Ba Trieu (225–248 CE)

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Ba Trieu (225–248 ce)

Vietnamese resistance fighter who, at 19, led an insurrection against Chinese invaders and now serves as an inspiration for national defiance against foreign domination. Name variations: Trieu Thi Chinh, Trieu Thi Trinh, Trieu Tring Nuong, Lady Trieu; Trieu Au (used by Chinese, though considered disrespectful by Vietnamese). Pronunciation: Bah Tcheel. Born around 225 ce; lived in the Nui Nua, Thanh Hoa province, Vietnam; committed suicide on Tung Mountain at age 23 in 248 ce; sister of Trieu Quoc Dat, a headman in Quang An, Thanh Hoa (northern Vietnam).

Since its birth, Vietnam has been a country in struggle, constantly facing natural calamities and foreign invaders. Ten centuries under the domination of neighboring China, and one hundred years of French colonialism, have forged the will of the Vietnamese to live independently and to preserve their national identity. The first significant insurrections against foreign rule were led by women: first the Trung sisters and later by Trieu Thi Trinh, more popularly known as Ba Trieu. Western scholars and historians call Ba Trieu the Vietnamese Joan of Arc, a woman of strength, courage, and conviction. She is a national hero in Vietnam and a role model for generations of Vietnamese women.

Vietnam traces its origins to a legendary kingdom reigned by mythical monarchs. According to legend, the lord Lac Long Quan married the princess Au Co, and she gave birth to a hundred sons. Lac Long Quan announced one day that he was a dragon and she a fairy, which meant, he reasoned, that they could not remain together. Au Co took 50 of the sons to the mountains; the other 50 followed their father to the sea. The bravest of Lac Long Quan's sons became the founder of the Hung Dynasty, which gave the country 18 successive rulers. According to Vietnamese ancient history, the first state was called Van Lang, a federation of 15 tribes in the northern part of current-day Vietnam. Toward the end of the 3rd century bce, An Duong Vuong (also known as Thuc Phan), seized Van Lang and named it Au Lac. He established his capital at Co Loa, about 20 miles north of present-day Ha Noi (Hanoi). A model for later fortresses, his fortified citadel had three spiraling walls, the outer one measuring 9,000 yards. An Duong Vuong's forces were armed with crossed bows, which released ten bronze-tipped arrows at a time. In 1959, some 10,000 of these bronze arrowheads were discovered in Co Loa, evidence that it was once the scene of heavy fighting. An Duong Vuong waged a ten-year struggle of national resistance to preserve his kingdom. In the beginning of the 3rd century, Trieu Da, a renegade Chinese general, conquered Au Lac and proclaimed it the independent state of Nam Viet (Southern Viet). However, his successors could not hold out against the powerful armies of the Chinese Han.

In 111 bce, the Han annexed Nam Viet into their empire and made it a Chinese province called Giao Chi. The occupation marked the beginning of a policy of political and cultural assimilation. Chinese settlers began moving into the province, bringing Confucian ideology, Chinese customs, and written characters, which were used until the 17th century. The Han heavily taxed their Vietnamese subjects and administered a tribute policy that required the population to turn over precious stones, metals, and rare goods, such as elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shells. They confiscated land to set up ranches and monopolized the salt and metal markets, making the Vietnamese economically dependent.

Although there were many attempts to resist Chinese rule, the first successful insurrection was led by the spirited Trung sisters. They took power in 39 ce and ruled Vietnam for two years. After their defeat by the Chinese armies, the sisters committed suicide by drowning themselves in the River Hat in 43 ce. They are honored at the Den Hai Ba Trung (The Two Trung Sisters Temple) outside Ha Noi.

Dau cuong nhuoc co luc khac nhau, Song hao kiet doi nao cung co [Although we have been at times strong, at times weak, We have at no time lacked heroes.]

—Nguyen Trai, Binh Ngo Dai Cao, 1428

Over the next two centuries, the Chinese intensified their campaign to assimilate the Vietnamese. Chinese lords replaced many of the local officials with their own administrators in order to form a loyal base of support. The Chinese referred to the country as An Nam, meaning the pacified south. But the country was not placated and would not remain conquered. Resistance to Chinese rule persisted; revolts were continuous. Some rebellions succeeded long enough to give the Vietnamese short periods of independence. It was after one of these periods of freedom, in the 3rd century, that Ba Trieu made her mark on the history and psyche of the Vietnamese people.

Ba Trieu was the sister of Trieu Quoc Dat, a powerful headman in Quan An, Cuu Chan District. Her parents died when she was a young girl, and Ba Trieu went to live with her brother. She was described as "physically strong, witty and visionary." At age 19, she rallied 1,000 fighters and trained them for battle on Nua Mountain. Denouncing the crimes of the Chinese Wu Dynasty, Ba Trieu appealed to the citizens to take up arms to save the country. People in the region wholeheartedly followed her call. When her brother advised her to get married rather than revolt, she replied:

I want to ride the storm, tread the dangerous waves,
Kill fierce sharks in the open sea, drive out the Ngo aggressors,
Reclaim our country, break the yoke of slavery.
I will not bow my head and be a concubine of man.

Her brother led an uprising against the Chinese in Cuu Chan District, and Ba Trieu came to his aid. His soldiers admired Ba Trieu's brave command to such a degree that they pronounced her their leader. When Trieu Quoc Dat died in battle, Ba Trieu took over, leading her troops in 30 battles. She commanded fearlessly, riding atop an elephant in a coat of armor, adorned with golden hairpins and ivory clogs. Her troops won many battles, and they succeeded in killing the governor of Giao Chau. People in Giao Chi and Cuu Chan soon joined the revolt. Chinese Wu history of the period is a testament to Ba Trieu's effectiveness: "In 248, the whole region of Giao Chau was shaken."

The Wu Dynasty sent its famous general, Luc Dan, and another 8,000 troops to suppress the uprising. After six months of fierce fighting, Ba Trieu's troops were crushed, but her courage earned her the respect and awe of the Chinese soldiers:

Clad in a golden robe with a gold pin through her hair, wearing ivory shoes, she was always seen on her elephant, on the front line.
It is easy to handle a spear to attack a tiger, but facing the Queen, how it is difficult to fight.

At age 23, Ba Trieu killed herself on Tung Mountain, rather than give in to the enemy. During the early Ly Dynasty in the 6th century, King Nam De commended Ba Trieu for her loyalty and bravery and ordered the construction of a temple in her honor. He gave her the highest title in the country: Bat chinh anh liet hung tai trinh nhat phu nhan (Truest and Bravest First Lady). Her tomb and the temple still stand. In the late 20th century, a bronze sword was discovered on Mount Nua in Thanh Hoa province, where the insurrection led by Lady Trieu took place. The carving on the sword's handle shows an aristocratic Vietnamese woman wearing a turban and magnificent clothing.

Ru con con ngu cho lanh
De me ganh nuoc rua banh con voi
Muon coi len nui ma coi
Co ba Trieu tuong cuoi voi banh vang

Sleep, sleep tight my child
So that I can fetch water to wash the gilded saddle of the elephant.
Climb the hill if you want to watch
Lady General Trieu on her golden gilded seat.
—Vietnamese folk song

Even though Ba Trieu's attempt to overthrow the Chinese failed, Vietnamese resistance did not die. The Vietnamese finally won their freedom in the year 939 and remained an independent state for the next 1,000 years. Despite the campaign of forced assimilation by the Chinese, Vietnamese language, culture, and customs survived. Although Vietnamese women were oppressed under Chinese rule, their status was always higher than women in other Asian nations, and they never suffered the ordeal of having their feet bound. For a brief period in the 15th century, the Chinese managed to occupy Vietnam once again and tried to rule as they had in the past. This time, however, they could not turn back the clock, and Vietnam maintained its sovereignty.

By the late 16th century, two ruling clans dominated the country: the Trinh in the north and the Nguyen in the south. In 1771, a peasant insurrection known as the Tay Son Rebellion led to the unification of Vietnam. Again, a woman figured prominently in the struggle. Bui Thi Xuan , wife of the Tay Son general Tran Quang Dieu, was herself a general celebrated for her courage and heroism. Mounted atop an elephant, she led 5,000 troops in an attack on Dong Hoi, a fortified line dividing north and south. The assault almost succeeded, but the forces of Nguyen Anh in the South prevailed. By 1802, his armies had defeated the emperor Quang Trung (also known as Nguyen Hue), and Nguyen Anh viciously retaliated against his enemies. Bui Thi Xuan, Tran Quang Dieu, and their 14-year-old daughter were executed. It has been written that Bui Thi Xuan "died as she lived; when faced with the elephant which was about to trample her to death, she remained calm and brave. She expressed her disdain for the enemy and maintained her commanding and majestic posture."

Before the end of the 19th century, Vietnam was again subjugated, this time by the French. Many resistance groups formed to fight colonial rule and women were leaders of this struggle as well. A woman named Lady Dinh worked clandestinely for the Duy Tan (Reformation) campaign, a nonviolent movement led by two scholars. Lady Dinh was arrested and tortured by the French, but she never disclosed the whereabouts of her compatriots, nor revealed the movement's operations. The night before she was killed, Lady Dinh invoked the memory of another female resistance fighter, writing this poem on the prison wall:

In the other world, I will wipe my tears in meeting Lady Trung
Soaked in blood and lamented like the soul of the Quyen bird
A bow to Buddha: If I was ever reincarnated
I would want a thousand arms with a thousand swords.

Bui Thi Xuan (d. 1771)

Vietnamese heroine. Executed around 1771; married Tran Quang Dieu, a Tay Son general; children: a daughter.

Bui Thi Xuan, a famous general in Vietnamese history, was captured for leading 5,000 rebels in a peasant insurgence, known as the Tay Son Rebellion. Following her execution, the new emperor had her heart, arms, liver, and lungs fed to his troops. He believed that by ingesting small segments of this fearless woman his armies would gain courage. A street in Hanoi bears the name Bui Thi Xuan.

It was not until 1954 that the French were defeated by the guerrilla fighters—known as the Viet Minh—in the historic battle at Dien Bien Phu. The peace agreement between the two sides divided Vietnam into North and South. Elections were supposed to unify the country in 1956, but they never happened. Vietnam was soon pushed into another war for independence, this time against the United States. Not surprisingly, women again took up arms, fighting valiantly alongside the men. Scores of women—peasants and intellectuals alike—joined the so-called "long-haired" army. They faced separation from their families, brutal torture, and terrible hardships. Their lives and sacrifices are memorialized in the Women's Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

The dauntless spirit of Ba Trieu and other brave Vietnamese women who gave themselves for their country are kept alive today. Their temples are lovingly cared for, fragrant with daily freshenings of incense and symbols of respect. Schools and streets throughout Vietnam bear their names. Their heroics are reenacted in plays, poems, songs, and traditional operas. Their spirit lives.


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Doan Thi Nam-Hau , freelance writer; and

Willa Seidenberg , co-author of A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Viet Nam War