Trung Sisters Lead Vietnamese Rebellion Against Chinese Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a rebellion against Chinese domination of Vietnam. Although the victory over China was short-lived, the sisters have remained two of Vietnam’s greatest national heroes.

Summary of Event

The rebellion led by Trung Trac and Trung Nhi was the result of a sequence of actions by China. When Vietnam fell under the control of China in 111 b.c.e., China retained the native Vietnamese aristocracy to facilitate administration of its possession. This decision, however, created an enduring hostility between the Vietnamese and Chinese upper classes. Trung Trac Trung Nhi

The conflict between aristocratic classes increased when Wang Mang usurped the throne of China and declared himself emperor in 9 c.e. At that time, many of his opponents took refuge in the Circuit of Chiao Chih (Vietnamese Giao Chi), one of several names that designated Vietnam during its early history. Other early names included Au Lac, Nan Yueh, Chiao Chou, and Annam. Chiao Chih consisted of the northern part of present-day Vietnam (roughly the portion formerly known as North Vietnam) and a portion of what today is southern China. Many of the refugees were scholars who sought employment in local administration. Accommodating the additional positions required increased revenue, which led to increased taxes on salt and iron and land seizures from wealthy Vietnamese, thus setting in motion the economic reasons for the Trung sisters’ rebellion.

At the same time, efforts to force Chinese customs on Vietnamese engendered additional resentment. Men were forced to grow hair, and women were required to wear pants rather than skirts. Confucian moral principles, marriages arranged by parents, and an increasingly patriarchal family system altered social life, and Vietnamese were coerced into accepting Chinese gods in place of their traditional ancestral spirits.

Wang Mang was overthrown in 23 c.e., but the change in leadership did not improve the situation for the Vietnamese. Teng Jang, the governor of Chiao Chih, after supporting restoration of the Han Dynasty, led many Chinese leaders to the emperor’s court to be honored and to enjoy the royal atmosphere. Left behind to administer local government were less qualified men, such as Su Ting (To Dinh), prefect of Giao Chi. (The Circuit of Chiao Chih consisted of several prefectures, including one with the same name as the circuit.) The traditional view of Su Ting is that he was both greedy and incompetent.

Thi Sach, a prominent aristocrat at Chu Dien and husband of Trung Trac, who was from a noble family in Me Linh (near where the Hong River flows out of the mountains, with Chu Dien a short distance downriver), resisted Su Ting. Trung Trac apparently encouraged his resistance. This resulted, according to most accounts, in the prefect’s execution of Thi Sach in 40 c.e. Historian Keith Weller Taylor, however, argues that there is no historical basis for this conclusion and that later chroniclers added the execution to satisfy members of patriarchal societies that would have resisted acknowledging a woman’s leadership of a rebellion with her husband still living.

Historians agree that Trung Trac, aided by her younger sister, Trung Nhi, led the rebellion in 40 c.e. that quickly captured sixty-five Chinese citadels. Trung Trac is described in Vietnamese accounts as a fearless and highly effective leader. One story, probably legend rather than fact, has her killing a tiger and using its skin for a parchment on which to write her call to arms. She also is described as rejecting the traditional mourning attire of a widow in order to reflect a larger commitment to her people. The sisters led an army (described variously as thirty thousand to eighty thousand strong) that quickly overcame the opposition. Su Ting reportedly cut off his hair and beard to hide his identity and fled into China.

Many prominent Vietnamese joined the rebellion. Temples dedicated to Trung Trac cite some fifty leaders who participated, among them many women. Phung Thi Chinh is reported to have led a battle at Tay Vu in Lang Bac Province while pregnant, giving birth during battle and immediately resuming her martial efforts. Le Chan is credited with commanding naval forces and leading a battle on the Bach Dang River. A princess named Thanh Thien is said to have triumphed over a Chinese army of twenty thousand, and one of Trung Trac’s male supporters, seventy-year-old Nguyen Tam Trinh, led his martial arts students into battle. Modern historians, of course, cannot be certain that such accounts are entirely accurate. Regardless of specifics, Trung Trac clearly enjoyed considerable support or she could not have registered the major, if temporary, military success against the Chinese that history acknowledges she achieved.

Trung Trac established a royal court at Me Linh and was recognized as queen, with Trung Nhi constantly by her side. She abolished the hated taxes that had been levied by the Chinese and sought to restore traditional Vietnamese customs. An oath attributed to Trung Trac that still survives in Vietnam indicates the major goals of her rebellion: to gain revenge for wrongs committed against her country and her husband and to restore traditional Vietnamese aristocratic rule in the region.

The Chinese prepared to retaliate in 41 c.e., as the emperor appointed Ma Yüan (Ma Vien), an experienced general, to lead the counterattack. He led an army of eight thousand regular troops and some twelve thousand militiamen from eastern Chiao Chih, hoping to transport his men by boat. Finding insufficient vessels available, he marched his troops across often rough terrain, constructing roads as he went. In the spring of 42, Ma Yüan decided to pause to wait out the rainy season. At that point, Trung Trac, fearing that she would lose many of her forces if she waited longer, attacked. The results were devastating, as thousands of her Vietnamese followers were captured and beheaded, and thousands more surrendered.

Trung Trac retreated to Mount Tan Vien at Me Linh with Ma Yüan in pursuit. What happened next is in some dispute. The traditional account has Trung Trac and Trung Nhi committing suicide by throwing themselves into the Hat Giang River on February 6, 43 c.e., rather than surrendering. That account also has many of their followers, including Phung Thi Chinh and Princess Thanh Thien, following their example by also choosing death rather than being taken by the Chinese. Historian Taylor, who consistently attempts to de-romanticize the story of Trung Trac, asserts that the two sisters were captured by their adversary and beheaded, with their heads sent to the Han court. As with so much of the story, certainty remains elusive.

Significance

The rebellion failed in the short term as China reasserted its rule over Vietnam. However, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi became national heroes. As the centuries progressed, they increasingly were seen as the embodiment of the country’s determination to resist outside domination. They also were enshrined among the nation’s national spirits, and thus their assistance was sought in times of need, such as during floods or drought.

Many temples have been constructed over the years to honor the Trung sisters, two of the most famous being the Hai Ba in Hanoi and the Hat Mon in Son Tay Province. Near Me Linh, the sisters’ home, in Ha Loi village, an annual festival is held on the sixth day of the first lunar month (February 6). The Trung sisters continue to be commemorated in almost every way possible, including poems, plays, postage stamps, statues, and public ceremonies.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergman, Arlene Eisen. Women of Viet Nam. 2d ed. San Francisco: Peoples Press, 1975. This book places the Trung sisters within the context of historical achievements of Vietnamese women and attitudes toward women throughout Vietnamese history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam: From Hong Bang to Tu Duc. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Chapuis discusses the Trung sisters’ rebellion within a scholarly examination of Vietnam from prehistoric times through the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammer, Ellen. Vietnam: Yesterday and Today. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Hammer’s focus is on Vietnamese culture, and her brief account of the Trung sisters is within that context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Keith Weller. The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Taylor explores Vietnamese history through the tenth century and includes an appendix on representations of the Trung sisters in later literature.

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