Trung Sisters (d. 43 CE)

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Trung Sisters (d. 43 ce)

Two sisters, considered models and inspiration for centuries of Vietnamese resistance against foreign domination, who led the first Vietnamese insurrectionagainst foreign occupation by the Chinese feudalists and ruled Vietnam for two years before being overthrown by the Chinese.

Trung Trac and Trung Nhi. Name variations: Hai Ba Trung (Two Ladies Trung); Trung Nu Vuong or Trung Vuong (She-king Trung); Truong sisters. Pronunciation: TCHUNG sisters. Born in village of Me Linh in Son Tay region in Vietnam (dates of birth unknown); died in 43 ce, committing suicide by throwing themselves into the river; daughters of a local chief and Ba Man Thien, reputed descendent of the Hung kings; Trung Trac married Thi Sach (a local chieftain assassinated by the Chinese); marital status of Trung Nhi unknown.

Led insurrection against Chinese rule (39 ce); commanded an army of 80,000 soldiers; defeated Chinese; liberated 65 fortresses and proclaimed themselves joint queens (40 ce); upon defeat by a Chinese general, threw themselves into the river (43 ce).

For 12 years the United States fought a bloody guerrilla war against Vietnam. Although America was many times richer and had far superior military might, Vietnam prevailed in the end, fueled by a desire to reunify the country, gain independence from foreign control, and preserve national dignity. It was not the first war of resistance to be fought by the Vietnamese people, nor would it be the last. The revolutionary spirit is a Vietnamese tradition that dates back many hundreds of years, launched by two heroic women in the 1st century ce. The story of the Trung sisters, who led Vietnam's very first war of resistance, is the story of Vietnam itself.

The earliest Vietnamese state was known as Van Lang, founded by the Hung (Hong) dynasty, possibly around 2800 bce. The Hung Kingdom was made up of 15 tribes, the main one being Me Linh, northeast of current-day Hanoi. The Hung kings ruled through a system of civilian chiefs (lac hau), military chiefs (lac tuong), and lower-ranked officials (bo chinh). The capital was established in Me Linh. A succession of 18 Hung kings ruled until the 3rd century bce, when Thuc Phan, king of Nam Cuong (now Cao Bang province and part of China's Kwangsi province), seized Van Lang and established the Kingdom of Au Lac. Thuc Phan proclaimed himself king under the name An Duong Vuong and established his capital at Co Loa (Shell Citadel). One can still view remains of the spiral-shaped citadel measuring some 8,000 meters near Hanoi, the present-day capital of Vietnam.

Vietnam's nascent years, however, would soon be dominated by its neighbor to the north, China. The Kingdom of Au Lac had successfully resisted troops sent by the Chinese Tsin Dynasty around the end of the 3rd century bce. But in 180 bce, Au Lac was overthrown by the Chinese general Trieu Da, who brought more territory under his control. His Nam Viet kingdom retained its independence for about a century, until 111 bce, when it was overthrown by the Chinese Han emperor Wu Ti (Wudi). During the next ten centuries of Chinese occupation, Vietnam was in a constant struggle to safeguard its existence as a nation, to reclaim its independence, and to preserve its national culture.

It was during this time that the Han applied a policy of systematic assimilation, politically, culturally, and socially. They raised taxes and installed Chinese chiefs to rule the people. Before Chinese rule, women had possessed many of the same rights as men: they were allowed to inherit property and had legal rights within the family. But when the Chinese introduced Confucianism to Vietnamese society, women became subordinated to their husbands, who possessed all property rights and were permitted to take a second wife if the first failed to produce a son. Women were no longer allowed to serve in the bureaucracy, and they were banned from taking civil-service examinations.

Resentment of Chinese rule began to build as the Chinese administrators exacted more taxes and tried to increase their control over the Lac lords. (Lac lords is a term referring to the native Vietnamese who were landed aristocracy.) The Trung sisters were daughters of a Lac lord chief in the village of Me Linh. Their mother Ba Man Thien was reputed to be a descendant of the Hung kings, and the sisters were brought up in a "spirit of patriotism and love of military art." They were taught to be strong and independent. Trung Trac, the elder sister, killed a white tiger which had been known in the region for being invincible. This courageous act gained respect from people throughout the land.

Trung Trac married Thi Sach, son of a Lac lord from the nearby Chu Dien fortress. Even though they were married, they continued to live in their separate regions. (Vestiges of this tradition are still found in Vinh Phu, Ha Bac, and Ha Tay provinces.) Both Trung Trac and her husband were enraged by the Chinese governor's harsh rules and atrocities. When Thi Sach opposed the demands for more taxes and attempts to assimilate the Vietnamese, he was arrested, and the Chinese governor Su Ting ordered his execution. Although the Chinese hoped this action would stifle further opposition to their rule, it had the opposite effect.

The murder of her husband spurred Trung Trac into action to fight for her homeland. She put aside her grief, and without waiting for the funeral rites, removed her traditional mourning headdress. Along with her sister Trung Nhi, she rallied the other nobles and peasants, raising the flag of revolt. Trung Trac called her troops to battle with the oath:

I swear, first, to avenge the nation;
Second, to restore the Hungs' former position;
Third, to have revenge for my husband;
Fourth, to carry through to the end our common task.

Before the military incursion, the young general Thieu Hoa begged Trung Trac to let the army wear mourning clothes. Trung Trac dismissed the idea, saying:

This is a battle. If we presented ourselves in mourning, the spirit of fighting would diminish. I will wear my best armor to encourage our fighters and weaken our enemies. Not until I capture Lien Lau Citadel and Governor Su Ting, will I allow myself to salute the flags and begin the funeral.

Trung Trac donned her golden armor carved with a Me Linh bird; a belt was tightened around her waist, the buckle adorned with little bells. As legend has it, she was such a beautiful and awesome vision that the Chinese soldiers were stopped in their tracks by the sight of her. Flanked by the sisters' sides were women generals from the mountains of Thanh Thien and the plains in Bat Nan, Nguyet Thien, Nguyet Do, and Le Chan. One of the commanders was Phung Thi Chinh , the pregnant wife of a noble. She is said to have given birth in the middle of a battle but continued fighting with the newborn tied to her back. The Trung sisters attacked the home of Su Ting, forcing him to flee. Vietnamese still enjoy retelling how Su Ting had to cut his hair, shave his beard, and, in disguise, secretly leave the country through the sewage line.

In 40 ce, the Trung armies defeated the Chinese. The sisters installed themselves as queens of Nam Viet in their new capital of Me Linh. During their brief reign, they distributed Su Ting's wealth to the poor and liberated prisoners and soldiers who had been drafted into the Chinese army. But this period of independence was short-lived. Two years later, the Chinese emperor ordered preparations for the reconquest of the territory.

The veteran general Ma Yuan was sent to crush the insurgence. His troops met little resistance until they faced the Trung armies southwest of Me Linh. But Ma Yuan's troops proved superior, and the Trung sisters were defeated. Popular mythology claims that, following their defeat, the sisters killed themselves by drowning in the river Hat Giang at Cam Khe (above the Red River, at the border of Vinh Phu and Ha Tay provinces), rather than submit to Chinese rule. But some accounts say the sisters were caught by the invading Chinese forces and put to death.

Whatever their final end, the spirit of the Trung sisters lives on in the soul of the Vietnamese. In the "Record of Queen Trung," the Vietnamese showed their veneration of the women warriors:

Fearing that because their ruler was a woman and would not be able to defeat the enemy, the mob scattered. Once more, a national government collapsed. Li Wen-hsiu said: "Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were women. Chiu-chen, Jih-nan and Ho-p'u, along with sixty-five cities south of the ranges, responded immediately to their call to arms. They created a nation, and took for themselves the title of Queen, as easily as turning their hands. We can see from this that circumstances among our people were at that time favourable enough to permit a centralized ruler. But alas, for more than a thousand years … the men of our country merely bowed their heads and kowtowed as slaves and servants of the men from the north. It can be said that their lack of shame in the face of the two Trung women was their self-destruction."

The sisters inspired generations of militant and courageous women fighters. In fact, the next major rebellion in Vietnamese history was also led by a woman, Ba Trieu ; she is sometimes referred to as the Vietnamese Joan of Arc . A Vietnamese folk song celebrates her memory:

Sleep my child, sleep
Mother is fetching water to wash the gilded seat of the elephant
Let's climb the hill to watch Ba Trieu on her elephant, beating the gong
Let's fill the rose silk pouches with betel leaves for our husbands who are going to war

After the Trung sisters were defeated, the Chinese intensified their oppression of the Vietnamese. There were a few small uprisings, but nothing significant until 248 ce, when 19-year-old Ba Trieu, a noblewoman, and her brother, a headman in Quan An (Nong Cong, Nui Nua, Thanh Hoa), raised an army of 1,000 fighters to conduct guerrilla training. When Ba Trieu was advised that she should marry rather than stage a 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,
Win back the Fatherland and break the yoke of slavery.
I will not resign myself to the usual lot of women
I do not want to bow my head and be a servant of man

When her brother died in battle, Ba Trieu took over the leadership, winning many victories and almost reclaiming all of Cuu Chan. She rode into battle atop an elephant, wearing golden armor, and her troops succeeded in killing the governor of the Giao Chau prefecture. The resistance carried on successfully for another six months before it was crushed by the Chinese. But though she was defeated, Ba Trieu inspired the awe and admiration 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 the age of 23, Ba Trieu killed herself on Tung mountain, where her tomb and a temple in her honor still stand. Toward the end of the 20th century, a bronze sword was discovered on Mount Nua in Thanh Hoa province where the insurrection led by Ba Trieu took place. The carving on the handle showed a Vietnamese woman aristocrat wearing a turban and sumptuous clothing.

The exploits of the Trung sisters and Ba Trieu as related in popular mythology are a testament to the special status accorded women in Vietnamese society. Throughout history, Vietnamese women have enjoyed far greater rights and respect than their counterparts in other areas of the world, particularly elsewhere in Asia.

The Vietnamese continued to launch revolts against Chinese rule, but none succeeded until the 10th century, when Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese armies at the battle on the Bach Dang River. Thus ended 1,000 years of Chinese domination and ushered in a new era of independence for Vietnam. The first Westerners—Portuguese traders—began arriving in Vietnam in the 1500s, and by the 18th century French missionaries had gained a foothold. In the latter part of the 19th century, the French government began a more active involvement in Vietnam, leading to a period of colonial rule.

Once again, the spirit of nationalism rose up among the Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh emerged as the leader of the independence drive. On May 7, 1954, the Viet Minh forces defeated the French troops in the battle at Dien Bien Phu. In subsequent peace negotiations, Vietnam was divided at the 17th Parallel, splitting the country into North and South. Elections were supposed to take place in 1956 to unify the country, but the vote was never held. Thus began the next battle for reunification and independence, with the United States intervening to keep the South from coming under the control of Ho Chi Minh and his Communist government.

Like their foremothers, women would again become an important part of the revolutionary movement. They were known as the "long haired" troops. Thousands of brave, dedicated women suffered years of war, brutal imprisonment, and separation from their families to fight for their political ideals. The walls of the Women's Museum in Ho Chi Minh City are lined with photographs of women who fought and died for the cause. The exhibit maintains that the women of Vietnam will never be subservient to anyone.

When the enemy comes, the women also should fight.

—Vietnamese proverb

The legacy of the Trung sisters is a nation of fierce nationalists, with strong and valiant women. The Trungs' memory is honored throughout Vietnam, with streets, schools, and hospitals bearing their name. On the southern outskirts of Hanoi sits the Den Hai Ba Trung (Trung Sisters Temple). It was built in 1142 and restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is said that every year the two sisters return for a stroll around the temple. A statue shows the sisters kneeling with their arms raised. Some say it portrays them as they prepare to drown themselves. Every year, with the return of spring, on the 16th day of the second moon, people in Vietnam celebrate the anniversary of the death of the Trung sisters. Schoolchildren still re-enact the battle of the Trung sisters and sing songs praising their heroic contribution to the fight for national dignity and independence.


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Doan Thi Nam Hau , freelance writer, and Willa Seidenberg , co-author of A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War