawai¡¦s Press.

(2) Wikipedia

(3) Soeur Jean Berchmans Minh Nguyệt (accessed 7/27/08)

(4) Nguyễn khắc Xuyên: GIÁO SĨ ĐẮC LỘ (ALEXANDRE DE RHODES) (1593-1660)

Bài thuyết trình đọc tại Giáo xứ Công Giáo Việt Nam ở Paris nhân kỷ niệm 400 năm sinh nhật Đắc Lộ (1593-1993) (accessed 7/28/2008)


(7) Marr, David G., 1981, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945, London , University of California Press.

(8) Peter C. Phan, 1998, Mission and Catechesis, Alexandre de Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam, New York , Orbis Book

(10) Dinh-Hoa Nguyen,¡§Vietnamese Lexicography.¡¨ (accessed 7/30/08)


Hien V. Ho

August 1st, 2008