Women’s History month 4: Hell hath no fury, like the Trung Sisters.

“Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d”

  • William Congreve. The Mounring Bride. 1697.

Hi folks welcome to this week’s Tales of History and Imagination. I am taking a bit of liberty with the opening quote a little this week – which if you are wondering is the actual quote we generally get “Hell hath no fury…” from. Congreve, if we have any bibliophiles out there makes great reading, though to date I haven’t read or seen The Mouning Bride …yet (he was a playwright) – but Love for Love, and The Way of the World are entertaining. Today’s blog is not so much about a scorned lover as a vengeful widow… and no, I’m not doing Olga of Kiev…. everyone does Olga. Today I want to look at the tale of the Trung sisters – who briefly saved Vietnam from the yoke of a cruel dictatorship.

If you were to view a map of the world in the second century BC you would see all kinds of borders, and countries which have long since faded into obscurity. If you were casting your eye over a map of South East Asia you would notice a sizeable land known as the Nanyue Kingdom. Made up of most of modern day Vietnam, and the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, the Nanyue kingdom was a prosperous land, with it’s own language, culture and traditions. It drew a great deal of wealth from the Red River Delta, and it’s goods sold as far away as markets barely understood in the East at the time like Rome. To the north of the Nanyue there was a rising empire, hungry to expand, and make the most of their neighbours’ spoils – The Han Dynasty in China, at the time most of the way through their second decade – having taken over from the Qin. For decades tensions simmered between the two kingdoms till, in 111BC Emperor Han Wudi ordered six of his armies down the Xi River to assimilate or destroy the Nanyue Kingdom. Under the leadership of Generals Lu Bode and Yang Pu the Han crushed the Nanyue Kingdom, over time extending out past their main centres into the remote villages. They set up 9 commanderies to administer the land, 3 of those established in what is now Vietnam. The Chinese records paint a picture of a liberating army, bringing civilisation to the kingdom. The Vietnamese saw them as cruel, violent overlords with a message of assimilate or die.

In 40 AD, while far spread, there were still enclaves of Vietnamese culture in remote villages. In one such village lived a soldier referred to in the writings as General Lac. The general had two daughters, Trung Trac, and Trung Nhi. The older sister, Trac had fallen in love with the son of the General’s closest friend, the village doctor – the son an up and coming leader called Thi Sach. With both families blessings the two married. While the tales of the Trung sisters do mention both sisters had grown up around a dad who had taught them how to fight, and to lead an army, there is nothing in the tales that states they were engaged in any resistance against the Han before 40 AD. This was the year things changed however, the Han were at the village, they would say to bring, language, and laws, and irrigation. The Vietnamese would say to bring death and slavery. Thi Sach would do his best to raise an army to resist them, but was caught and executed. This was when a mourning bride, Trung Trac, would avenge her husband, and start a revolution in the process.

in 40 AD, still in mounring for her husband, Trac and her sister Nhi would gather a small army, and using all the lessons learned from General Lac, decisevly crush the soldiers sent in to run the village. Women left similarly bareft in four other neighbouring villages soon joined their army. A highly competent army went from town to town, village to village, deposing the Han invaders. The army, composed mainly of women – many widowed by the Han invasions- picked up in number as it went. At it’s height the army was said to be 80,000 strong, led by 36 female generals. In 65 major battles they reclaimed 65 fortresses from the Han, sending what was left of the occupiers scattering back over the border to China. The speed of this must have been remarkable as Vietnamese records state this took not years, but months. After 71 years of occupation the Nanyue Kingdom was again free, united for a time under Queen Trung (Trac). The kingdom would only last for three years.

In the complete annals of Dai Viet, in a section not written till 1479, a chronicler wrote

“Queen Trung reigned for three years. The queen was strong and intelligent… and established a kin gdom…. but as a female ruler could not rebuild the state.” It was clear that the sisters were in the process of rebuilding, they had set up a new capital at Me Linh, now a rural district of Hanoi. There is precious little to make my way through from numerous write ups on the net, apparently very scant detail in the primary sources for that matter, but it does seem that – after the ladies had proven just how formiddable they were in liberating the kingdom, they found misogyny a much harder foe to defeat….. well that, and the Han were not done yet. in 42 AD they sent another army, headed by General Ma Yuan, to recapture the kingdom. In 43 they reached Me Linh, and the Trung sisters, looking to their now, mostly male army for support, found themselves largely deserted. They fell back to the Jin River to regroup, but were soon decisively defeated by the Han. Why did the men scatter, leaving them to the mercy of the Han? Despite past evidence to the contrary, they believed the Trung sisters did not stand a chance.

There are many conflicting tales as to what specifically happened to the sisters. Some accounts have them perishing in battle, others state they were captured, then beheaded. A third, more fanciful claim is they jumped into the river and drowned, their bodies washing up down river where they had mysteriously turned to statues. These same statues are now said to reside in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung Temple.

Though there is so very little primary source material in this tale, there is so much could be taken from the tale of the Trung sisters. Hell hath no fury really is the least of it, this is a tale of the potent power of a combination of passion, expertise and diversity, and the deadly risks of letting outmoded ways creep back in. It is also proof positive of the slogan on posters all across New Zealand schools in the 1980s when I was still in primary schools “Girls Can Do Anything” Vietnam would not see any significant self determination till the 12th century.

Thanks folks for tuning in for my weekly ‘Women’s History Month’ blogs.

Originally posted 26th March 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

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