5 min read

Excerpt from Girls Who Rocked the World

All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission. Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country.

From atop the elephants that would carry them into battle, the Trung sisters scanned the crowd below them. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers looked up at them with pride and fear in their eyes. Fear because they knew that, in the 150 years since the Chinese had invaded Vietnam, no one had risen up against them; the Chinese had more troops, better weapons, and more sophisticated training. But pride, too, because they were fighting for the freedom of their country, and they were led by the greatest heroines the East would ever know. Trung Trac, the older sister, raised her sword and vowed revenge:

Foremost, I will avenge my country,
Second, I will restore the Hung lineage,
Third, I will avenge the death of my husband,
Lastly, I vow that these goals will be accomplished.

With those words, eighty thousand Vietnamese rushed into battle.

These unlikely warrior sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, were born in a small town in northern Vietnam around 14 ad. Both their father, a powerful Vietnamese lord, and their mother hated the Chinese rulers and weren’t afraid to say so. Ever since China had invaded Vietnam in 111 bc, the Chinese had forced the Vietnamese people to pay outrageous taxes and to give up their culture and traditions. The Trung sisters grew up witnessing the harsh and unfair domination of their people. Even though their father died while the girls were very young, they never forgot his dreams for a free Vietnam.

Their mother, Lady Man Thien, was a strong, unusual woman. In traditional Vietnamese society, women had more rights than women of Asia or Europe. They could inherit property and become political leaders, judges, traders, and warriors. But the Chinese rulers were turning back the clock for women in Vietnam, taking away their freedoms. (Have you heard of foot binding?) Lady Thien defied the Chinese when she chose not to remarry, and instead focused all her energy on training her young daughters in the arts of war: military strategy, martial arts, and sword and bow fighting. She knew the battle was coming.

It is most likely that Trung Trac was just a teenager when she fell in love and married Thi Sách, a young district chief. Together with Trung Nhi, they protested Chinese rule and secretly plotted to overthrow the invaders. Trung Trac was described as having “a brave and fearless disposition,” and Chinese records claim that Thi Sách followed his wife’s decisions, not the other way around. It is thought that the teen sisters were in charge of recruiting Vietnamese lords to fight. When the Chinese governor discovered their plan, he brutally executed Trung Trac’s husband, hanging his body from the city’s gate as a warning to the rebels.

His plan backfired, however. Instead of being cowed, the Trung sisters were so enraged by the murder and growing Chinese injustices that they decided it was time to revolt. They urged their people to be brave and rise up with them. Eighty thousand men and women volunteered for the revolutionary army; most of them were in their twenties! Trung Trac even refused to wear the traditional mourning clothes for her husband so she wouldn’t depress the spirits of her fellow warriors.

From the volunteers, the Trung sisters chose thirty-six women, including their elderly mother, to be generals and help them lead the troops. In 40 ad, after 150 years of Chinese rule, the Trung sisters led their people in the first national rebellion against the invaders. The two sisters were a good balance—Trung Trac was a master planner and Trung Nhi a fearless warrior—and with their untrained army, they miraculously succeeded in freeing sixty-five fortresses the Chinese had captured, driving them out of Vietnam. Stories of Trung Trac and her sister spread quickly, until even the leader of China was shaking in his boots. Historical records state, “A woman proudly led a young nation; Even the Han emperor heard of it and was terrified.”

After this grand success, the Trung sisters created a new nation that stretched from southern Vietnam all the way into southern China. They were elected co-rulers and quickly reversed many of the unfair policies of the Chinese. They worked to create a simpler government that followed traditional Vietnamese values, and they abolished the hated taxes imposed by the invaders. For the next three years, the Trung sisters ruled their newly independent nation while constantly battling against angry Chinese forces.

Unfortunately, Vietnam’s freedom did not last. The Chinese army had more men, weapons, and military experience. In 43 ad, the Trung sisters fought their last battle. Near present-day Hanoi, several thousand Vietnamese soldiers were captured and beheaded by the Chinese, and more than ten thousand were taken prisoner. Rather than surrender and accept defeat, the Trung sisters chose what the Vietnamese consider a more honorable escape: suicide. Some stories say they drowned themselves in a river, while others claim they actually floated up into the clouds.

For the next 950 years, the legend of the Trung sisters encouraged the Vietnamese in their ongoing struggle against the Chinese; many of the rebellions during those dark years were led by women! Their story was passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next until the sisters were actually worshipped as goddesses.

In Vietnam today, there are still constant reminders of the Trung sisters. Stories, poems, songs, plays, posters, monuments, and even postage stamps of the sisters continue to inspire the Vietnamese. In the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, a street is named for them, and many sacred temples have been built in their honor, including the famous Hai Ba (“Two Sisters”) pagoda in Hanoi. The Vietnamese government proclaimed them national heroes, and every year, on Hai Ba Trung Day in March, the people of Vietnam celebrate the Trung sisters’ sacrifices and courage.

For 150 years, no one in Vietnam had garnered the courage to stand up to the Chinese. Not until the Trung sisters rebelled did the Vietnamese people begin to fight for their freedom. The heroic legends of these brave young women have inspired the Vietnamese people for centuries as they struggled to fight off foreign domination. Soldiers carried pictures of them into battle to give them strength. And, thanks to the Trung sisters, Vietnam now has a long history of famous female warriors. Many people believe that if the Trung sisters had not urged their people to rebel against the Chinese, there would be no Vietnam today.

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