A TOUCH OF FRANCE AND VIETNAM / Alexander of Rhodes: hyperpolyglot* missionary and father of the modern Vietnamese alphabet

Alexander of Rhodes: hyperpolyglot* missionary and father of the modern Vietnamese alphabet

by F. Fauconnet-Buzelin, France

The signing of the 1954 Geneva accords brought to an end the First Indochina War, and with it nearly a century of French domination of the ancient Đại Việt empire. The new Vietnamese administration abandoned the use of Chinese characters and adopted quôc ngu, a transcription into the Latin alphabet of the local language. Invented in the 17th century, quôc ngu was the work of a small group of Jesuits one of whom has emerged as a major figure in the history of Vietnam: Alexander of Rhodes. It would be hard to find a more cosmopolitan missionary than this descendant of a family of Aragonese Marranos (Christianized Jews of medieval Spain) who sought refuge in 15thcentury Avignon, then a papal enclave. Italian on his mother’s side, French and Provençal in language and culture, Alexander of Rhodes was, however, listed as a subject of the Pope in the public records. After studying in Rome for ten years, he spent time in India, China, Cochin China, and Tonkin, before returning to Rome and then Paris, after which he left for Persia, where he lived out his last six years. His itinerant life and singular linguistic ability meant that Rhodes became a walking dictionary who spoke over a dozen languages, including Latin and Hindustani, Hebrew and Chinese, not to mention Greek, Portuguese, Provençal, Konkani, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Italian. His lasting fame is attached to his linguistic work on the Vietnamese language, but Rhodes was also a great missionary who played a central part in the early evangelization of Vietnam, and in the reform undertaken by the Vatican in the 17th century to free young Christian communities in Asia from the colonial stranglehold of Portugal.

Medicographia. 2014;36:540-550 (see French abstract on page 550)

The call of the Orient

Alexander of Rhodes was born on 15 March 1591 into a family of Jewish origin, which, fleeing the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, had found refuge at Avignon, the papal city that had welcomed Jews since the mid-14thcentury reign of Pope Clement VI. Converted to Catholicism, the Rhodes family acquired a certain affluence through the silk trade and so could offer the best education to the young Alexander, who studied at Avignon’s Jesuit college, where he had as teacher the great geographer Father Gabriel Bonvalot.

His reading of the famous missionary Relations (the Jesuit letters from Japan, China, etc, which they wrote to their Superiors in Europe as accounts of their missionary work, brimming with fascinating details of their discoveries of “exotic” countries, cultures, and mores), the best recruitment tool of the burgeoning Society of Jesus, crystallized his missionary vocation and spurred him to join. These Relations at the time focused on the young Christian community in Japan, where the dazzling success of Francis Xavier and his successors since the end of the 16th century was soon to give way to persecutions. Fired by these accounts, Alexander asked to be received at the Jesuit novitiate in Rome so he could “leave Europe and its delights for the salvation of the Japanese, the Chinese, or any others.” After six years in the Eternal City, from 1612 to 1618, he was sent to Lisbon, the point of departure to Asia for missionaries. The Kings of Spain and Portugal provided transport and support for the missionaries, and in exchange had exercised tight control over their activities through the Padroado (see box) since the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas they had signed with the Vatican. This treaty ended colonial rivalry between the two Iberian sovereigns, following the age of discovery, by dividing the world in two: the Americas, with the exception of Brazil, coming under the control of Spain, and Asia, apart from the Philippines, under the aegis of Portugal.

Missionary and linguistic achievements in Vietnam

Alexander of Rhodes was appointed to the mission in Japan, in accordance with his wishes. After a journey of almost four years, two of them spent in Goa, the capital of the Portuguese Indies, and nine months in Malacca, in May 1623, he reached Macau, the great trading post “rented out” by the Portuguese to the Emperor of China. Macau was also the hub of the Far East missions, and it was here that Rhodes experienced his greatest disappointment when he learned that because of worsening persecution in Japan no new missionaries were to be sent there. And a few months later, in February 1624, the shogun (military governor) Hideyoshi issued an order banning all missionaries, thus dashing any lingering hopes Rhodes had of reaching the Japanese archipelago. Instead, his superiors instructed him to leave for a new mission, in Cochin China.

Pope on horseback nearing Avignon and its Papal Palace, in the background. Tapestry at the Palais des Papes, Avignon.
© Gail Mooney/Corbis.

Cochin China and its capital Hue at the time formed the southern part of the Đại Việt Kingdom, where the Emperor Lê held no more than symbolic sway over a country divided between two rival clans, the Trinh reigning over Tonkin, in the North, and the Nguyên over Cochin China, in the South. Since the 16th century, the ships of Portuguese traders had plied back and forth between Macau and the great Cochin Chinese port of Tourane. King Sai Vuong (1562-1635; Nguyen dynasty) it seems took a favorable view of these foreigners, who brought to his country Chinese porcelain, tea, lead, silver, copper, saltpeter, weapons, and cloths, and to whom he could sell silks, spices, herbs, and rice. Taking advantage of the sovereign’s warm welcome, the Jesuits Francesco Buzomi and Diego Carvalho had set up a mission at Tourane in 1615. In 1624, Macau sent them six new missionaries, one of whom, Alexander of Rhodes, would soon make his mark.

From the outset it was clear that Rhodes stood out, not so much because of his zeal, as many of his fellow Jesuits shared this fervor, but rather through the extraordinary facility with which he learned the local language, which on his arrival he likened to the “chirping of birds.” In three weeks he learned the pronunciation and tones, the great difficulty of Vietnamese, from a 12-year-old boy, whom he instructed in Portuguese and Latin and who became his assistant and practically his adoptive son, as witnessed by the name the boy took—Raphael of Rhodes. Just six months later, Rhodes was preaching in Vietnamese and, winning over his congregation as much by his apostolic enthusiasm as his meridional volubility, made numerous conversions at Faifo and Tourane. And even at Hue, where he baptized a close relation of the King whom he named Mary Magdalene and who became a fervent champion of Christianity.

Ruins of the early 17th-century Saint Paul Church in Macau,
today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was originally part
of the no longer extant Jesuit College. © akg-images/Mel Longhurst.

Success breeds opposition

This craze for a new religion, which ran counter to the social and religious customs of the Vietnamese, in particular ancestor worship, naturally stoked opposition from the King’s courtiers and from religious leaders who lost no time in pointing the finger at the missionaries whenever a natural disaster struck. King Sai Vuong, essentially concerned with national prosperity, left the missionaries to their own devices as long as business thrived, but was more exacting when trade declined. In 1625, when no Portuguese ship anchored in the port of Tourane, the displeased king confined the Jesuits to Faifo. Restricted in their movements in the country’s interior, the missionaries had to travel often to Macau for gifts to allay, albeit fleetingly, royal resentment. Rhodes strained at the leash and overcame his boredom by improving the romanization of the Vietnamese language initiated by his colleagues Francisco de Pina, Gaspar do Amaral, and Antonio Barbosa.

Map from an Italian edition of Alexander of
“Relazione de ‘Felici Successi Della Santa
Fede Predicata Da Padri Della Compagnia di Giesu
nel Regno di Tunchino alla Santita di N. S. PP Innocento
Decimo” published in Rome in 1650 (Account
of the Happy Successes of the Holy Faith Preached
by the Fathers of The Society of Jesus in the Kingdom
of Tonkin for His Holiness Pope Innocent 10).
© Librairie Camille Sourget, Paris. With kind permission.

In 1626, Rhodes was recalled to Macau, as his linguistic talents were needed elsewhere. Another Jesuit, Giuliano Baldinotti, recently arrived in Tonkin, had used his mathematical knowledge to curry favor with Trinh Trang, the chua or local lord (1577-1654; Trinh dynasty). However, he spoke no Vietnamese and asked his superiors to send someone able to converse with Trinh Trang and thereby to reap the benefits of what he had sown. Alexander of Rhodes was just the man for this situation. On 19 March 1627, he arrived at Cua-Bang, in the province of Thanh-Hoa, accompanied by a Portuguese Jesuit who had been in Japan, Pedro Marquez, whose task it was to minister to Japanese Christians who had sought refuge in Tonkin. Baldinotti had just been expelled because of his strong opposition to ancestor worship, toward which Rhodes, in contrast, had always shown remarkable tolerance, considering most ceremonies celebrated in honor of the dead as “quite harmless.” Even before disembarking at Tonkin, from the vantage point of the ship’s rail Rhodes held forth to the crowd below that had gathered to inspect the ship’s cargo, praising the merits “of another merchandise” that he “offered for free and which was the true law and the path to happiness.” Won over, two “very wise” people asked to be baptized there and then.

Building up a dedicated corps of indigenous catechists

Then at war against his Cochin-Chinese neighbor, local lord Trinh Trang agreed to receive the newcomers at Cua-Bang, to see what advantages he could extract from them. Rhodes seized the opportunity to seek favors through the gift of an hourglass. Trinh Trang invited him to reside in Hanoi, in a fine wooden house part of which was transformed into a church in which Rhodes preached up to six times a day. Neophytes flocked to the church and Rhodes reported to his superiors twelve hundred baptisms in the first year, two thousand in the second, and three thousand five hundred in the third. Even if the accuracy of these figures may perhaps be questioned, given Rhodes’s Latin temperament and tendency to exaggerate and the common practice of the Jesuits of the time to inflate numbers, they nonetheless give some idea of the extraordinary persuasiveness he had acquired after only three years in Vietnam. Spurred by Rhodes’s enthusiasm, fascination for the new religion reached Trinh Trang’s entourage, and his sister as well as seventeen of his relatives asked to be baptized. To tackle the huge workload engendered by this rising demand, Rhodes recruited among new converts the most fervent and best trained catechists who were preparing the catechumens for baptism. After vowing celibacy and fidelity to the Fathers of the Society of Jesus and sharing their worldly possessions, these itinerant catechists, with their rudimentary training in medicine, became indispensable to the Vietnamese Christian church. They ensured the survival of communities when the missionaries had to leave the country, which was happening increasingly often.

Frontispiece showing Alexander of Rhodes preaching to Tonkin,
Cochin China, Cambodia, Siam, Laos, Macassar, Hainan, and Japan.
Voyages et Travaux des Missionnaires de la Compagnie de
Jésus Publiés par des Pères de la Même Compagnie Pour Servir de
Complément aux Lettres Edifiantes. II. Mission de la Cochinchine
et du Tonkin. Paris, France, Charles Douniol, éditeur, 29 rue de
Tournon,1858. Harvard College Library, from the bequest of John
Harvey Treat, of Lawrence, Mass. Class of 1862. ARR.

The Chua
(= King) is sitting
in a hammock
in the upper
room, while the
court officials
mandarins) pay
homage to him.
Samuel Baron
(a Hanoi native of
Dutch and Vietnamese
describes him as
Trinh Cân (1682-
1709), ie, the
grandson of Trinh
Trang (1623-
1652). From:
Samuel Baron.

A Description of
the Kingdom of
Tonqueen. 1648.
This edition: London
1746, Linot.
© Saxton Books,
Doncaster, UK.
With kind permission.

Needless to say, Rhodes’s conspicuous success worried those whose position was threatened by the principles of the new belief: the royal concubines, fearing that Trinh Trang, if he were to convert to Christianity, would be obliged to adopt monogamy; the eunuchs, the seraglio guards, fearful of a threat to their livelihood; and the religious notables, who foresaw a dwindling of followers. The concubines accused the foreigners of secret dealings with Cochin China, the enemy in the South (had not Alexander of Rhodes come from there?). And the religious notables threatened their people with the wrath of Heaven as a reprisal for the destruction of idols. And the “water of life” of the baptism, which the missionary poured indiscriminately over the foreheads of all dying children that came within his grasp (an absolute condition of eternal salvation in the Christian mind of the time), was soon viewed by some as the “water of death” that finished off the unfortunates.


Unable to resist forever the pressure of his entourage, Trinh Trang distanced himself from the missionaries. First he placed Rhodes under house arrest, and then banished him in January 1630. This in no way dampened Rhodes’s apostolic zeal. He even succeeded in converting the captain and twenty-four of the crew of the ship taking him into exile. Having managed to disembark at Ca Chua, the last port in southern Vietnam, Rhodes made a last-ditch attempt to stay on and reached Hanoi aboard a Portuguese ship. But his sermons lasted only as long as the trade negotiations. Refused an audience with Trinh Trang, Rhodes had to leave Tonkin for good, together with those who had brought him there.

Ten years of purgatory followed. Based in Macau where he taught theology in the town’s school, Rhodes was appointed to care for the small Chinese community. But as he was unfamiliar with their language, he had to preach through an interpreter, which greatly reduced his pastoral influence. Over this decade he baptized just one thousand people in the region of Canton, that is, ten to thirty times fewer than he had managed in Tonkin.

In Cochin China, however, the Jesuits were in an awkward situation. In 1635, Thuong Vuong (1601-1648; Nguyen dynasty) succeeded his father as king and pursued the same ambiguous policy allying mistrust of the foreigners’ religion and interest in the trade opportunities they offered. But Dutch Protestants, the emerging economic power in Asia since they had set up in Batavia (today’s Jakarta, in Indonesia), succeeded in persuading the king that the Catholic missionaries were preparing the ground for a military conquest of his country, instigated by the Portuguese, and Thuong Vuong banished all religious figures in 1639. The Society of Jesus though was not in the habit of giving up, except in the realm of the impossible, as in Japan, and in Macau it was deemed that Rhodes should bring to bear his mastery of the language and his interpersonal skills to regain influence there, a task fraught with difficulty.

Rhodes, accompanied by another Jesuit, Pierre Alberto, arrived at Faifo in January 1640, aboard a Portuguese trading ship. Seven months later they were compelled to return to sea, this time at the helm themselves. After two months of respite in Macau, Rhodes left for Cochin China at Christmas and for half a year visited the Christian communities in the southern provinces. But once more he was spotted and put aboard a ship bound for Manila. From there he sailed for Macau, arriving in September 1641 after almost coming to grief in a storm. His new attempt to return to Cochin China the following year had a rather happier outcome. With armfuls of gifts for Thuong Vuong, he was received at Hue, where he spent his days conversing with the king on scientific subjects and his nights ministering to the Christian community. But royal tolerance was short-lived and Rhodes decided it was wise to return to Macau. Since the outset this had been the Jesuits’ strategy for winning over local powers: kindle interest, win the king’s favor with gifts, with draw when his interest flags.

Martyrdom of Augustin Schoeffler. French missionary of the Foreign Missions Society (Société des Missions Etrangères), born 1822,
in Mittelbronn, arrested for proselyting and beheaded on 1st May 1851 at Son Tây, Vietnam. Canonized in 1988 by Pope John Paul II.
Anonymous Vietnamese eyewitness artist. Paper glued on canvas 89×129.5 cm. Salles des Martyrs (Martyr’s Hall), Missions Étrangères,
Paris. © akg-images/Amelot.

Rhodes’s last sojourn in Cochin China, between January 1644 and July 1645, went badly wrong. Emboldened by a warm welcome from Thuong Vuong, he unwisely multiplied baptisms (more than two hundred one night in Hue), which fueled the animosity of his detractors who accused him of plotting with the king’s aunt, Mary Magdalene, to seize the throne for her descendants. Rhodes was absent when his home was searched, but the police arrested one of his young catechists, André, who was condemned to death and decapitated on 26 July 1645. André was the first of many Vietnamese martyrs. Rhodes, who in vain tried to prevent the execution, was imprisoned for two months and condemned to death, but finally pardoned on the intervention of an advisor whose wife was Christian. He was instead banished and forbidden ever to return to Vietnam, the country he loved, where his voice had swayed so many.

The Paris Foreign Missions Society:
from colonialism to evangelization

Now available for other tasks, Rhodes was sent to Rome to plead the cause of the Asian missions, that is, to recruit missionaries. But the dramatic turn of events in Cochin China, so tragically redolent of events in Japan some decades before, had convinced Rhodes that local Asian Christians would be in danger of persecution as long as they were seen to be allies of, or to collude with, foreigners, to wit Western missionaries whose links with the ambitions of European powers were all too plain. To sidestep these perceptions stemming from the system of patronage and to limit persecutions, there was just one solution—train local priests who would blend into the population and favor calmer integration of Christians into their own society. Rhodes, although answerable to the Padroado as a Jesuit, was a papal subject and as such less sensitive than his compatriots to defending Portuguese interests. He was more in line with the new orientations of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, overseer of the missionary policy of the Holy See, which was seeking to withdraw the missions from Iberian supervision.

Thus began for Rhodes protracted and thorny diplomatic toing and froing between Rome and Paris, which, in the end, led to the triumph of his ideas and, despite intrigues and pitfalls of all kinds, to the appointment, in 1658, of three French vicars apostolic for Tonkin, Cochin China, and China: Monsignors François Pallu, Pierre Lambert de la Motte, and Ignace Cotolendi. Although Rome was mistrustful of the furia francese, there was no other solution because France then was the only Catholic power without interests in Asia, and was home to great spiritual and missionary fervor. Of the three prelates appointed, only Monsignor Lambert de la Motte was able to set foot in Vietnam, in Tonkin (1669), and then in Cochin China (1671 and 1674). It was among catechists instituted by Rhodes that de la Motte recruited the first seven priests in Tonkin. Ordained in January 1670, they constituted the beginnings of a Vietnamese clergy that won renown for its bravura and spirit of resistance over the following centuries.

In the eyes of history it was paradoxically a Jesuit of the Portuguese Padroado, Alexander of Rhodes, who played the leading role in the creation of the Paris Foreign Mission Society (Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris), which posted French secular priests to the Asia missions, deemed to have been founded by Monsignors Pallu and Lambert de la Motte, the first vicars apostolic of Vietnam. Over the three centuries that followed, numerous French priests and bishops of the Foreign Mission Society exercised their ministry in Vietnam, and suffered alongside the Catholic Vietnamese the ordeal of persecutions that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Pope John Paul II canonized 117 of the victims (including ten French priests) in 1988. From the end of the 19th century, these missionaries were confronted by the ambiguities of their own country’s colonization of Indochina, and then faced the hardships of the wars of independence until 1975, when the last of them were expelled from South Vietnam.

The Foreign Missions Society in Paris, 128 rue du Bac, in the 7th arrondissement,
in Paris. The chapel (of which only the top of the spire is seen) was built between
1683 and 1689, and the main building “Grand Logis” in 1732.
© Fonds Iconographique des Archives Missions Etrangères de Paris. With kind permission.

Relegation and death in Persia

Despite his pastoral and cultural influence, which is on a par with Francis Xavier’s in Japan and Matteo Ricci’s in China, Alexander of Rhodes did not in his lifetime win just recogni- tion for his indefatigable zeal in the service of Vietnam and his Church. Quite the contrary. The Portuguese crown, jealous of its patronage rights, took a very dim view of Rhodes’s initiative to introduce Frenchmen, who depended on the Pope alone, into territories it considered its preserve. Until then, the laws of the Padroado and the close links between the young Society of Jesus and the Portuguese monarchs had meant that Lisbon exercised total control over all Jesuits leaving for the Orient aboard its boats, whether they were Portuguese, Italian, French, or even papal subjects, like Alexander of Rhodes. In an attempt to stymie this new missionary enterprise, which was eroding his power, the King of Portugal agreed to fund the departure to Asia of twenty-five new Jesuits, eleven of them French, eleven Portuguese, and three Italians. But not Rhodes, who thus paid the price for his commitment to the service of the Christian community of Vietnam, where he had been the most successful apostle. Blacklisted by the Padroado, sent by his superiors to Persia, Rhodes left in 1654, too soon to witness the fruits of his own endeavors.

Alexander of Rhodes’s life work: Frontispiece and first page of entries based on the romanization
system of Alexander of Rhodes, of the Vietnamese/Portuguese/Latin Dictionary (note the “typo”
with 3 “Ns” in the word “ANNNAMITICUM”), published in Rome by the “Sacred Congregation of
the Propaganda of the Faith” (now called “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples”) in 1651.
© BNP, Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal.Alexander of Rhodes’s life work: Frontispiece and first page of entries based on the romanization
system of Alexander of Rhodes, of the Vietnamese/Portuguese/Latin Dictionary (note the “typo”
with 3 “Ns” in the word “ANNNAMITICUM”), published in Rome by the “Sacred Congregation of
the Propaganda of the Faith” (now called “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples”) in 1651.
© BNP, Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal.

It was a cruel relegation, to a country so different from all those he had known, and where conversions were virtually impossible. When he reached the capital Esfahan, at the age of sixty-four, Rhodes set about learning Persian (his thirteenth language!) and wrote notes about the new country of his mission which enabled one of his colleagues, Jacques de Machaud, to publish in 1659 “Relation de la Mission des Pères de la Compagnie de Jésus Établie Dans le Royaume de Perse par le P. Alexandre de Rhodes.” This was Rhodes’s last missionary contribution. He died in Esfahan on 5 November 1660, some months before the arrival there of Monsignor Lambert de la Motte, the first Vicar Apostolic, who had left Paris for Vietnam and traveled overland on the recommendations of Rome, so as to avoid being spotted by the Portuguese.

The quôc ngu alphabet: Alexander of Rhodes’s enduring legacy to Vietnam

Rhodes had taken advantage of his stays in Rome and Paris to publish some of his numerous works, the most important of which are the catechism in Latin and Vietnamese, a small Vietnamese grammar written according to the methods of Latin grammars in French, and the famous Vietnamese-Portuguese- Latin dictionary, the first of the Annamite language written in quôc ngu and transcribing Vietnamese phonemes on the basis of Portuguese phonetics. At the time this was a veritable revolution because this writing replaced both chữ nôm, a system of radicalphonetic characters formed from the Chinese characters used between the 12th and 20th centuries AD, and chữ hán, that is, classical Chinese, the language of the administration during the Chinese domination (from 111 BC to 939 AD) and again when reintroduced by the Nguyên dynasty (1804-1954). This romanization was then adopted not only by the French colonial power, which imposed it in 1918 as the official orthography in the school system for Vietnamese children, but also by nationalists, who saw it as a means of uniting local populations who spoke different languages. Simpler to learn than the two other scripts based on Sino-Vietnamese characters, Alexander of Rhodes’ quôc ngu romanization was to become a tool in the democratization of education which, in spite of its Western and Catholic origin, was adopted in 1954 as the official Vietnamese administrative writing system, replacing Chinese, which had been kept as the language of the imperial administration by the French colonial power.

Alexander of Rhodes
in Esfahan, Persia—
now Iran (died March 5,
1660), bearing the following
Hic jacet P
Alexander De Rhodes
Gall[iae] sacerdos religios[us]
e societate Jesu missionari
ap[osto]licus qui post longos
proXr[rist]o variis i missionib
[us]Orie[n]tis exa[n]tiatos labores
per annos 40 pri[mus]
m[issionarius] hic e sociis pie
obiit die 5 nov. anno salutis
1660 [a]etatis suae 68 HIS.”
Inscription adapted from: Fernandez
FG. La Experiencia Misionera de
Alexandre de Rhodes. Studio Missionalia.
2011;60:277-317 p. 293,
citing: Rispaud J. Les Premiers
Missionaires Français Dans le Nord
Vietnam. France-Asie. 1959;158-
159 (VII-VIII):1036-1046. All rights

19th-century (?) dictionary
with Sino-Vietnamese
characters and their

quôc ngu equivalents.

Barbosa—the authors of a first Portuguese-Vietnamese dictionary from which Rhodes drew inspiration. But the Jesuit from Avignon has acquired in his country of adoption a cultural aura recognized universally, even by the Communists, as shown in 1990 by a declaration by Cu Huy Can, a minister of culture under President Ho Chi Minh: “It is to the Reverend Father Alexander of Rhodes that we owe the transcription of Vietnamese in Roman characters, which we call quôc ngu, or national language. That is why this Jesuit, who long ago came from imperialist Europe, is considered in our country as one of the architects of our culture.” Thus it was that three hundred and thirty years after his death, Alexander of Rhodes, neglected by his own people, received the recognition that was his due from the country where he left his heart.