The Trung Sisters: Double Trouble?

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Map of China and Vietnam and the connection through Red River Delta By Kmusser CC BY-SA 3.0 Once upon a time, in the land of the “ascending dragon” (Fun Fact #1: the shape of Vietnam on the map resembles that of a dragon, hence the name!), there lived the Trung (pronounced Tchung) twin Sisters: Trung Trac and Trung Nhi - who led the resistance against the first Chinese domination of Vietnam in 40 CE, and ruled the country for three years (Osborne, 1970, p.9). They were famous for their success in the first battle and being women that led an army in a time where the female voice was hardly heard - hence they were one of the most impactful military leaders of early Vietnam. However, some may argue that their importance has been overplayed as the sisters were ultimately defeated in the second battle against Chinese General Ma Yuan in 43 CE (Osborne, 1970, p.10).

An artist impression depicting the Trung Sisters by Unknown Artist

Thus, the big question remains: were they truly significant at that time to be considered as national heroines?

Political and Cultural Significance At that time, the Chinese rule in Vietnam was growing and Thi Sach - the husband of Trung Trac - wanted to make a stand against them. After Thi Sách was executed - as a warning to those who contemplated on a revolt against the Chinese, his death impelled Trưng Trắc to take up his unfinished plans of rebellion and the insurrection began spreading in the span of a few months. And hence, in the early 40 CE, the Trung sisters began their rebellion against the Hans. After months of plotting by the Trung sisters and their generals, the people gained confidence in their insurrection leading to the uprising that first started in the Red River Delta, which then spread to other sixty-five towns and settlements. They became queens regnant of Vietnam and managed to resist succeeding attacks by the Hans for over three years before finally succumbing under Chinese General Ma Yuan in 43 CE.

Through the upheavals and revolutions in Vietnam, the Trưng Sisters were still highly respected for their courage by their people in Vietnam, as they were the first to lead the resistance against the Hans after centuries of domination. The Trung Sisters gained iconic status and were deemed as exemplary heroines of Vietnamese anti-colonialism struggle against the French. Many notable temples, schools and major cities that were erected were dedicated and named after them for their bravery. A district in Hanoi called the Hai Ba Trung district is also named after them.

Hai Ba Temple, courtesy of chickhistory.org

They are often depicted riding on elephants into battle!

Trung Sisters of Vietnam by Orkideh84

Gender Role Significance In a time when most cultures saw women as second class citizens, Vietnam was more forward than most, functioning under a matriarchal system where women were allowed to be judges, soldiers and even rulers. The Trung sisters played a significant role in maintaining this facet of the Vietnamese identity when the Chinese took over. The Chinese functioned under Confucian patriarchy, expecting Trung Trac to go into seclusive mourning after they executed her husband. However she did the opposite - shocking the Chinese and inspired the Vietnamese. She and her sister instead went into revolt against them, with a 80 000 strong army that consisted of many female officers. Their success in the first revolt inspired many and prevented the extinction of the more equal gendered system in Vietnam. It etched in the hearts of Vietnamese the power of a woman, and so their contribution to the empowerment of women is commemorated till today.

Heroines or Hell hath Fury? However, some historians looked down on the sisters’ roles in the revolt against the Chinese and argued that their sole purpose was of a personal one - merely that of spousal piety, in order to avenge the death of her husband. Thus, they questioned if the sisters were truly sincere in their political means to help Vietnam. Secondly, some Vietnamese writers at that time were unwilling to honour the concept of women as warriors, especially because of the rise of Confucianism and its emphasis on patriarchy (pp. 20-26). Hence, in order to undermine the significance of the sisters’ role, they blamed the sisters for the failure of the revolt under Ma Yuan. They argued that the Vietnamese rebels fled upon seeing the superior army of Ma Yuan and comparing with their leaders who were women.

"All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission; Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country." (p. 179) This poem may seem to paint a positive picture but given the context at that time - it reflected the disgust of the contemporary elite that women had to take up the roles of men and as expected, failed at the task that was supposed to be the domain of men.

The Final Verdict: Double Trouble or Double the Excitement? To bring the tale of the Trung twins to a close, though naysayers claim the sisters were not worth being revered - either because of their failure against Ma Yuan in 43 CE or that they were motivated by a personal vendetta - we still strongly believe that the Trung Sisters were pivotal figures of change in Vietnam, at a time of conflict. Their bravery and tenacity went on to inspire many nationalist movements to fight for the freedom of Vietnam and ensured the position of women. Thus, their contributions came in the form of fueling the Vietnamese spirit - and this had a huge influence in the modern Vietnam. The fact that this is acknowledged yearly with a national holiday dedicated to these national heroines, and parades and temples in their names till this day 20 centuries later, is evidence of their influence and impact in helping to shape modern Vietnam.

Fun Fact #2: What happened to the Trung Sisters, you may ask? Apparently, they committed suicide in the river after the loss to preserve their dignity. However, Chinese sources claim that there was no evidence of their suicide and even went as far as to suggest a beheading of the sisters with their heads present to the Han Emperor... hmmmm...

The suicide of the Trung Sisters, courtesy of ancient-origins.net