When Jesus was a year old, someone just as extraordinary was born far away – the eldest Trung sister. Around 1 AD, Trung Trac was born, and a while after – although no one knows exactly when – Trung Nhi, the second sister, was born.
At the time, the Chinese Han dynasty was trying to deepen it’s political and cultural grip on Vietnam, which it had conquered. One of the notable differences between Vietnamese and Chinese culture at the time was that the Vietnamese treatment of women was much more egalitarian. While Chinese Confucian culture was patriarchal and rigid, in Vietnam there were women judges, soldiers, and so on. Women were allowed to to own property and even inherit it.
As previously mentioned, in those years the Chinese tried to tighten their hold on Vietnam. Trung Tac’s husband, one of the most prominent nobles in Vietnam, led a protest against the increase in taxes imposed by the Chinese. The Chinese decided to demonstrate strong leadership and executed him.
According to Chinese norms, Trung Trac should have taken upon herself a life of mourning and celibacy. But Trung Trac wasn’t Chinese, nor was she an ordinary widow. Instead, she decided to gather an army and go out to war against the Chinese occupier.
To win the trust of the Vietnamese people, the sisters performed public acts to prove their courage, determination, and devotion. One of their most famous acts was to fight against a man-eating tiger – and win. After they had killed the tiger, they skinned it – and wrote on it their commitment to the Vietnamese people, if only they would join their army.
Eventually, the sisters enlisted 80,000 soldiers, including many women. The eldest sister appointed herself chief of staff and her younger sister her deputy. From this army, they selected 26 women and trained them to become commanders. The sisters didn’t mind some light nepotism, and one of the women chosen was their mother. After all, what’s the point in having power if you don’t give away some jobs?
The large number of soldiers they enlisted allowed them to enlist something else that was essential to war: elephants. The Chinese army might have been skilled, but who would stand in the way when elephants were flocking?
In the year 40AD, the sisters’ army managed to do the impossible and drive out the Chinese conqueror, after the Chinese ruled Vietnam for 247 years. Trung Trac became the Queen of Southern Vietnam, and her sister became her deputy and substitute. They ruled over an independent Vietnam for three years. It was the first time that Vietnam was independent since ancient times. They abolished Chinese taxes, and established a more egalitarian system of government than was customary under Chinese rule.
Of course, the Chinese weren’t willing to take this offense lying down. Losing the war was one thing, but losing to an army of women? The Chinese emperor sent his most senior general on the mission: the army commander who was married to the emperor’s daughter.
The Chinese general came to Vietnam prepared, backed up with an army, elephants, and a numerical and technological advantage. Still, the sisters managed to last for another three years before eventually being overwhelmed by the Chinese supremacy. Chinese sources claim that the were decapitated, while Vietnamese sources say that they committed suicide before being captured, as per tradition.
During the years following the fall of their kingdom, the Chinese deepened their economic and cultural control of Vietnam. One of the tragic consequences was a huge setback in the status of women in the country.
To this day the sisters are considered national heroes in Vietnam, and their statues adorn many places.
Their importance in the Vietnamese national ethos grew in the 20th century, as their story became a symbol during the Vietnamese battle against French and later American colonialism. Every year in February, a national holiday is celebrated in their memory. They have had a province named after them, as well as schools, streets, and monasteries.
It’s worth mentioning that like too many other women in history, we do not have the sisters side of the story. Their story was preserved from two main sources. One is Chinese and the other Vietnamese, and both were written after their death.