In previous articles, we’ve seen how Tang China fared when it went up against medieval Islam, and taken a look at the surprising relationship between Han China and Ancient Rome, but nearly 2,000 years ago, China was at war with an external enemy somewhat closer to home: Vietnam.
What marks this war as particularly remarkable is that it was not a contest of military might between egotistical men, as war so often is. This was no clash of kings. In the three-year-long uprising against Han rule, the forces of Vietnam were led by women.
By 39 CE, conflict between Vietnam and China had been a long recurring feature of both nations’ histories, and so determining exactly how long the Vietnamese had been under foreign dominion is complicated. What can be said with some certainty is that Vietnam had been under continual Han rule since at least 111 B.C., the year of the First Chinese Domination.
Despite inevitable hostility towards the conquerors, the situation in Vietnam remained reasonably stable until early in the first century CE. Up until this point, actual Chinese rule had been loose, and as such the Vietnamese had retained a degree of cultural independence. This came to an end as Chinese intentions towards Vietnam changed.
The Han Dynasty declared two major aims for the region: to develop the agrarian economy as a stable source of revenue, and to enforce a patriarchal culture based on monogamous marriage (ostensibly for moral reasons, but in actuality because registered family units were easier to tax.)
Such alterations required overseers, and so prefects were employed to maintain Chinese governance in the region, operating largely through the indigenous Vietnamese ruling class, the Lac Lords. It was the greedy ineptitude of one such prefect, Su Ting, which sparked the war.
One Lac Lord in particular struggled to cooperate with Su Ting. Thi Sach was a noble of fiery temperament, and the Chinese prefect did everything he could to legally restrain him. Sick of Su Ting’s meddling, Thi Sach’s wife, Trung Trac, spurred her husband into resistance. The result was that she, not Sach, quickly became the leader of a full blown rebellion against Han rule.
By 40 CE, Trac commanded an army of 80,000 and had overrun numerous Chinese settlements. Remarkably, many of her officers were female – hinting at the matriarchal nature of Vietnamese society at this time. Su Ting, who was better at counting coins than commanding armies, fled, taking the rest of the Chinese with him. Her victory complete, Trac established a royal court in her home province of Me-linh and set about undoing the taxes the Han Dynasty had inflicted.
Vietnamese folklore tells the story a little differently. Supposedly, Su Ting executed Trac’s husband; that was what drove her to rebel. This account is likely the result of the patriarchal bias that followed in later centuries. Future generations could not accept the notion of a woman leading a rebellion and then ruling as a queen while her husband still lived. Likewise, it is due to the inaccuracy of the folklore that Trac’s sister Nhi is remembered as a co-queen. She was Trac’s companion, certainly, and played a part in the rebellion, but it was her older sister who was the true leader.
Though the victory was great and marked an end to over a hundred years of Han rule in Vietnam, it brought with it the threat of reprisals. Unwilling to tolerate such dissent, the empire struck back.
Early in 41 CE, celebrated Chinese general Ma Yuan was, at the age of 56, appointed to bring Vietnam back to heel. Awarded the title of “Wave Calming General”, he raised 8,000 regular troops and 12,000 militiamen for the task. His journey to Vietnam was not easy. Lacking enough ships to take all his men by sea, his army was forced to march along the coast, building a road as it went. Ma Yuan’s forces went unchallenged until they reached the Tay-vu region where, after an armed encounter, he withdrew to Lang-bac and set up camp. Supplied via river by his modest fleet, Ma Yuan dug-in for the long haul, enduring the humid heat of the Vietnamese spring.
Intimidated by the Chinese threat within their borders, the Lac Lords under Trac began to question the wisdom of their rebellion. The fact was, for all their talk of freedom and independence, the Lac Lords cared more for their own preservation than they did for anything else. There was a very real possibility of them going over to Ma Yuan.
Recognizing that her support amongst the nobles was rapidly dissolving, Trac had little choice but to launch an all-out attack on the Chinese encampment.
The result was disastrous.
The Vietnamese forces were decimated, with several thousand of Trac’s partisans taken captive and beheaded. The battle lost, Trac retreated to Me-linh, but Ma Yuan pursued her. By the end of 42 CE, he had both Trac and Nhi in his grasp and soon enough had sent their heads to the emperor.
The Hai Ba Temple - dedicated to the sisters
The Vietnamese histories embellish the whole bloody affair with a much greater sense of drama. They laud the Vietnamese troops for their bravery in attacking the Chinese, and even make reference to one female soldier who gave birth on the front line, then returned to battle with babe in one hand and sword in the other. The Trung sisters are given an equally gallant testimonial; rather than losing their heads, they instead honorably commit suicide by walking into a river.
As preferable an ending as it might be, it cannot hide the stark reality. Han rule had been reestablished in China, and would remain so until 939. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, in history, the underdog rarely wins.
Yet despite the rebellion’s defeat, it holds a place of high esteem in the Vietnamese popular memory. Now remembered as national heroes (or rather, heroines), both Trac and Nhi have numerous temples dedicated to them, and the rebellion itself is considered one of the country’s proudest moments.
For more on incredible women, check out our Women Issue.
And for more on heroes, have a look at our Heroes Issue.