Long before women revolutionaries like Joan of Arc and Catherine of Aragon, two high-born Vietnamese sisters rallied their people in order to fight against oppression. Known simply as the Trung sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi raised an army and went to battle in order to protect their ancestral homeland in the year 43 AD.
In the 2,000 years since their deaths, the legend of the Trung sisters has come to represent Vietnamese nationalism—and a rare moment in which two young women ruled an independent nation pushing back against colonial repression.
A Childhood Filled with Privilege
Sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi had led charmed lives before the violence that led them to organize their people. As daughters of the general who ran the district of Giao Chi (in present-day northern Vietnam), the sisters were tutored in literature and studied martial arts alongside their father.
When the Han Chinese first invaded the area now known as Vietnam in 111 BC, they immediately installed several local rulers to act as conduits for Chinese interests. Among those local leaders was the Trung sisters’ father—who, like several of the other installed rulers, did manage to push back against the Chinese on occasion in order to protect the interests of the local people.
Southeast Asian society at the time was quite progressive when it came to women’s rights, especially when regarding educational access and property ownership. “It was a society where women had a lot of rights,” says Keith Taylor, a professor of Sino-Vietnamese cultural studies at Cornell University. “From what we can tell from society at that time, women did have a very high status. People inherited property, and their social position, and a lot of other rights through their mothers and their 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 increased taxes on salt and began demanding bribes from local Vietnamese officials, Thi Sach began to organize his fellow aristocrats to rebel against these measures. “It had reached the point where Han people were trying to take authority away from this aristocratic group,” says Taylor. “So this aristocratic class of chieftains and overlords were trying to prevent the Han...from taking that power and control...away from them.”
While Trung Trac is believed by some to have been an integral force in assisting her husband, he was the only one the Chinese captured and executed without trial.
A Call to Revolution
After her husband’s death, Trung Trac, alongside her sister Trung Nhi, began to mobilize local people—both landlords and working farmers—to continue fighting against Chinese rule. To motivate the newly assembled troops before battle, Trung Trac was also believed to have written long patriotic poems that called on them to avenge the life of her husband.
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“There were different chieftains who brought their people into the army,” says Taylor. “Oftentimes the chieftain had some kind of obligation to provide soldiers when needed.” The newly formed army would eventually number about 80,000 soldiers who hailed from both the peasantry and the aristocracy. The battalion was also led by 36 women generals, one of whom was reportedly the Trung sisters’ elderly mother.
Armed with swords, bows and arrows, axes and spears, the Trung sisters and their army stormed 65 Chinese-run citadels and the governor’s home, successfully forcing the Chinese leader out of the region.
A Brief but Memorable Reign
After successfully driving the Chinese out, Trưng Trắc was declared queen of a newly created independent country in the formerly occupied region, and ran it alongside her sister. “For two years they were more or less in charge there; they've been considered to be queens,” says Taylor, noting that they ruled their nation with little interference from others.
Everything would change in 41 AD, when Han emperor Guang Wu Di became determined to recapture Vietnam for his empire. Guang sent his general Ma Yuan and his troops south in order to overthrow the Trung sisters. Unlike their earlier battle, the sisters were unprepared to stave off Chinese forces and began losing many of their aristocratic supporters. The pair were defeated in 43 AD, near the site of what is now known as the city of Hanoi.
Two Legends are Born
What happened after the Trung sisters and their army were defeated remains a topic of debate. “According to some stories written a little bit later, they actually drown themselves in a river, rather than be captured,” says Taylor. “But the historical record indicates that they were actually captured.” The sisters were then executed by the Han army.
The legend of the Trung sisters began to grow shortly after their deaths, with many poets and writers creating legends around their bravery, patriotism and beauty. As one 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 bowed their heads in submission. Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country,” one verse read.
Several temples and shrines honoring their memories were also erected throughout Vietnam. “The first mentions of the Trung sisters were in the temples that were raised to venerate them,” says Taylor. Later on in the 11th century, the sisters began to be considered bringers of rain meaning that worshippers believed that praying to them in times of drought would bring much-needed water.
The story of the Trung sisters, who fought and eventually 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 tale of two sisters who managed to mobilize an army and protect their land and culture was one that immediately struck a chord because it marked a time when Southeast Asia was ruled by its own people and was free from colonial interference.
The defeat of the Trung sisters “led to the first definitive establishment of Han administrative control,” says Taylor. “It was the beginning of the very strong influence that affected every aspect of the life of the people.”
Today, the Trung sisters are celebrated each year in Vietnam on the anniversary of their deaths in honor of their courage and sacrifice. Often depicted riding on elephants into battle, they have been commemorated on postage stamps, in statues and in portraits as the essence of Vietnamese resistance.