(…continued from The Trưng Sisters (Part 3))
During the three-year reign of Trắc and Nhị Trưng, people saw them everywhere. They never stayed in one place for long—always on their elephants and always on the road. Their swords were never sheathed, they were constantly keeping the troops trained and motivated, maintaining connections with all the generals, and maintaining the goodwill of the population.
To allow the people time to recover from the steep harsh taxes that they had been under, the queens did not issue any taxes for the first two years of their reign, which allowed for food stores to be replenished and allowed for the people to adequately feed their families. This, above all was what kept the queens in the hearts and minds of the people, even to this day.
Everywhere they went, the people rallied and poured their support. The young queens could be seen on their elephants riding all over the country, wearing their red robes with gold turbans even though traditions state that a woman who is in the midst of mourning for her deceased husband must wear white from head to foot and refrain from beautifying herself.
White is the color of mourning, but Trắc was too busy to be in mourning. She had a country to protect. As beautiful as she was—and she was a legendary beauty, for the three ensuing years that she was a monarch, she took extra special care with her hair and makeup, and always wore red and gold when she went outside.
When her female generals asked why, she responded immediately: ”I cannot allow my personal feelings to affect our soldiers’ morale. If I keep with traditions and wear white or smear charcoal dust on my face, I cannot maintain the spirit of my troops. I must continue my daily dressing routine. My colors and my outer appearance bolster their spirits. It also affects the enemy and weakens their resolve. Everyone else can follow traditions. I, on the other hand, do not have that luxury.”
(As an aside: Three-fourths of all her generals were women…and in my next posting, I will go into more detail about the more notable women generals and the real reason WHY there were so many female war generals, land Lords, and Monarchs during that time)
The territory was huge, and a great prize to be maintained—or taken. When Tô Định and his men fell, the Trưng sisters took control over the nine regions that the Chinese had split sections to facilitate their governance. Along with their own region, Mê Linh, in present-day Hunan province, this made complete, the ten regions of the Trưng Dynasty.
To understand the scope of what these two courageous women did, take a look at the map below, which shows the regions they had managed to recover from the Chinese during the revolution to reclaim Việt land.
As I stated previously in my last posting about the Trưng sisters, the reason why they were able to do so was not because of the death of a single king in a single kingdom. It was because the scattered Việt kingdoms were a loosely united states of Việt Nam who had in common a spoken and written language, and a common ancestor. They had lived in separate states in relative peace for thousands of years until the Chinese came down and took over.
It was within this chaotic time that the Việt Lạc organized the revolt, headed by the Trưng sisters. Of course, this was a few regions short of what it used to be under the ancient Hùng kings, but it was as close as it ever got again, to the original Xích Quỉ region of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ of ancient times.
Orange text denotes the ancient names as they were known. Green text denotes the name as they are known to the Vietnamese today. Black bold text denotes how they are phonetically anglicized.
These ten regions are:
1. Nam Hải (Quảng Đông) – present-day Guangdong
2. Thương Ngô (Quảng Tây) – present-day Guangxi
3. Uất Lâm (Quảng Tây) – present-day Guangxi
4. Hợp Phố (Quảng Châu) – present-day Guangzhou
5. Giao Chỉ (Bắc Việt Nam) – present-day Jiaozhi
6. Cửu Chân (Vân Nam xuống Thanh Hoá) – present-day Yunnan, down to Thanh Hoa, Việt Nam
7. Nhật Nam (Nghệ An) – present-day North Việt Nam
8. Châu Nhai (Hải Nam Island) – present-day Hainan
9. Đạm Nhĩ (Đam Châu of Hải Nam Island) – present-day Hainan
10. Mê Linh (Hồ Nam) – present-day Hunan
The Trump Card
But it is one thing to regain an empire—and another to retain it. The Chinese to the north had a final trump card they pulled out of retirement, just for this specific duty. It was to be one of his major crowning achievements.
So that it was, on an early spring morning, some time within the first month of the brand new year of the tiger, 42 AD, the Chinese came calling on the Trưng sisters at their capitol citadel of Mê Linh, located in current-day Changsha, Hunan, China. The name on the calling card was one famous Chinese figure, General Mã Viện (馬援) Ma Yuan.
General Mã Viện was a highly skilled warrior. He had won many battles for the Chinese emperor and was, in fact, 62 years old and enjoying his well-earned retirement. Mã Viện had to be called out of retirement because, frankly, he was the very best they had, and the Chinese Emperor knew that nothing but the best would regain his lost southern territories.
The history books state that the Trưng sisters had a force of 10,000 fighters. General Mã Viện had roughly about 30,000 foot soldiers and 5,000 naval troops with 20 ocean-worthy vessels, each carrying around two or three-hundred naval troops. Her troops knew the territory well and since they were on familiar terrain, they could defend themselves well, but he had the coastal areas. By this time Phúc Kiến (福建) Fujian had already fallen into the hands of the Chinese, and the sea route belonged to Mã Viện.
It took one full year, from the time Mã Viện was given the order in 42 AD, to move his troops into position to the first battle in 43 AD, but it was a year well-spent. General Mã Viện was highly skilled, with decades of war strategies behind him and a massive number of troops allotted to his cause. Add to that the ocean vessels of naval troops and he was a megalithic force to be dealt with.
The Trưng sisters had NO sea vessels. All they had were land troops, and this would prove to be their falling grace. His strategy was to attack from the front AND the rear, using his navy fleet to prevent the queens’ troops from retreating. It was a spectacularly successful strategy.
Still, the queens were not ones to be cowered. They rallied their troops, and along with their fierce female generals, they charged into battle with fearless ferocity. Their famous war cry, echoing in every town, every hamlet, every city, accompanied by the echoing sound of the famous Đông Sơn bronze drums, was thus:
Một xin rửa sạch nước thù, First, to wash away the enemy
Hai xin dựng lại nghiệp xưa họ Hùng, Second, to rebuild the might of ancient Hùng Dynasty
Ba kêu oan ức lòng chồng, Third, crying for revenge of husband’s soul
Bốn xin vẻn vẹn sở công lệnh này. Fourth, to complete the mission of this order
The first battle was in Lãng Bạc, which is present-day Hồ Tây, or East Lake. It was at this great battle that the young queens lost 5,000 troops to hand-to-hand combat, plus 10,000 more were taken as prisoners-of-war. They also lost six or seven female generals of high note.
The first battle lost, the queens pulled back to Thạch Thất in the area of Cấm Khê (Kim Khê, in Guanxi). Here, another huge battle ensued, whereby the queens lost again. And again, they had to make a retreat, but along the way, a horrible tragedy occurred.
The queens were surrounded on all sides. With nowhere to run, they fought until they were down to a handful of warriors. They were staring at death in the face, cornered on all sides by blood thirsty warriors who were moving in for the kill.
In a last ditch effort, Nhị Trưng told her older sister, Trắc Trưng to make a run for the capitol, and that she would hold the line to allow for Trắc’s escape. She knew that they both could not run together. One of them would have to maintain the line for the other to make it back to the fortified citadel that was their capitol.
As she stood there, bravely fighting the horde of Chinese warriors, Nhị knew that as long as her sister Trưng could make it out of that battle ground alive, they would have a chance. The people could rally around a single monarch just as well as two. She hoped and prayed for her sister’s safety, partly because of her great love for her twin, and partly because of her desperate yearning to retain the land that was her native home.
It was a bitter, desperate fight. For her, there was to be no other ending. Nhị was a very highly skilled martial artist and weapons master, but her small group of solders were getting smaller, and there was just so many Chinese warriors. So very many.
But she kept fighting.
She kept fighting and fighting and fighting until she alone, stood on the battle ground, surrounded by Chinese warriors. She was a pool of red silk swinging a silver blade in all directions.
The end came swiftly.
Overwhelmed, she fell at last, to the hands of the Chinese warriors. They beheaded her and took their prize to be presented to the Chinese Emperor as a sign of victory.
Meanwhile, Trắc was having her own problems. No sooner had she fled past the group of warriors from that battle, whereupon she ran straight into the naval force that was waiting at the rear.
There was nowhere to go.
They were surrounded.
The fighting became intense. The small group of warriors she had remaining desperately tried to defend their queen. They fought valiantly, but in the end, one by one, they each fell to the enemy’s blades.
Trắc knew there was no way out. She also knew that she did not want to be beheaded and sent back to the Emperor.
In a last ditch attempt to cheat the Chinese warriors of their last prize, she threw herself down the cliff into the Hát River.
Thus ended the legend of the Trưng sisters over two-thousand years ago. They went out in a blaze of glory, fighting with everything they had until the very end.
But death is not the end. Nor is it the worst thing that can possibly happen.
The Trưng sisters are still remembered to this day. Every year on the anniversary of their death, the people still come to their shrines and pray and remember and give thanks for their ultimate sacrifice. To this day, they hold Trưng sisters parades and plays and commemorative reenactments. To this day, the children still learn about them and sing songs about their heroic deeds. To this day, every single city in Việt Nam has boulevards and buildings and parks and schools and libraries named after them.
That is not death—that is immortality.
5 thoughts on “The Trưng Sisters (Part 4)”
Very interesting read. However I have heard this story very differently. Most likely this account is accurate but from what I remember being told to me, the Trung sisters bravely fought against Ma Vien and won many of the battles.
Ma Vien being embarrassed to return to the Emperor with the news of being defeated by women devised a plan to make his soldiers run into battle naked. In doing so this would bring shame towards the Sisters and their female army.
With this shame they fled and sacrificed their lives by jumping into the well or river and drowning themselves. From legend, Ma Vien returned to the Emperor expecting to be praised with gifts and women, but upon hearing that he has to resort to getting his men naked to win the battle brought shame not only to the Emperor but to all of China. The Emperor threw him out and discharged him without any reward.
There was also a legend about a female soldier who actually fought with a baby in one hand and a sword in the other. Legend says that when the Trung sisters sacrificed themselves and the war was at an end, this female soldier actually kept fighting and charged directly into the enemy’s lines and killed as much as possible before ending the baby and her life.
This is most likely a child’s story told to make Vietnam look brave. It’s the first time I have heard of this actual account of the end of the Trung sisters. It makes more sense and seems more accurate. All in all, although Ma Vien won, the Trung sisters show that Vietnam would never give into Han rule. These sisters gave rise to many brave heroes who also had the agenda to free themselves from the tyranny and oppression of China.
Hi Peaceful Viet
While the version you told me sounds incredibly interesting, I find it hard to believe that two war-hardened women (one of whom had already been married) who have seen far far worse on the battle field than naked men would turn and run away (much less kill themselves) over the sight of a bunch of guys with no clothes. In fact, that would probably cause them to laugh out loud and make them goad their army even more—at least it would me. I mean…just how scary could a bunch of guys with their parts hanging out look? Most probably hilarious! 😀
I truly dug through many various historical writings of the legend of the two Trưng sisters from both sides of the historical retellings (Vietnamese and Chinese) and that was how I came up with what I feel is as close to what actually happened. One of the critical aspects of that war was the fact that the Chinese had fought and won the kingdom of Phúc Kiến (Fujian), off the coast above the kingdom of Quãng Đông (Guangdong). This allowed them to bring a naval fleet down the coast and they were able to attack the sisters’ army from two sides at once (north and south). The sisters’ army literally had nowhere to retreat to, and that was a big part of the reason for their loss.
The legend about the woman who fought with her baby, I also found in one of the ancient historical accounts. I did not add it here because she was one of the great generals and deserved her own story, which I was going to write, after I had written about Bà Triệu (no I hadn’t forgotten about her).
Once again, thank you for your thoughts on this.
I really enjoyed your retelling of the Tru’ng Sisters. I am an artist working in the community and with permission from the Australian Vietnamese Womens Assoc in Melbourne I am going to work with the young people to mount a performance of the Tru’ng Sisters. I am in the research phase and like you have been searching through everything I can find and interviewing people with their versions of the story. I would love to be able to use your story as part of my research to work with the young people and I’m writing to ask your permission.
Please feel free to use what you are able to, of my research and translations of ancient texts. And do update me on your project. Best of luck with your endeavor.
Thanks so much and yes I will keep you updated on the project.