According to legend as retold in Lê Ngô Cát and Phạm Đình Toái’s Đại Nam quốc-sử diễn ca (“Poetic History of Dai Nam,” i.e. Vietnam, 1860-1865):
Bà Trưng quê ở châu Phong
Giận người tham bạo, thù chồng chẳng quên
Chị em nặng một lời nguyền
Phất cờ nương-tử thay quyền tướng-quân…
Queen Trưng, a native of Phong-châu,
Outraged by a tyran and remembering her husband’s fate,
Swore an oath with her sister Trưng Nhị
And raised their women’s colors to take the place of generals…
In four short verses, the authors have succinctly given us the background of the first rebellion against the Chinese domination in Vietnam that started in 111 B.C., exactly one century and a half before. But since they were men formed in the Confucian mold, the authors could not resist their male chauvinist bias that presupposed that only (male) generals could lead troops into war.
But the Trưng sisters, as will be clear soon, were not the exception in ancient Vietnam for after their defeat in 43 CE, Ma Yuan, dubbed “the Subduer of the Waves,” reported to the Han Court in China that “Viet law and Han law differ on more than ten matters.” For that reason he asked that he be allowed “to clarify the ancient [legal] system [of China] so as to confine them [i.e. the Vietnamese, within the Han legal framework]. From then on, the Lạc Việt followed the ancient [laws imposed by] General Ma.” (Hou Han shu, vol. 54, page 8b)
Viet adat and Chinese Han laws
What the Hou Han shu quoting Ma Yuan refers to as “Viet law” was most likely ancient Viet customary laws, known as adat in Indonesian law, i.e. unwritten laws but sets of behavior agreed to by everyone in a community. Nowhere have I seen a thorough analysis of the reported differences between Viet adat at the time of the Trưng sisters (beginning of the common era) and their contemporary Han laws.(1) So let me venture then a hypothesis as to what these differences may have been.
First of all, the main difference between them may have been a big difference in social structure. While Han society was a fundamentally patriarchal society Viet society at the time was a fundamentally matriarchal system where it was not important to know the paternity of the children as long as the children recognize a common mother. This is reflected to this day where in Vietnam, the given name is more important than the family name: Very unlike the Chinese, I am “Mr. Bich,” not “Mr. Nguyen.” The Chinese, when they came to Vietnam, were so frustrated by this that they imposed on the Vietnamese Chinese family names—which explains why most if not all the Vietnamese family names actually were imports from China.
Secondly, like in ancient Thai society, marriage was an affair of the heart, not of family alliances decided by the parents (“môn đăng hộ đối” as later on in Vietnamese high society). At the time of the Trưng sisters, the ancient Viets most likely would have spring festivals at the beginning of the year in which young people are free to mingle and meet, somewhat like in the “love marts” that one still encounters in Sapa nowadays. If they liked each other they were free to take themselves into the fields or into caves and make love. If the girl becomes pregnant the boy is supposed to get back and marry her. If the girl does not conceive, then next year she is free to consort with another (or the same boy) and so on and so forth.
Thirdly, as in the Levirate system in ancient Israel or as in some parts of India nowadays, a woman gets married into a family. She would be the wife of the first-born son. Should her husband die (in battle or in the woods, eaten by tigers, for instance), the next-born would become her husband. In this way, the children are always guaranteed to have a male and a female authority figures in the home. Hence, the saying: “Mất cha còn chú, mất mẹ bú dì” (“Should the father die, there’s still the uncle / Should the mother dies, one can still be breastfed by her sister”).
Fourthly, because of the importance of the mother in such a system, she is responsible for the raising of the children. If a child does something wrong it is the mother who is held responsible. Thus the proverb: “Con hư tại mẹ, cháu hư tại bà” (“A spoiled child is attributable to the mother or grandmother”). Also and even more importantly, this saying has the force of law: “Con dại, cái mang” (“If a child does wrong, it’s the mother who bears responsibility”).
Fifthly, as a social unit a household (the Vietnamese word for “clan,” họ, is actually a derivative from hộ, “a household”) was more important than a genetically defined family, especially a nuclear family in the western conception, through the father’s line. This makes a lot more sense even statistically as it is still taken into consideration and done in present-day U.S. censuses.
Sixthly, weddings were a much simpler affair that nowadays, after the Vietnamese have been influenced by the Chinese ideas. If a boy and a girl have fallen in love, they would arrange for the boy to come and steal her from her family, most likely at night. So no big wedding or anything like that. (It is a bit like the Roman story of the “rape of the Sabines.”) After a while, this state of affair would be regularized and the man is accepted as a son-in-law into the girl’s family.
Seventhly, once a boy has married into the girl’s family he would have to “earn” her by services rendered to her family. This custom is called ở rể in Vietnamese (literally, “to live in as a son-in-law”). He would, for instance, follow the girl’s father to the field everyday and help the latter with his chores, or go and seek firewood in the forests, etc.
Eighthly, going beyond the family structures, Ma Yuan broke up the traditional elite of the ancient Viets. As the Trưng Sisters relied essentially on the Lạc-hầu Lạc-tướng (local chieftains) system in place inherited from the Hùng-vương era to carry out their hugely successful rebellion, Ma Yuan was merciless in destroying that system. After putting down the rebellion (in the process killing a great many of its leaders), Ma Yuan even after the last campaign in Cửu Chân (the southernmost province) was said to have taken over 300 of the rebellion’s leaders back to the Han capital (Hou Han shu, vol. 1 part 2, page 11b). The eradication campaign was so thorough that after it there was no longer any mention of any Lạc-hầu or Lạc-tướng in Vietnamese history.
Ninthly, not only did Ma Yuan do away with an entire elite of the country, he also asked for the permission to split up their realms (or fiefs), especially the larger ones into smaller, more manageable units, now called “districts” (huyện, or xian in Chinese), i.e. Chinese administrative units. For instance, Tây Vu, “which consisted of 32,000 households, with its frontiers over a thousand li from its principal town,” was subsequently divided into two xian, to wit Phong Khê and Vọng Hải, to which the Han emperor agreed.” (Hou Han shu, “Ma Yuan biography,” vol. 54, page 8b. See also Shui-jing zhu, vol. 37, page 6a)
Tenthly, to eliminate all traces of the Lạc-hầu and Lạc-tướng’s authority, Ma Yuan had all the bronze drums—the symbols of ancient Viet leadership since at least the fifth century BCE—confiscated and smelt down to make a huge, solid “model bronze horse which he presented to the [Han] emperor.” (Hou Han shu, vol. 54, page 8b, and Hou Han ji, vol. 7, page 18b) According to these sources, this model bronze horse measured 3 xích and 5 thốn (roughly 1.5 meter) high with a body measuring 4 xích (roughly 1.7 meter) round.
There is no guarantee that my hypothesis is correct in every instance but it can be presumed that the ten points of difference mentioned above must have corresponded to some of the major changes that Ma Yuan brought to Vietnam. This means that the Trưng Sisters’ rebellion was not merely a military conflict but also a clash of civilizations, to borrow a modern description from Samuel Huntington.
Defeated but Unconquered
Accounts of the Trưng Sisters’ rebellion and their short reign include:
Not quite contemporary accounts but relatively close to that time given in Chinese sources like the Hou Han shu (445 CE), Shui-jing zhu (before 527 CE).
The first official history of Vietnam, Đại-Việt sử-ký (1272) written by Lê Văn Hưu (thirteenth century).
The Việt-sử lược (late 13th century) by an anonymous author.
The Annan zhilue / An-nam chí-lược by Lê Tắc (late 13th century, printed 1340).
The Annan zhiyuan by Gao Xiung-zheng (Cao Hùng Trưng), an early Ming author (mid-15th century).
The Đại-Việt sử-ký toàn-thư (1479) by Ngô Sĩ Liên.
The Thiên-Nam ngữ-lục (1685-1697?) by a courtier at the Trịnh Lords’ Court.
The Khâm-định Việt-sử Thông-giám Cương mục (compiled in 1856-59, printed in 1884).
And the Đại-Nam quốc-sử diễn ca (“National History of Đại-Nam Put Into Verses”) by Lê Ngô Cát (1860), revised by Phạm Đình Toái (1865), among others.
As one studies these sources it is easy to notice two trends, both harmful to history:
One is to try to get history to conform to the Confucian training of the historians of monarchical Vietnam, formed in the tradition of the Four Books and Five Classics (Tứ Thư-Ngũ Kinh) – which is just as nonsensical as the more recent attempts by the Marxist historians of Hanoi to make history conform with Marx and Engels’ version of history (based on class struggle and also on a modern version of male chauvinism).
And the other is to embellish what is already a beautiful history into a legend which grows further and further from the truth.
For instance, when Lê Ngô Cát concluded his section on the Trưng sisters with the two verses:
Trưng-vương vắng mặt còn ai?
Đi về thay đổi, mặc người Hán-quan!
With the Trưng Queens gone, who is there left?
One could only see Han mandarins taking turns in ruling our land.
Tự Đức (reigned 1847-1883) was incensed and remarked: “How can you be so flattering to women? Do you mean that there were no heroes left in our country at the time?”
Then when he read the section on Lady Triệu (248 CE) by Lê Ngô Cát:
Vú dài ba thước vắt lưng,
Cỡi voi, gióng trống trong rừng kéo ra.
Cũng toan gánh vác sơn hà
Cho Ngô biết mặt đàn bà nước Nam!
Throwing her 3-thước breasts back over her shoulders,
She rode her elephant out of the woods with troops drumming
And the dream of shouldering the task of saving the country
Just to show to the Chinese what Vietnamese women are capable of.
Again, Tự Đức wrote on the side his royal comment: “What a shameful comment directed at Vietnamese men! Were they all dead?”
Despite his unhappiness, Tự Đức nonetheless ordered that a silk bolt and two strings of cash be awarded to Lê Ngô Cát for his trouble (in writing the verse history). Lê Ngô Cát, of course, had to accept the reward but on walking out, he commented loudly:
“Vua khen thằng Cát có tài,
“Thưởng cho chiếc khố với hai đồng tiền.”
“The king praised Cát for his talent,
“And awarded him a loincloth with two pieces of cash.”
This was, of course, irreverent and in fact, a case of lèse-majesté that could cause his head to be chopped off. But Cát promptly corrected himself:
“… And awarded him with a silk piece and two strings of cash.”(2)
Emperor Tự Đức may have been unhappy with Lê Ngô Cát’s version of early Vietnamese history but he cannot gainsay the fact that the very first two rebellions against Chinese domination in Vietnam (40-43 and 248 CE) were both led by women. Not just led but also fought by many woman warriors, companions to the Trưng Sisters, which clearly pointed to equality between the sexes when it came to protecting the land of their ancestors. “Giặc đến nhà, đàn bà phải đánh”: “When bandits invade your homes, then women must take arms and fight them.”
As for the Marxist historians, they too are anachronistic when they could not accept the fact that at the time Vietnam was still essentially a matriarchal system, hence it’s most natural for women to play at least an equal role to men. Shui-jing zhu, for instance, Trần Quốc Vượng and Hà Văn Tấn wrote, recorded that “Thi (Sách) [the husband of Trưng Trắc] was still alive after the start of the uprising. If that were true, it would be truly difficult to explain why… Thi Sách did not become king and let Trưng Trắc get on the throne instead.”(3)
They are even further off the mark when they refused to see the Trưng Sisters’ uprising as a national rebellion in which the Vietnamese population rose together with their tribal leaders, the Lạc-hầu and Lạc-tướng, to overthrow the yoke of Chinese Han colonialism. They chose instead to see the movement as a Spartacus-type of rebellion where the Vietnamese peasants, reduced to being serfs (“nông-nô”) under the Chinese domination, engaged in a class struggle against the Han exploiters.(4) But if this were the case, how could they explain the fact these same peasants chose to side with their national exploiters against the foreign exploiters? When the national exploiters, the Lạc-hầu and Lạc-tướng, had been left in place to serve as collaborators to the Han administration?
Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations hypothesis, it seems to me, would explain so much better the Trưng rebellion. For even two hundred years later, Lady Triệu could still declare in a ringing statement of women’s (read “feminist”) rights: “I only want to ride a storm, flatten the high waves of the sea, slash open the whales of the Eastern Sea, and clear our land of invaders so as to save our people from drowning. I wouldn’t want to lower my head and bend my back to serve as a servant or concubine to anyone!”(5)
Commenting on the root cause of the Trưng Sisters rebellion, the Thiên Nam ngữ-lục (“Miscellaneous Records of the Southern Realm”) had even a racist explanation:
Nước sao bỉ ổi bấy ôi!
Để thằng răng trắng hiếp người răng đen.
O how can the country become so horrendous
As to let a white-teethed guy suppress us, people of black-lacquered teeth(6)!
As for the embellishment of the story to make it into a fantastic legend which defies belief, we will have to leave the discussion to later.
Main Phases of the Rebellion
The most plausible facts associated with the Trưng Sisters rebellion are as follows:
Both sisters were the daughters of a Lạc-tướng (“Lạc military leader”) from the area of Mê Linh, an area corresponding to today’s Ba Vì mountain and stretching all the way to Tam Đảo, a mountain and wooded region contained within the original realm of the Hùng kings. According to one source, the mother of the Trưng sisters was a descendant of the Hùng kings on her maternal side. Thus, one could say that the sisters are related to the Hùng dynasty. The current confusion about the family name of the sisters, variously said to be Hùng, Trưng and originally Lạc, is simply due to the fact that we no longer understand the matriarchal system then obtained.(7)
At any rate, according to both the Hou Han shu and Shui-jing zhu, the older sister, Trưng Trắc was said to be “very heroic, courageous and good at stratagems.” Her husband is said to be named Thi (after the Shui-jing zhu) or Thi Sách according to other sources. He is also said to be the son of a Lạc military leader from Chu Diên in the area near Hanoi nowadays. Thus, both Trưng Trắc and her husband came from the elite in Vietnamese society at the time. Their marriage must have consolidated an alliance between two large and powerful fiefs which lay in the central region of Giao Chỉ, the name of Vietnam at the time, stretching from the strategically located midland region of present-day Vĩnh Phú down to the center of the Red River delta.
Living near the center of colonial Han power, at the time located in Liên Lâu (present-day Lũng Khê, Thuận Thành district, Bắc Ninh province), they must have been aware of the exactions of the foreign administration then headed by Tô Định (Su Ting in Chinese). The Hou Han shu confirms this situation: “The prefect of Giao Chỉ, Su Ting, used the law to bind [the people], which made Trắc outraged and caused her to rebel.”(8) According to two other sources, Hou Han ji and Dong Guan Han ji, Ma Yuan is reported to say of Su Ting that he “opens wide his eyes when he sees money but lowers his eyes when facing the enemy.” The biography of Liu Long in the Hou Han shu also reports that the exactions of the colonial administration under Su Ting were such “that the hundred clans clamor injustice and stop [government officials] on the roads to complain.”(9) Thus, the first obvious, direct cause of the rebellion was the heavy taxes and corruption of the Su Ting administration.
These exactions must have been felt as something terrible since the rule of Su Ting came right after the relatively benign administration of Xi Guang (Tích Quang in Vietnamese) and Ren Yan (Nhâm Diên in Vietnamese), who were credited with teaching the Vietnamese the Chinese rules of marriage and apparently more advanced agricultural techniques.(10) This reading is supported by the version in Thiên Nam ngữ-lục where it is said: “After 148 years / The North [i.e. China] apparently ran out of [good] people” (verses 1431-1432) since “how can the country be so horrendous / As to let a white-teethed guy suppress us, people of black-lacquered teeth.”
Legend has it that when Thi Sách tried to raise objections to some of Su Ting’s policies he was accused of planned treason and killed. This was the final blow which led Trưng Trắc to enlist her sister Trưng Nhị to make a pact, swearing to revenge the death of Thi Sách and overthrow the Chinese yoke.(11)
Though the immediate motivation of the sisters may have been personal revenge, their call to arms found resonance in thousands and tens of thousands of others. They launched their rebellion in the spring of 40 CE, a very propitious time of the year since people always gathered in large numbers for the spring festivals that took place all around the country. Word spread like wild fire for although they started out in Giao Chỉ, not only the people in Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam (then the southernmost provinces, corresponding to today’s Thanh Hóa and Nghệ An) but also those in Hợp Phố (in present-day Guangdong) responded to the call for uprising.
The sisters’ army first rose in Mê Linh (present-day Yên Lãng, Phúc Yên province) and after subduing the local Chinese post, they went on to attack the district garrison of Giao Chỉ, then the capital of Giao Châu called Liên Lâu (present-day Lũng Khê, Thuận Thành, Bắc Ninh province). The uprisings in the other three provinces also saw similar lightning successes with the Chinese garrisons either killed or fleeing for their lives. The Hou Han shu was very concise: “The governor of Giao Chỉ and the [Chinese] prefects could barely manage to save their own skins.” According to the Shui-jing zhu, the Lạc-tướng, even though they have been made district administrators by the Chinese, all rallied to the sisters’ side. And in no time the sisters had “gathered 65 strongholds under their rule.”(12) Clearly, their call to save the land had hit a national chord that resonated throughout the land. The Thiên Nam ngữ-lục probably hits the nail on its head when it puts into the mouth of Trưng Trắc the following pledge at the swearing-in ceremony before her troops went out:
Một, xin rửa sạch nước thù,
Hai, xin đem lại nghiệp xưa họ Hùng;
Ba, kẻo oan ức lòng chồng,
Bốn, xin vẹn vẹn sở công lênh này.
First, I pledge to revenge our nation.
Secondly, I pledge to restore the dynasty of the Hùng Kings.
Thirdly, lest my husband keep his grudge.
And fourth, I pledge to finish the job I am out to do.(13)
Thus, although the desire to clear her husband’s name was present as part of her motivation, Trưng Trắc had a lot more on her mind that simple personal revenge. And just as clearly, there was no hint of a class struggle of any sort.
On the other hand, the Hou Han shu recorded that when she “rose in rebellion” “the Man [i.e. ethnic minorities] and the Lý [i.e. the majority population, ethnic Vietnamese] in Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam [the southernmost provinces at the time], and Hợp Phố [in present-day Guangdong] all responded to the call.”(14) An image beautifully captured in the Đại Nam quốc-sử diễn ca:
Ngàn Tây nổi áng phong trần,
Ầm ầm binh mã xuống gần Long Biên.
Then war broke out in the western highlands
With troops and horses rumbling down towards Long Biên.
(Đại Nam quốc-sử diễn ca, verses 35-36)
A benevolent rule
After “having attacked and destroyed the [Chinese] posts at the provincial and district level and after having received the submission of the Lạc-tướng,” i.e. after her Blitzkrieg campaign in the spring of 40 CE, the Shui-jing zhu reports, “they came together and proclaimed her Queen.”(15)
Đô-kỳ đóng cõi Mê Linh,
Lĩnh Nam riêng một triểu-đình nước ta.
For capital she established it in Mê Linh
With a court specific to our nation in Lĩnh Nam.
(Đại Nam quốc-sử diễn ca, verses 339-340)
Immediately upon her accession to the throne, the Shui-jing zhu says, “she abolished the taxes for the population of Giao Chỉ and Cửu Chân.”(16) This, a modern historian infers, must mean that she had at least firm control over these two provinces.
It is not known what else she did during the short reign of her rule but the Thiên Nam ngữ-lục speculates:
Dấy từ Canh-tí làm vua
Đến Nhâm-dần kể thời vừa ba năm.
Thành ngoài dư sáu mươi nhăm
Thu về một mối tay cầm lâng lâng.
Mở thông nẻo bể, đường rừng,
Trong không ‘chuột’ (?) xã, ngoài không cáo thành.
From the uprising in the year of the Rat (40 CE)
She ruled as Queen exactly three years until the year of the Tiger (43 CE).
Over sixty-five strongholds at large
She gathered them into her hands lightly.
Opening sea routes and trails through the woods, she made sure
That no rats gnaw at the foundation nor foxes climb its walls.
(Thiên Nam ngữ-lục, verses 1771-1776)
In other words, her rule was benevolent (“lightly”) and she favored commerce not only at sea but also through the hills and woods that led to neighboring countries.
Chicks vs. an old fox
The Han Emperor Guang-wu, however, could not swallow the defeat of Han troops at the hands of a woman. After suppressing a number of peasant rebellions to the north (in what would be today’s Hebei and Anhui provinces), he turned his attention to the south. According to the Hou Han shu, he ordered troops raised in Trường Sa (Changsha), Hợp Phố, and Giao Chỉ to prepare carts and boats, to repair the roads and bridges, to cut paths through the mountains and passes, and to stock rice.”(17) In the fourth month, summer of 42, he issued an imperial edict designating Ma Yuan “the general who subdues the waves” (“Phục-ba tướng-quân”) with the special mission to lead an army into Giao Chỉ to put down the Lạc Việt people. Already 58 at the time, Ma Yuan was an old hand particularly gifted as a military leader who had recently put down the rebellion of Li Guang in Huan-cheng.(18)
Ma was seconded by Duan Zhi, who was made an admiral of the fleet to go by way of the sea. Liu Long, who had been a prefect in Hubei and demoted because of corruption, was called out and promoted this time to be a deputy to Ma on land. And finally, there was also Han Wu, the marquess of Ping Le.
According to the Hou Han shu, Ma Yuan’s army came to over 10,000 troops raised in the districts of Changsha, Guiyang, and Lingling, all belonging to the province of Hunan, and Shangwu. But according to Ma Yuan’s report to Emperor Guang-wu (in the ninth month of 43 CE) found in the Shui-jing zhu, he had “together with 12,000 seasoned troops from Giao Chỉ formed a grand army of 20,000 with boats and carts, big and small, coming to 2,000 units.”(19) This must mean, then, that he brought with him some 8,000 troops from the North to combine with 12,000 raised locally in Giao Chỉ to form his “grand army of 20,000.”
He started out from Hunan, then went through Guangxi, Guangdong, to reach Hợp Phố where the land force and the naval troops would meet. When Ma’s troops linked up with the naval force, they learned that Duan Zhi the admiral had just died out of illness. Guang Wu then appointed Ma Yuan to be the commander of both forces. He soon found out that there were not enough boats to carry the troops, he had the troops fend their way along the mountains “for over a thousand li,” both the naval force and the troops on land longing the coast of the Ha Long Bay, then crossing the Hồng Quảng area, following the banks of the Bạch Đằng River to reach the Lục Đầu River. As he was the commander of both forces, on land and in the rivers, he could not operate far from the waterways. It took him until the following year, 43 CE, before he reached Lãng Bạc. Both the Đại Việt sử-ký toàn-thư and the Khâm-định Việt-sử Thông-giám Cương mục were wrong in identifying Lãng Bạc with what is presently the West Lake in Hanoi.
Actually, according to the Shui-jing zhu, the Nam river (one of two rivers originating from Mê Linh) after going north of Phong Khê “came down flowing east past Lãng Bạc. Ma Yuan saw that it was a high ground and… decided to raise camp there. The Nam river then flows east to the south of the Long Uyên district fort.”(20) Trần Quốc Vượng has determined that it was the present-day Thiếp river which flows to the north of Cổ Loa (the ancient stronghold of Phong Khê) and that the Tây Vu district corresponds to the wooded area of present-day Tiên Du in Bắc Ninh province.(21)
From entering Giao Chỉ from the Hạ Long Bay all the way to Lãng Bạc, it is not recorded that Ma Yuan had any difficulty or ran into any battle. Could it be that communication over long distances took time to travel, so Trưng Trắc did not know about the Han troops coming? Or could it be a deliberate move on the part of Trưng Trắc that she waited for them at a place of her choice, especially after their long trek from China that took over a year? There may be some truth to the latter hypothesis because Duan Zhi had contracted an illness when he reached Vietnam and died of that illness. Even later in his life, Ma Yuan recalled: “When I was camped out in Lãng Bạc and the Tây Vu area, we had yet to defeat the enemy, yet the situation was such that there was flooding everywhere, with thick clouds overhead, and affluences emanating in abundance. One could look up and see even vultures fall down to their death as they flew by.”(22)
Clearly, he was rather despondent and probably not too sure of success. Soon after, his other deputy, Han Wu the marquess of Ping Le, also died here—whether because of illness or simply because he was killed in battle.
The Trưng sisters (or only Trưng Nhị, the younger one, according to the Hou Han ji) came down from Mê Linh with their grand army to confront Ma Yuan in Lãng Bạc. They must have counted on the enemy’s fatigue after the long trek from China, plus the ravage of tropical diseases, and conditions of flooding in the lower plain. Nonetheless, the big engagement turned out to be a rout for the Vietnamese side, possibly because of their inexperience in battle. Ma Yuan’s troops killed several thousands of the Trưng sisters’ side, and over ten thousand surrendered or were captured.(23) The sisters had to beat a fast retreat, all the way to Cấm Khê.
A note to the Hou Han shu, quoting the Yue zhi, said that “Trưng Trắc fled to Kim Khê Cứu, and it took two years [for Ma] to capture her.”(24) The Shui-jing zhu was even more puzzling: “Ma Yuan led his army to fight Trắc and Thi [her husband], who fled to Kim Khê Cứu, and it took [Ma] three years to capture them.”(25) Where Kim Khê or Cấm Khê (an alternate reading) is nowadays is a matter of speculation. The “Liu Long zhuan” in Hou Han shu believes Cấm Khê Khẩu (instead of Cứu), possibly a river port, to be in the Mê Linh area, and claims that Liu Long pursued the “rebels” all the way there, where he captured Trưng Nhị, killed over one thousand and took prisoners over twenty thousand.(26) The “Ma Yuan zhuan,” however, gives a different story: there it is said that Ma Yuan pursued Trưng Trắc all the way to Cấm Khê. On the way, the two sides had many encounters in which Trắc would lose. In the end, Ma managed to kill both sisters, chopped off their heads and had them brought back all the way to Loyang, then the Han capital in northern China.(27) Because of all these discrepancies it is very difficult to give credence to any one version. (And one can see why later on, this developed into many different legends as to what happened in the end to the two sisters.)
The standard version of the two sisters’ death in Vietnamese legend is much more heroic:
Cấm Khê đến lúc hiểm nghèo,
Chị em thất thế phải liều với sông.
When they reached the dead end in Cấm Khê
The two sisters in despair had to drown themselves in the [Hát] river.
(Đại Nam quốc-sử diễn ca, verses 47-48)
The story of the two sisters usually ends here. But that’s only the main part of the story. In fact, even after the crushing defeat at Lãng Bạc resistance still went on for a couple of years with some quite significant clashes. For instance, a large group of resistance fighters managed to flee to Cửu Chân. The Hou Han shu records that “[Ma] Yuan took 2,000 boats big and small and over 20,000 soldiers to pursue Đô Dương’s group, a remnant of Trưng Trắc’s army. From the district of Vô Công to [the district of] Cư Phong, [Ma’s] troops chopped off the heads of and arrested over 5,000 enemy soldiers.”(28)
In order to get to Cửu Chân (present-day Thanh Hóa), Ma Yuan had to have huge engineering works performed by his men, like boring through mountains, in order to get his troops through, thus avoiding also the extremely dangerous choppy sea routes. In the process he also went through Đồng Cổ, so named because there were many bronze drums made there. He had those bronze drums confiscated so that later on he could smelt these drums and make a solid bronze horse for presentation to the Han emperor. Running into fierce resistance in Cư Phong (part of present-day Đông Sơn district and present-day Thiệu Hóa district), probably because the inhabitants did not want to voluntarily give up their bronze drums, Ma Yuan had several hundred slaughtered. Ma then went further down into Tĩnh Gia (present-day Thanh Hóa) and Diễn Châu (present-day Nghệ An), and “thus, Cửu Chân became peaceful,” said the Shui-jing zhu. It is believed that Ma Yuan did not go down further than Vô Biên (present-day Tĩnh Gia) since the Hou Han shu did not mention any other name south of this district.
Such is the story of the Trưng Sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, in as close a version as we can make to what really happened nearly two thousand years ago. But surrounding them there were many legends or what one would call legendary accretions that make their lives sound more like hagiographies than real people’s biographies. This is because the sources themselves, owing to their discrepancies, lend themselves to elaborations and a multitude of what the Vietnamese would call “râu ria,” beards and mustaches, to the stories.
For instance, what really happened to Thi Sách, Trưng Trắc’s husband? Was he a hero in the first place? If we can trust the Thiên Nam ngữ-lục then certainly he was one, and a fine one at that: what he did was given in verses 1435-1590 (156 verses altogether). According to this version, because of his frankness he was accused of planning a rebellion with his wife, Trưng Trắc (verse 1507: “Nó toan làm sự gian vong,” He planned to carry out a treasonable action). Su Ting then thought that if he could capture Trưng Trắc (verse 1517) Thi Sách would surrender. When warned of this possible development, Thi Sách confronted Su Ting and said he would kill him should he as much as touch the Trưng sisters (verses 1515-16). But Su Ting’s troops managed to overrun Thi Sách’s camp and kill Sách instead.
That is the traditional version, although quite elaborated into a long story of romance (between Thi Sách and Trưng Trắc), corruption (Su Ting) and misapplication of justice (Thi Sách was falsely accused of treason and killed).
In the Chinese accounts, however, Thi Sách apparently was not killed before the rebellion broke out. The motivation of the Trưng sisters therefore could not be attributed to a desire for revenge for Sách’s death. One Chinese version, the Hou Han shu, did not mention Thi Sách at all while the other, the Shui-jing zhu, had Thi [Sách] fleeing with his wife to Kim Khê Cứu until 45 CE. So he was not killed at all, at least until the complete suppression of the uprising. It is discrepancies like this which gave rise to various interpretations, hence the growing legends associated with the Trưng sisters, even to this day.
For instance, the tenuous links between the Trưng sisters and the Hùng kings, reputedly the founders of ancient Vietnam. The Trưng sisters’ mother, according to the legend passed down at Mèn Shrine and Nam Nguyễn Communal Temple (đình), was a native of Nam Nguyễn village (in Ba Vì district, now a distant suburb of Hanoi) and a distant descendant of the Hùng kings on her mother’s side. If we go by the Confucian order of things, then she is hardly related at all to the Hùng kings. But let us not forget that Vietnam was then still a matriarchal society, in which case her claim of relation to the Hùng kings via the maternal side could make sense. At any rate, there is still a tomb there today associated with her which is called “mả Dạ,” tomb of the Old Woman (“Dạ” being archaic Vietnamese meaning an “old and respected woman”).(29) Typically, she is said to be a widow raising her two daughters, sometimes said to be twins, to become good girls proficient in raising silkworms but also well trained in the martial arts—a characteristic of the minority groups living in the highland region of North Vietnam. In other words, women living in those areas had to be independent (because the husbands sometimes had to be absent from home for long stretches of time), they had to know how to defend themselves against intruders or even wild animals. Hence, Trưng Trắc is said to be “very heroic, courageous and good at bold stratagems” (“rất hùng dũng,” “có can đảm, dũng lược”)—hardly the description of the graceful, feminine Trưng sisters that one sees depicted in posters nowadays.
But the Trưng sisters were not untypical of their time. According to the hagiography of Princess Thánh Thiên kept in Ngọc Lâm village, district of Yên Dũng, Bắc Giang province, she was the daughter of Nguyễn Huyến, a former official of Nam Việt, Zhao Tuo’s kingdom (sic!). She rose up against the Chinese even before the Trưng sisters but had to temporarily abandon the fight. Later she went to Bắc Giang to join her maternal uncle, who also rose against the Đông Hán (Eastern Han). Defeated once more, they had to retreat to Yên Dũng. When Trưng Trắc heard of her, she invited her to join her uprising. She thus became one of the first woman generals to join the Trưng rebellion.
This question, the extremely important role played by women in what was then still a strongly matriarchal system, was very poorly understood by later historians. They could not explain why of the dozens of generals serving under Trưng Trắc, there could be so many women. For instance, the mother of the Trưng sisters herself, later elevated into “Man Hoàng Thái Hậu,” the Mán Queen Mother (“Mán” being a general name for the ethnic minorities living in the highlands of what is now North Vietnam), also joined her daughters’ rebellion, fought Ma Yuan’s troops and lost. Like her daughters later on, she also jumped into the river and drowned to save her honor. A shrine devoted to her still exists in Nam An village.
It would be too tedious to go into specific stories of the 50 or so generals, both male and female, who joined the Trưng army and fought for the independence of Vietnam. But a quick rundown would have to mention at least their names:
Among the women, Man Thiện (the sisters’ mother), Diệu Tiên (an older woman), the wives of some male generals like Princess Bát Nàn, Đào Kỳ, Lê Thị Hoa, young women like Lê Chân, Thánh Thiên, Thiều Hoa, Xuân Nương, Liễu Giáp, Việt Huy, Ả Di, Ả Tắc, Ả Lã, Nàng Đê etc.
And among the men, both old and young, Ông Đống, Ông Nà, Ông Cai, Đỗ Năng Tế (said to be the martial arts teacher to the Trưng sisters), Hoàng Đạo, Đông Bảng, Đô Chinh, Đô Dương etc.(30)
How much truth is there to all these accounts? A group of historians warn against taking them all too literally: For one thing several of these names are too sophisticated to possibly be names cuurent at the time of the Trưng sisters (at the beginning of the common era), others can be traced back to nature (agricultural) deities that later were turned into human deities, others yet cannot escape the situation of “one man’s beard getting planted onto a woman’s chin” (“râu ông nọ cắm cằm bà kia”). Be it as it may, this proliferation of names of apparently real, historical characters clearly pointed to the perennial popularity of the legend of the Trưng Sisters even after nearly two thousand years in the memory of the Vietnamese nation!
The death of the Trưng sisters is also given as in a post-modern ending, with at least three scenarios:
One version, the traditional one, has them in reaching the end of their rope choose the honorable outcome of drowning in the Hát river, just as their mother had done, in order to avoid capture and probably shameful treatment at the hands of Ma Yuan, the victor.(31)
Another had both sisters fleeing before the might of Ma Yuan’s army, Trưng Nhị after the heroic resistance stand at Lãng Bạc and Trưng Trắc thereafter. But even in the retreat to Cấm Khê (or Kim Khê Cứu), Trưng Trắc still fought off the invaders in several battles even though she lost out in the end. This resistance was said to last from two to three years.
A third reportedly had the sisters being killed by Ma Yuan, who chopped off their heads and had them sent to Loyang, i.e. to the Han Court, tens of thousands of miles away in North China.
This last version, as has been said above, is probably the most unlikely, that is, probably a lie found in the biography of Ma Yuan. For according to the very same source, Ma Yuan before the Lãng Bạc battle (summer of 42 CE) was very despondent and hardly sure of victory. He is said to reflect, just before the battle, upon an advice given him by an older cousin: “In life a gentleman only needs to have adequate food and clothing, he rides a low cart, a thin horse, is happy with a small official’s appointment, he would be lucky if he can stay near home to take care of the ancestors’ tombs and be lauded as a good man, that’s plenty!”(32) Apparently he regretted aiming too high or seeking glory in life.
The last thing associated with the rise and fall of the Trưng Sisters is another piece of legend which bears recounting. Starting in the early fourth century, a Chinese source, the Wu lu (Ngô-lục) of Zhang Bo (Trương Bột), mentioned that “in Tượng Lâm (in present-day Quảng Nam), there was a small beach where people could pan soft gold. […] People living there claim that they are of Han ancestry. There is a bronze column there, said to mark the southernmost limit of the Han empire.” The Guang-zhou ji (4th-5th centuries) said that “Ma Yuan, when he was in Giao Chỉ, erected a bronze column to mark the southernmost limit of the Han empire.” The Lin-yi ji (4th-5th centuries) claims that “Ma Yuan erected two bronze columns in the south of Tượng Lâm that marked the southern border of the Han empire as distinct from [the kingdom of] Tây Đô.” It also says that “the aborigines called [Chinese] immigrants there ‘Ma immigrants’ and generation after generation they say they are descendants of Han people.”
Despite such testimonies, the main source for Ma Yuan’s life, the Hou Han shu, is entirely mum about it, there being no mention of any such thing. Besides, the exact location of Ma Yuan’s bronze column(s) is unknown. The above sources seem to be quite consistent as to its/their location but other, later sources place them in present-day Phú Yên province (Xin Tang shu, written in the Song dynasty), in Qin-zhou (Khâm Châu, Guangdong province), while a popular tradition has it that it is on Lam Thành Mountain in Nghệ An (hence another name of that mountain is Đồng Trụ, literally “Bronze Column,” in Nam Đàn district, Nghệ An province). It was not until Lê Tắc wrote his An Nam chí-lược (in the fourteenth century) that the story is told that when Ma Yuan erected his bronze column, not in Nhật Nam (where Ma never set foot on) but in Qin-zhou (Guangdong), he did emit the curse: “Đồng-trụ chiết, Giao-chỉ diệt” (“Should this bronze column break, the country of Giao Chỉ would meet its end.”). That is why, the narrative continues, “every time a Giao Chỉ person [i.e. a Vietnamese] goes by, he or she would take a rock or tile and throw it at the foot of the bronze column, which soon turned into a mound” burying forever Ma Yuan’s column.(33)
Such are some of the legends associated with the insurrection, reign and downfall of the Trưng Sisters. A full account would probably take many volumes but it is not recommended unless one wishes to study the phenomenon as a folkloristic subject.
Latest form of the legend
About 25 years ago, Dr. Trần Đại Sỹ in France proposed a whole new approach to reading ancient Vietnamese history. After many field visits to China south of the Yangzi, he came to the conclusion that Vietnam under the Hùng kings and in the time of the Trưng sisters did not just cover the northern part of Vietnam but englobes the entire southern part of present-day China south of the Yangzi instead, literally south of the Five Mountain Ranges (Lĩnh Nam).
While the evidence he adduces seems in many cases quite convincing, what his thesis forces us to do is to reconceive the whole geopolitical history of Vietnam, projecting the history of the Trưng sisters onto a hugely more extensive realm, something that most Vietnamese are not quite ready to accept without much further research. At any rate, the epic history that he describes in his three novelistic works, Anh hùng Lĩnh Nam (“Heroes of Lĩnh Nam”), Động Đình Hồ Ngoại Sử (“The Parahistory of Động Đình Lake”) and Cẩm Khê Di Hận (“The Grudges Left at Cẩm Khê”), is a major reconstruction of Vietnamese history at the time of the Trưng Sisters well worth reading.
Nguyễn Ngọc Bích
January 10-13, 2015
(1) “It is very regrettable that today we do not know what are the differences between Viet law and Han law. [All we know is that] the legal reforms of Ma Yuan as well as other reforms under him marked an important step in the feudalization of Lạc Việt society” (Trần Quốc Vượng and Hà Văn Tấn, Lịch sử chế độ phong kiến Việt-nam [“History of Vietnamese Feudalism”], Hanoi: Nhà xb Giáo Dục, 1960, p. 72). As this is not a very satisfactory conclusion, Keith Taylor in his landmark The Birth of Vietnam speculated that “Ma Yuan simply reported discrepancies between Han and Viet statutes; there is no indication that he attempted to rectify these discrepancies” (Ibid., University of California Press, 1983, p. 46).
(2) Lê Ngô Cát and Phạm Đình Toái, Đại-Nam quốc-sử diễn ca [“National History of Đại-Nam Put Into Verses”], Ngọc Hồ and Nhất Tâm, editors, Saigon: Sống Mới, 1972, pp. 13-14.
(3) Trần Quốc Vượng and Hà Văn Tấn, Lịch sử chế độ phong kiến Việt-nam [“History of Vietnamese Feudalism”], Hanoi: Nhà xb Giáo Dục, p. 56.
(4) Ibid., p. 65.
(5) Trần Trọng Kim, Việt-nam Sử-lược [“A Short History of Vietnam”], Hanoi: Nhà xb Văn Hóa Thông Tin, 2006, p. 55. Lady Triệu’s quote has several versions, which differ somewhat from the above given in Trần Trọng Kim’s standard history. The quote as found in most standard histories put out in communist Vietnam (for instance, in Trần Quốc Vượng and Hà Văn Tấn, op. cit., footnote on p. 104) is very suspect since it contains such modern expressions as “dựng lại độc lập” (“restore the country’s independence”) or nonsensical words like “đem lại giang san” (“bring the mountains and rivers”—whereto?).
(6) Black-lacquered teeth: like the Japanese until the Meiji Restoration, the ancient Vietnamese pride themselves on having mastered the technique of lacquering their teeth black, thereby adding an outer protection to the natural enamel of their teeth. This was considered not only to be a mark of beauty in women in particular (there being hundreds of folksongs singing of black teeth) but also a sign of civilization providing real protection against cavities. Hence it was considered an advance over white-teethed people (like the Chinese).
(7) One version of Lĩnh-Nam chích quái [“Strange Stories Picked Up South of the Wuling Range”] said that the sisters had the family name of Hùng but this couldn’t be since they are descendants on the maternal side. (Vũ Quỳnh & Kiều Phú, Lĩnh Nam chích quái, Đinh Gia Khánh & Nguyễn Ngọc San phiên dịch, chú thích và giới thiệu, Hanoi: Nhà xb Văn Hóa, 1960, p. 62-63. In a footnote on page 63, a different manuscript is said to claim that “the Trưng Sisters’ original family name was Lạc.” So there is contradiction here. The Lĩnh Nam chích quái edited by Lê Hữu Mục in Huế, 1960, and since reprinted in the U.S. by Nhà xb Trăm Việt in 1982, does not contain the story on the Trưng Sisters.) Ngô Sĩ Liên’s Đại-Việt sử-ký toàn-thư said that their family name was Trưng but originally it was Lạc. Khâm-định Việt-sử Cương mục said that “Trưng Trắc’s family name was Lạc, but she had a special family name going by Trưng.” All the above is nonsense since both Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị are most likely disyllabic given names, they had no family names since family names were unknown to matriarchal society.
(8) Hou Han shu, “Liezhuan” (“Biographies”) 76, Nanman-Xinanyi.
(9) Hou Han shu, 52, 8a.
(10) Hou Han shu, 106, 4a (on Xi Guang), and 116, 5b (Nanman zhuan).
(11) Thiên Nam ngữ-lục [“Miscellaneous Records of the Southern Realm”], Nguyễn Lương Ngọc and Đinh Gia Khánh, eds., Hanoi: Nhà xb Văn Hóa, 1958, Vol. I, verses 1599-1644.
(12) Hou Han shu, 116, 6a. At the time each district had its own fort with the distribution as follows: Nam Hải had 7 forts, Thương Ngô 11, Uất Lâm 11, Hợp Phố 5, Giao Chỉ 12, Cửu Chân 5, and Nhật Nam 5, meaning that Giao Châu had altogether 56 forts. There has been speculation therefore that the “65 forts” or “strongholds” was only an interpolation of 56 as the manuscript was being copied.
(13) Thiên Nam ngữ-lục, op. cit., verses 1635-1638.
(14) Hou Han shu, Liezhuan 76, Nanman – Xinanyi.
(15) Shui-jing zhu, 37, 6a.
(16) Ibid., 37, 5a. But according to a variant version of the Shui-jing zhu (Yung-lo da-dian edition, 14) the text says that “she received the taxes from…” Whatever be the case, the argument is still correct that her court at least controlled Giao Chỉ and Cửu Chân.
(17) Hou Han shu, Nanmanzhuan, 116, 6a.
(18) Hou Han shu, Ma Yuan zhuan, 54, 7b.
(19) Shui-jing zhu, 37, 7a.
(20) Shui-jing zhu, 37, 6a.
(21) See Trần Quốc Vượng, “Một vấn đề địa lý học lịch sử” [“A Problem of Historical Geography”], in Tập san Nghiên cứu Lịch sử (“Historical Research Journal”), No. 6, pp. 23-38.
(22) Hou Han shu, Ma Yuan zhuan, 54. See also Dong Guan Hanji, 12.
(23) Hou Han ji only had Trưng Nhị involved in this battle. The defeat thus may have been due to Nhị’s youthful inexperience, overconfidence and underestimation of the enemy. It further said that “several thousand surrendered, Han Wu thereafter died [of wounds in battle?], and Ma Yuan pursued Trương Nhị and her followers all the way to Cấm Khê, where they were destroyed.”
(24) Hou Han shu, 54, 7b. This is probably the most likely ending of Trưng Trắc’s revolt, that is, the resistance she led against Ma Yuan lasted two years until 44 CE.
(25) Shui-jing zhu, 37, 5a. This is very unlikely because Trưng Trắc’s husband’s death at the hand of Su Ting (in 39 or early 40 CE) was one of the main reasons for her revolt. Also, if she could survive three years, that is until 45 CE, then Ma Yuan had already been recalled to Loyang (44 CE) where it is said of the troops that went with him to Giao Chỉ, many died of the tropical diseases found in the South while only four or five out of ten would survive to make the trip back.
(26) Hou Han shu, 52, 8a.
(27) This is the most implausible ending of the story since the distance between Giao Chỉ and Loyang in North China was and still is several thousand miles apart. It would take months for a courier to cover that distance and the heads would most likely rot long before they could be shown in Loyang and still be recognizable.
(28) Shui-jing zhu, 37, 3b and 4a. The Yung-lo da-dian edition had “over 3,000 battle-seasoned enemies.”
(29) See Trần Quốc Vượng & Hà Văn Tấn, op. cit., pp. 56-57 (footnote 5).
(30) This list is borrowed from Phan Huy Lê, Trần Quốc Vượng, Hà Văn Tấn, Lương Ninh, Lịch sử Việt Nam, Vol. I, pp. 265-266. One study lists 75 generals (56 male, 19 female) in the two provinces of Hà Tây and Vĩnh Phú alone. Another cites 56 generals in Hà Tây, Hà Bắc, Hải Hưng, Hà Nội, Hải Phòng, Thái Bình, Nam Hà and Vĩnh Phú. A third lists 62 generals being still honored in 51 villages (in 15 district and provinces), of whom 32 are women and 21 are subgenerals (10 among them being of Mường extraction). At the Đồng Nhân Shrine dedicated to the Trưng Sisters in Hanoi, the two statues of the Sisters, reportedly gathered from the river where they had drowned themselves, are shown flanked by twelve goddesses that according to the tradition represented the women generals that had fought by their side.
(31) Phan Huy Lê, Trần Quốc Vượng, Hà Văn Tấn, Lương Ninh, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 276. One version of the legend of the Trưng Sisters had them start the insurrection at Hát Môn (at the mouth of the Đáy/Clear River, in Phúc Thọ district, Sơn Tây province) and also had them drown in the same river when they were hard pressed by Ma Yuan and his army. This is possibly a Buddhist influence where one is absorbed back into the universe at the point where one is born therefrom.
(32) Hou Han shu, 54, Ma Yuan zhuan.
(33) Lê Tắc, An Nam chí lược, Trần Kinh Hòa, translator, Huế: Nhà xb Thuận Hóa, 2002, p. 65.