The Trung Sisters

Heroes of Vietnam

The Trung sisters did not rule for long, but live on as symbols of Vietnamese independence.
The Trung Sisters, warrior-queens of northern Vietnam, ride into battle on war elephants, circa 41 CE. Painting by Bac Ninh via Wikipedia

Beginning in 111 B.C., Han China sought to impose political and cultural control over northern Vietnam, assigning their own governors to oversee existing local leadership, but unease within the region gave birth to brave Vietnamese fighters like Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, The Trung Sisters, who led a heroic yet failed rebellion against their Chinese conquerors. 

The pair, born sometime around the dawn of modern history (1 A.D.), were the daughters of a Vietnamese nobleman and military general in the area near Hanoi, and after the death of Trac's husband, she and her sister raised an army to resist and reclaim freedom for Vietnam, thousands of years before it gained its modern independence.

Vietnam Under Chinese Control

Despite the relatively loose control of Chinese governors in the region, cultural differences made relations between the Vietnamese and their conquerors tense. In particular, 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.

To the Confucian Chinese, it must have been shocking that the Vietnamese resistance movement was led by two women — the Trung Sisters, or Hai Ba Trung — but the made a mistake in 39 A.D. when Trung Trac's husband, a noble named Thi Sach, lodged a protest about increasing tax rates, and in response, the Chinese governor apparently had him executed.

The Chinese would have expected a young widow to go into seclusion and mourn her husband, but Trung Trac rallied supporters and launched a rebellion against foreign rule — along with her younger sister Trung Nhi, the widow raised an army of some 80,000 fighters, many of them women, and drove the Chinese from Vietnam.

Queen Trung

In the year 40, Trung Trac became the queen of northern Vietnam while Trung Nhi served as a top advisor and possibly co-regent. The Trung sisters ruled over an area that included about sixty-five cities and towns and constructed a new capital at Me-linh, a site long associated with the primordial Hong Bang or Loc Dynasty, which legend holds ruled Vietnam from 2879 to 258 B.C.

China's Emperor Guangwu, who had reunified his country after the Western Han kingdom fell apart, sent his best general to crush the upstart Vietnamese queens' rebellion again a few years later and General Ma Yuan was so pivotal to the emperor's successes that Ma's daughter became the empress of Guangwu's son and heir, Emperor Ming.

Ma rode south at the head of a battle-hardened army and the Trung sisters rode out to meet him on elephants, in front of their own troops. For more than a year, the Chinese and Vietnamese armies fought for control of northern Vietnam.

Defeat and Subjugation

Finally, in 43, General Ma Yuan defeated the Trung sisters and their army. Vietnamese records insist that the queens committed suicide by jumping into a river, once their defeat was inevitable while the Chinese claim that Ma Yuan captured and beheaded them instead.

Once the Trung sisters' rebellion was put down, Ma Yuan and the Han Chinese clamped down hard on Vietnam. Thousands of the Trungs' supporters were executed, and many Chinese soldiers remained in the area to insure China's dominance over the lands around Hanoi.

Emperor Guangwu even sent settlers from China to dilute the rebellious Vietnamese - a tactic still used today in Tibet and Xinjiang, keeping China in control of Vietnam until 939.

Legacy of the Trung Sisters

China succeeded in impressing many aspects of Chinese culture upon the Vietnamese, including the civil service exam system and ideas based on Confucian theory. However, the people of Vietnam refused to forget the heroic Trung sisters, despite nine centuries of foreign rule.

Even during the decades-long struggles for Vietnamese independence in the 20th century — first against the French colonists, and then in the Vietnam War against the United States — the story of the Trung sisters inspired ordinary Vietnamese.

Indeed, the persistence of pre-Confucian Vietnamese attitudes about women may help to account for a large number of female soldiers who participated in the Vietnam War. To this day, the people of Vietnam perform memorial ceremonies for the sisters every year at a Hanoi temple named for them.