By Pamela Toler (Regular Contributor)
In 39 CE, two young women led Vietnam in its first rebellion against the Chinese empire, which had then ruled the country for 150 years.
Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were born in a small town in north Vietnam around 14 CE, the daughters of a Vietnamese lord who served as a prefect under the Chinese. According to legend, the sisters were trained in the arts of war by their mother.*
In 36 CE, a new, more oppressive, governor, To Dinh (aka Su Ting) took over the province. He demanded bribes and raised taxes on salt** . He taxed peasants for fishing in the rivers. In short, he was just the type of greedy and inept official who triggers rebellions in classic Chinese historiography.
Trung Trac, together with her husband Thi Sách, plotted to mobilize the local aristocracy to revolt. Learning of their plots and assuming that Thi Sách was the driving force of the conspiracy, To Dihn had him arrested and hung his body from the city gates as a warning to other would-be rebels.
To Dinh’s efforts to put down the rebellion by cutting off its head back-fired. Instead of giving up, the sisters raised an army of 80,000 troops, most of them in their twenties and a large number of them women.*** Their elderly mother served as one of their generals.
The Trungs and their untrained army drove the Chinese from Vietnam, liberating sixty-five strongholds along the way, and created a new state that stretched from Hue in the south into southern China. To Dinh was so terrified that he disguised himself by shaving off his hair and fled the country in secret.
For two years the Trung sisters ruled their newly independent kingdom unchallenged. In 41 CE, the Chinese emperor sent an army commanded by one of his best generals to reconquer Vietnam. For two years, the sisters defended their borders against the Chinese, but eventually they were worn down by the empire’s military and financial superiority. The Trungs fought their last battle near modern Hanoi in 43 CE. Thousands of Vietnamese soldiers were captured and beheaded and more than 10,000 surrendered.
The Trung sisters were not among those who surrendered. Instead, they committed suicide, which the Vietnamese believed was the more honorable option. Some sources say they drowned themselves in the Hát River; others claim they floated up into the clouds.
In the centuries that followed, the Trung sisters were held up as idealized examples of national courage in the struggle against first Chinese and later French domination. Over time,a Buddhist religious cult grew up around their memory and temples were built in their honor. Today they are remembered as national heroines in Vietnam, where the anniversary of their suicide is a national holiday.
* It may well be true, but this kind of thing has to be taken with a whole shaker of salt. As Antonia Fraser points out in The Warrior Queens, the Tomboy Syndrome is a standard trope in stories of women warriors.
**Always a bad idea. Salt is more than just a condiment.
***Vietnamese stories emphasize the heroism of the young women in the Trung’s army: one, General Phung Thi Chinh is said to have given birth on the battlefield, strapped the infant to her back, and continued fighting.