These elephant-riding warrior sisters freed ancient Vietnam from Chinese rule

From atop their war elephants, the Trung sisters ousted China's Han overlords in A.D. 40. They have since become heroic icons to Vietnamese people all over the world.

By Nhung Tuyet Tran
Published 3 Sept 2021, 11:42 BST
embroidery
For nearly 2,000 years, the Trung sisters and their elephants have been popular subjects in Vietnamese art, like this 1999 embroidery from Tam Coc, Vietnam.
Photograph by HALIA TRAN-ADAMS

From the grounds of a modest temple in the suburbs of Hanoi, Vietnam, to the streets of Southern California, Paris, France, and Sydney, Australia, Vietnamese people across four continents celebrate the lives of two women from the first century A.D., the Trung sisters, on their death anniversary every year, the sixth day of the second lunar month. 

Often depicted as mounted on elephants, these two women commanded a successful rebellion against the Han (Chinese) dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) in A.D. 40. To honour these national heroes, Vietnamese peoples, past and present, make offerings and put on parades with colourful elephant floats, waving the flags of the respective national regimes to which they profess allegiance. They reenact the uprising, sometimes with live elephants, to celebrate two women who defied the power of the Han state and defeated them nearly a thousand years before an independent state emerged. These performances remind the participants, their descendants, and audiences of the sisters’ contribution to the country now known as Vietnam. 

A temple to the Trung sisters was erected in their traditional birthplace, Me Linh, northwest of Hanoi in the Red River Delta.
Photograph by ALAMY/ACI

The sisters live on in much more than these ephemeral commemorations of their uprising. Historical sources show that for nearly 2,000 years, the sisters have served as spirit guardians to their homeland, which has called on the Trung sisters in times of need.

Despite dramatically different political allegiances in the present, why do contemporary Vietnamese, at home and in the diaspora, continue to pay homage to the Trung sisters? The answers lie in the country’s long and complex relationship with its neighbours to the north, legacies of foreign intervention, an agonising civil war that split families and dispersed them throughout the world, and a presumed heritage of matrilineal origins, which coalesce to focus collective awe and pride upon two women who lived nearly two millennia ago.

The Sisters Rebel

The historical name for the people who lived in what is now Vietnam is unknown, but many historians refer to them as the Viet. In the first century, the Han dynasty extended into the Red River Delta and the plains to its south, which they called Giao Chi Prefecture. Control of this territory gave them access to the region’s harbours and natural resources while providing an important buffer zone between their empire and that of the Cham polities to the south.

In A.D. 40 Trung Trac, the eldest daughter of a local chieftain, and her sister, Nhi, rallied an army of their fellow aristocrats to protest new taxes imposed by the Han authorities. Riding war elephants, they marched upon the capital of Giao Chi Prefecture, gaining support in more than 65 towns and districts across the Red River Valley. The local Han governor, known in historical sources as having been “cruel and avaricious,” barely had time to escape with his life.

The sisters declared themselves rulers of the land and abolished the governor’s new taxes. The rebellion posed such a threat to Han authority on its southern frontiers that the emperor issued an edict to prepare for war. He sent his best generals, including “Wave Pacifier” Ma Huan and “Tower Ship” Duan Zhi to end it.

(Meet Cixi, the controversial concubine who became queen and led China into the modern age.)

These generals, with the support of the powerful Han state, ordered the districts from southern reaches of the empire to provide “carts and boats, to repair boats and bridges, and to open up waterways, and to replenish grain stockpiles” as part of the war effort. Though they brought with them more than 10,000 soldiers, it still took more than two years to defeat the Trung sisters.

No one knows exactly what happened to the sisters. Some sources suggest that they killed themselves rather than suffer capture by the enemy. Others record that Ma Huan captured and beheaded the sisters and sent their heads to the emperor. He captured and enslaved more than 300 other leaders around the Red River Delta and took them to the Hunan district.

Whatever precisely befell the sisters and their followers, Ma Huan’s victory over the Trung sisters in A.D. 43 also marks a turning point in Han imperial rule in the region. After he quelled the uprising, Ma Huan implemented reforms that brought the territory under direct military rule. For nearly 900 years after that, the Viet lived as subjects of successive Chinese imperial states until they finally gained independence in 939, but the legend of the Trung sisters reminded them of the possibilities.

Genealogies of Greatness

The Trung sisters’ heroic story has deep roots that can be traced back to the central origin myth of the Viet people, one rooted in an inheritance of resistance to foreign aggression and a matrilineal past. Viet historians for centuries have traced the sisters’ lineage through the dynastic kingdoms, through the mythical rulers of their lands, to Shen Nong, a mythological ruler important to Vietnamese and Chinese histories alike.

Vietnamese history, myth, and legend record that Shen Nong had two sons (or grandsons), and though he wanted to bequeath his lands to his more capable younger son, the younger deferred to his older brother. Shen Nong thus gave the elder son control of the northern lands, and sent the younger one to rule over the Lac people of southern coastal lands (in the vicinity of the Red River Delta). 

This natural wonder is known as the “bay of the descending dragon.” Per legend, the Dragon Lord’s tail created these rocky islands as he descended into the waters off the coast of northern Vietnam.
Photograph by THNH CHUNG NGUYN/EYEEM/GETTY IMAGES
The Trung sisters are most often depicted riding war elephants, the largest land mammals on Earth. The Viet have long used elephants—as valued commodities for trade and tribute and as important tools in warfare. One Ly dynasty (1009-1225) emperor even claimed that he was the embodiment of a magical white elephant, making his claim as a universal ruler. Today wild elephants still live in the forests of Vietnam, but their populations are endangered by habitat loss and poach- ing. In the 1990s an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 elephants lived in Vietnam; by 2013 that number was as low as 70. To help reverse the trend, the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area was established in 2017 in Quang Nam with more than 46,000 acres set aside for elephant conservation.
Photograph by THANH NGUYEN/GETTY IMAGES

Kinh Duong Vuong, is recorded in the dynastic chronicles as the first sovereign of the Lac people. He descended to the Palace of the Seas, where he encountered the princess of that realm, and he sired Lac Long Quan the “dragon lord.” Recognising his son’s talent, Kinh Duong Vuong left Lac Long Quan to govern and teach the people to farm and clothe themselves. Once complete, the Dragon Lord returned to the seas.

Meanwhile, a king from the north, seeing that the Lac people were without a ruler, invaded the southern lands. That northern invader king, having no love for the people, travelled the corners of the world in search of riches and left behind his wife, Au Co, a mountain fairy, among the Lac people. The suffering Lac people called to their Dragon Lord to return and save them. Hearing their distress, Lac Long Quan ascended from the seas to protect his people. The invader king retreated back north, where his line, and Shen Nong’s northern lineage, would die out.

(See gorgeous pictures of Vietnam—from above and below.)

Meanwhile, the mountain fairy Au Co fell in love with the magnificent Dragon Lord. Out of the union of the Dragon Lord and Au Co was born a sack of a hundred eggs, which hatched into a hundred healthy, strong sons.

Their union did not last. The Dragon Lord told Au Co, “I come from dragon stock and emerged from the people of the sea; you are of fairy stock and belong to the people of the lands. We cannot live together forever.” The Dragon Lord took 50 sons into the water to govern the seas. Legend has it that when he descended into the waters, his flapping tail created the land formations that make up the magnificent islands of Ha Long Bay today. The remaining 50 sons stayed on the land with their mother and became the Hung kings of the Lac people, from whom the Viet believe they are descended. 

Little Saigon in Orange County, California, is home to a large Vietnamese-American community and a mural that depicts the origin story of Vietnamese people and the union between the Dragon Lord and Mountain Fairy.
Photograph by MADELEINE TRAN

The legend of the Dragon Lord and Mountain Fairy is the founding myth of the Viet people and establishes ancestral origins even more illustrious than that of their Chinese neighbours. It highlights two prominent themes in Vietnam’s history: resistance to foreign aggression and claims of a matrilineal prehistory. Connecting the Trung sisters’ lineage to the mythical Dragon Lord and Au Co transformed them into ancestors of the Viet people, who bequeathed to their descendants this spirit of resistance. How much of the Trung sisters’ story is history, myth, or legend depends who the storytellers were, and the goals they hoped to accomplish.

History and Legends

What has been preserved about the Trung female kings, as they are known in apocryphal, Buddhist, and historical texts, provides hints to their hold on the Vietnamese imagination. The Trung sisters first enter the historical sources four centuries after their short-lived victory when the Chinese historian Fan Ye (398-445) compiled the Historical Records of the Later Han [Dynasty]. He identified the sisters by name and described Trac as “exceedingly heroic and brave,” a phrase generally associated with men. He noted that Trung Trac’s husband was alive at the time of the rebellion, suggesting that he followed the sisters into battle. The possibility that a husband followed his wife into battle has led some scholars to suggest that there was evidence for a matrilineal and a matriarchal past.

Viet historians in later dynasties immortalised the Trung sisters for their bravery and resilience against the Han occupation and for the creation of the short-lived republic. While valorising the sisters’ contributions, they also used them as examples for the relevant lessons of the day. In 1272 Le Van Huu, the court historian of the Tran dynasty (1225-1400), wrote the Trung sisters into the official dynastic histories, as one of the earliest Viet kingdoms, and historians since then have followed suit. Le Van Huu repeated the masculine characteristics for Trac—“exceedingly heroic and brave”—and referred to her as a female king.

Le Van Huu probably used the same sources as Fan Ye did to tell his story, but he wrote for a Viet dynasty that faced foreign threats of its own, so he embellished it with details. Huu reasoned that the Trung sisters ultimately failed because of the strength of the Han forces and the lack of fortitude of their followers who abandoned them because they did not believe that the women warriors could defeat the invaders. To that point, he marvelled that while the sisters could envision an independent republic and inspire the inhabitants of 65 towns to rise up against the Han administrators, for nearly a thousand years, until independence in 939, “the lot of men simply bowed their heads and became the servants of the people to the north.”

In 1479 the Le dynasty (1428-1789) historian Ngo Si Lien, who edited Le Van Huu’s original chronicle, spoke of the sisters’ legacy. Just three years after their defeat, locals built a temple to honour the sisters, and in times of need, they came there to ask for assistance. Even in death, the Trung sisters protected the Viet people.

Court historians like Le Van Huu and Ngo Si Lien manipulated details of the story to project particular visions of gender. Rather than follow Fan Ye’s story that Trac’s husband was alive, these historians claimed that she initiated the uprising to avenge her husband’s death. In doing so, they transformed the “fierce and brave ”Trac into a “virtuous and devoted” wife. Valorising Trac’s wifely virtues also enabled them to condemn men who did not meet expectations of military prowess and bravery. The men who did not, or could not, rise up against foreign invaders could not hold a candle to the warrior sisters.

Photographed in Saigon in 1957, women portray the Trung sisters in the Hai Ba Trung Parade that honors the national heroines.
Photograph by HISTORY/ALAMY IMAGES

Buddhist texts suggest that the Trung sisters and their rebellion played an important role in the local Thien (Zen) community in the 14th century. Around 1379 Le Te Xuyen, a Buddhist official and caretaker of religious texts, compiled a text he called the “Departed Spirits of the Viet Realm.” In it, he told stories of ghosts and spirits who had protected the Vietnamese people, their lands, and the Buddhist world against invaders.

Following the sisters’ deaths in battle, Le Te Xuyen recounts that the local people erected a temple so that they could make offerings to the sisters’ spirits. One year, during a great drought, Emperor Ly Anh Tong (r. 1138-1145) ordered Thien masters to perform rituals to pray for rain; after it came, the king was content. One night, he dreamed of two women dressed in green tunics and red trousers and hats, who rode steel horses and pulled the rains behind them. Responding to his query about who they were, they said: “We are the Trung sisters, and we have responded to your request and have made the rain.” When he awoke, the king ordered the restoration of their temple and made offerings to honour their spirits. The sisters appeared to him again, and he built them another temple and gave them the honorific title “Divine Chaste Ladies.”

In subsequent centuries, emperors added to the Trung sisters’ titles, indicating the lasting legacy of the spirit cult. Other writers confirmed the popularity of the Trung sisters and their cult. In 1492 the Confucian scholar Vu Quynh repeated the details of the Ly emperor’s sighting. Tales such as that of the Trung sisters, Vu Quynh claimed, had not been written “in books, but kept in the hearts of the people and had been inscribed in the tongues of men.”

The sister-in-law and de facto first lady of South Vietnam until 1963, Madame Nhu erected a statue of the Trung sisters to strengthen her ties to their legacy, as shown on a 1963 postage stamp (above, Madame Nhu in the foreground).
Photograph by ALAMY/CORDON PRESS

Vu Quynh was only partly correct, for before and after his writing, many Viet historians inscribed the Trung sisters’ story into the histories of their country. Later writers—from court historians to Catholic priests to nationalist writers and postcolonial scholars—continued to draw on the details of their story as a rallying call to resist foreign aggression.

The practice continued well into the modern era. In the mid-20th century, when the state was separated into the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam and the Republic of (South) Vietnam, and the inhabitants of both countries vied for competing visions of their country’s future, they found common ground in the heroic acts of the Trung sisters. On both sides of the 17th parallel, the demarcation line established in the Geneva Accords in 1954, the sisters’ battle imagery became a favourite artistic motif for propaganda posters, monuments, and postage stamps. When the locals made offerings to the sisters in temples in the Red River Valley, city dwellers in Saigon hosted a parade, complete with live elephants. The de facto first lady of South Vietnam, Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan), erected a statue commemorating the Trung sisters’ contributions and likened herself to them.

After the country was unified in 1975 in the language of the northern regime, or lost, according to those from the south, the Trung sisters have continued to play important roles in the historical imagination. Although Vietnamese people in the diaspora may not necessarily share in the political vision of the current national state, they have found common ground in celebrating an iconic moment in their past, when two sisters defeated the foreign aggressors.

Nhung Tuyet Tran is an associate professor at the University of Toronto specialising in the history of Southeast Asia.

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