The story itself is short and sad: two Vietnamese sisters once led an armed civil uprising against Chinese occupation. It brought their country freedom, for three years, till Han China struck them down. But the ending of this story does not matter. What does, is that it happened.
The year was 111 B.C. The peaceful Trieu Dynasty of Nam-Viet had just been defeated by the Han Dynasty of China. The empire’s goal was to impose political and cultural control over all of northern Vietnam by assigning governors to oversee the country’s now puppet local leaders.
Initially and superficially, this form of indirect rule allowed the Vietnamese to maintain a semblance of their normal lives. Cultural differences, however, were quick to arise as both parties became aware that they did not share the same values:
“Han China followed the strictly hierarchical and patriarchal system espoused by Confucius (Kong Fuzi) whereas the Vietnamese social structure was based on a more equal status between the sexes. Unlike those in China, women in Vietnam could serve as judges, soldiers, and even rulers and had equal rights to inherit land and other property.”
General Trung Giao Chi’s two daughters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, were among those women who studied literature and trained in martial arts… in the first century A.D. Highly intelligent, well versed in philosophy, governance, and politics, the pair were to inherit their father’s land and titles and do well in society.
By 39 A.D., however, Chinese oppression had increased and relations had tensed considerably between the governors and governed. Main issues of contention: taxes and freedom. Trung Trac’s husband, a nobleman, was among the most vocal protestors; he challenged the Chinese governor To Dinh. In response, he was executed.
Trung Trac was widowed and expected to mourn, as a Chinese woman in her shoes would. She did not. Instead, she and her sister Nhi rallied supporters to launch a rebellion. Among the 80,000 who came forward, thirty-six women were chosen by the sisters and trained as generals. Among them: the girls’ own mother.
These women led the Yue people in battle against the Han. They gained the support of over sixty-five towns and settlements. Trung Trac was declared queen, and with Trung Nhi by her side, abolished Chinese taxes and tried to restore “a simpler form of government more in line with traditional Vietnamese values.”
This rule, however, was short-lived and wrought with constant battles against the Chinese. In 43 A.D., it ended in defeat. The Trung sisters were beheaded.
Popular culture ends this story otherwise: rather than accept defeat, legend claims the sisters drowned themselves in the river or simply disappeared. This interpretation conforms to the Vietnamese notion of honor that these women personified and would continue to for millennia:
There are poems, stories, plays, streets, squares, and temples inspired by these two brave sisters, whose story gave hope not only to Vietnam, but also, more broadly, to women.
“All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission;
Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country.”
– Anonymous, 15th Century Poem
Vietnam would only gain independence after one thousand years of Chinese rule, followed by French and American occupation, in 1969.
But until it did, those three years of freedom and valor shone like a beacon: proof that a different reality could exist for that country and for women.