Long before revolutionary women like Joan of Arc and Catherine of Aragon, two Vietnamese sisters of high birth rallied their people to fight against oppression. Known simply as Sisters Trung, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi raised an army and went into battle to protect their ancestral homeland in AD 43.
In the 2,000 years since their deaths, the legend of the Trung sisters has come to represent Vietnamese nationalism – and a rare moment when two young women ruled an independent nation pushing back against colonial repression.
A childhood full of privileges
Sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi had led charming lives before the violence that led them to organize their people. As the daughters of the general who ruled the Giao Chi district (in present-day northern Vietnam), the sisters were educated in literature and studied martial arts alongside their father.
When the Han Chinese first invaded the region now known as Vietnam in 111 BC, they immediately installed several local rulers to serve as a staging post for Chinese interests. Among these local rulers was the father of the Trung sisters – who, like many of the other rulers installed, managed to push back the Chinese on occasion in order to protect the interests of the local population.
Southeast Asian society at the time was quite progressive when it comes to women’s rights, especially when it comes to access to education and land ownership. “It was a society where women had a lot of rights,” says Keith Taylor, professor of Chinese-Vietnamese cultural studies at Cornell University. “From what we can tell about society at the time, women had a very high status. People have inherited their property, their social position and many other rights through their mothers and fathers. “
A tragedy changed the course of their lives
Sister Trung Trac grew up to marry Thi Sach, a general from a neighboring district. When the ruling Chinese raised taxes on salt and began demanding bribes from local Vietnamese authorities, Thi Sach began to organize his fellow aristocrats to rebel against the measures. “It had reached the point where the Han were trying to take over the authority of this aristocratic group,” Taylor says. “So this aristocratic class of chieftains and lords were trying to prevent the Han … from taking this power and control from them … away from them.”
Although some believe that Trung Trac played a vital role in assisting her husband, he was the only one the Chinese captured and executed without trial.
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A call for revolution
After her husband’s death, Trung Trac, alongside her sister Trung Nhi, began to mobilize the local population – both landlords and working farmers – to continue to fight against Chinese rule. To motivate the newly assembled troops before the battle, Trung Trac also reportedly wrote long patriotic poems calling on them to avenge her husband’s life.
“There were different chiefs who brought their people into the military,” Taylor says. “Often the leader had some sort of obligation to provide soldiers when needed.” The newly formed army would eventually number around 80,000 soldiers from both the peasantry and the aristocracy. The battalion was also led by 36 female generals, one of whom was said to be the elderly mother of the Trung sisters.
Armed with swords, bows and arrows, axes and spears, the Trung sisters and their army stormed 65 Chinese citadels and the governor’s house, successfully forcing the Chinese ruler out of the region.
A brief but memorable reign
After successfully driving out the Chinese, Trưng Trắc was declared queen of a newly created independent country in the once occupied region, and ruled it alongside her sister. “For two years, they were more or less responsible; they were seen as queens, ”Taylor says, noting that they ruled their nation with little interference from others.
Everything would change in AD 41, when Emperor Han Guang Wu Di became determined to reclaim Vietnam for his empire. Guang sent his General Ma Yuan and his troops south to overthrow the Trung sisters. Unlike their previous battle, the sisters were unprepared to ward off Chinese forces and began to lose many of their aristocratic supporters. The couple were defeated in AD 43, near the site of what is now known as the city of Hanoi.
Two legends are born
What happened after the defeat of the Trung sisters and their army remains a matter of debate. “According to some stories written later, they drown in a river rather than being captured,” Taylor explains. “But the historical record indicates that they were indeed captured.” The sisters were then executed by the Han army.
The legend of the Trung sisters began to grow soon after their deaths, with many poets and writers creating legends around their bravery, patriotism, and beauty. As a 15th-century poem noted, the sisters managed to continue their fight against Chinese forces at a time when many of their male peers failed to do so. “All the male heroes nodded in submission. Only the two sisters stood up proudly to avenge the country, ”one verse reads.
Several temples and shrines honoring their memories have also been erected across Vietnam. “The earliest mentions of the Trung sisters were in temples that were raised to worship them,” Taylor says. Later in the 11th century, the sisters began to be seen as rain bringers, which meant that worshipers believed that praying to them in times of drought would bring much-needed water.
The story of the Trung sisters, who fought and ultimately lost their lives to their oppressors, also captured the Vietnamese imagination throughout the region’s period of French colonialism and during the Vietnam War. The story of two sisters who succeeded in mobilizing an army and protecting their land and culture immediately struck a chord as it marked a time when Southeast Asia was ruled by its own people and was free. from any colonial interference.
The defeat of the Trung sisters “led to the first definitive establishment of administrative control of the Han,” Taylor says. “It was the start of a very strong influence that affected all aspects of people’s lives.”
Today, the Trung sisters are celebrated annually in Vietnam on the anniversary of their deaths in honor of their courage and sacrifice. Often depicted riding elephants in combat, they have been commemorated on postage stamps, statues and portraits as the essence of Vietnamese resistance.