The Trung Sisters: Rebel Queens of Vietnam

(Trung Sisters Monument in Saigon, 1963, shortly before its destruction, photographed by John C. Wiren – Vietnam Center and Archive, published via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0))




How two women were dangerous thorns in the side of Han Dynasty China from 40-43 CE

Around 40 CE, Governor To Dinh of the Han Dynasty in China discovered that a plot was brewing to undermine his authority in his province of the Chinese-controlled lands in modern northern Vietnam. Dinh received word that multiple native lords in his jurisdiction were meeting in clandestine gatherings, discussing possible resistance to Chinese rule and disruption of Dinh’s policies.
(Map with the approximate boundaries of the Roman Empire (red), Parthian Empire (brown), and Chinese Han Dynasty (yellow) around 1CE, created by Gabagool, via Creative Commons)

The governor’s attention and suspicion eventually settled on a minor Vietnamese lord named Thi Sach. Governor Dinh believed Thi Sach to be the culprit behind the whisperings of insurrection occurring in his province. Some of the abuses that Dinh may have been accused of included steep tax increases on salt and fishing, as well as wide acceptance of bribery, though pro-Han accounts deny any tyranny on the part of the governor.

In an effort to obliterate the group of local dissident lords, Governor Dinh had Thi Sach arrested and executed, though Chinese accounts, again, often omit this event from their records. Whatever the cause, in the year 40, Governor To Dinh enraged the wife of Thi Sach, sparking a rebellion that would challenge the military might of the Han Dyasty.

Thi Sach was married to a woman named Trung Trac, a daughter of another local lord. Trac, along with her younger sister, Nhj, were raised, from childhood, in a military environment. In his execution of Thi Sach, Governor Dihn only stoked the real threat—a woman’s scorn. This woman, however, also turned out to be a very competent military organizer and strategist.


(A statue of the Trung Sisters inside Trung Vuong Emergency Hospital in Saigon, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Trung Trac gathered the members of the dissident group to her banner. Her sister Trung Nhj became a co-ruler alongside Trung Trac, and the various versions of the legend sometimes claim that their mother, too, took up arms in the rebellion. The Trung Sisters were able to raise a large and formidable army. The exact numbers of their force are not known, but the statistic of around 80,000 reappears in multiple accounts. Legend also claims that the Trung Sisters rode upon war elephants—a detail featured in many depictions of the sisters. Despite exaggeration and obscurity of statistics, the sisters had at their disposal an army powerful enough to drive the Han forces out of the Trung homeland, which was located somewhere between Southern China and Northern Vietnam.

The Trung Sisters, apparently just as adept in diplomacy as they were in military maneuvering, were able to expand their influence beyond their homeland, liberating other regions of modern Vietnam from Han control. At the peak of their power, the Trung Sisters had gathered a coalition of 65 hub locations, labeled as cities, citadels or fortresses depending on the source.  The people of these 65 locations proclaimed the Trung Sisters as co-queens of their newly freed country.


(Emperor Guangwu, as depicted by the Tang artist Yan Liben (600–673 AD) in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


All the commotion and disruption in the south caught the ire of the Han Emperor, Guangwu, also spelled Guangwudi, who had been in power since 27 CE. The Trung Sisters may have ousted the provincial forces stationed in their homeland, but now the Han Emperor prepared an official campaign to recapture Vietnam and pacify the region. From the years 41 to 42, troops and supplies were gathered and invasion infrastructure was built. The Chinese readied their men, munitions and rations, and by 43, they attacked the forces of the Trung Queens.

The main general in charge of the Han force that was sent to defeat the Trung Sisters was General Ma Yuan. General Ma’s invasion quickly overwhelmed the defenses of the Trung Sisters. Nevertheless, the fighting was fierce. Extravagant (and likely false) tales of unorthodox battles can be found for both sides of the war. On the Han side, one of the methods that was recorded (but again, likely did not occur) was a military charge carried out in the nude—the soldiers’ nakedness meant to embarrass and demoralize the enemy. For the forces of the Trung Sisters, the story of General Phung Thi Chinh (a woman) is just as absurd. She supposedly rushed into battle while she was pregnant, gave birth mid-battle, and after the baby was delivered into the world of the living, she strapped the newborn behind her shoulders and immediately charged back into the fray, ready to send Han soldiers into the realm of the dead. Despite the determination of people like Phung Thi Chinh on the side of the Trung Sisters, the Han troops relentlessly pressed on through the borderlands and deeper into Vietnamese territory.


(Trung Sisters statue destroyed during coup of Diem government – 1963  Photo by Pete Komada via Creative Commons, published via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0))


By the time the battle lines between the Han and the Trung Sisters had been forced back to somewhere in the vicinity of modern day Hanoi, it was evident that the Chinese would retake the region into their empire. Some Han-aligned accounts of events claim that the Trung Sisters fell in battle, or were executed, but most versions of the story have a different ending. The majority of accounts state that the Trung Sisters took their own lives in a final defiance of Han authority. In some accounts, the sisters simply rose up into the heavens; in most descriptions of their final moments, however, they waded into a lake near Hanoi and drowned themselves in its depths.


(One of the Trung Sisters statue collapsed and destroyed during the coup of the Diem government – 1963,  Photo by Pete Komada, via Creative Commons, published via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0))


The people of Vietnam have not forgotten the events that took place between the years 40 and 43. Shrines have been erected in honor of the Trung Sisters, and there is an annual celebration in Vietnam that commemorates the day of their suicides. Though the Trung Sisters only ruled their small Vietnamese country for 3 years in the 1st century, their names, legend and legacy have endured to guide the Vietnamese imagination and spirit until this day.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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