The Sisters Who Stomped China

Julia, granddaughter of Julius Caesar, and the infamous Herodias are two women from the chronicles of first-century European history. At the same time on the other side of the world (Asia) womankind enjoyed freedom forbidden women in later centuries, and some still frown upon to this day. Reading of women’s lives in growing empires around the world familiar patterns repeat. Men go to war, establish empires, then plot and plan on how to control women’s sexuality.  

Nations choose symbols to create a national identity based on what they value and have fought for. For Americans, the Statue of Liberty stands for liberty and freedom. Its official name is Liberty Enlightening the World (for all regardless of color or creed). The national value of the Chinese today is harmony ( as they throw teargas at the people of Hong Kong fighting to retain their system of democracy. It seems the further away from the original intent of the founding people, the weaker our determination for living our ideals. Vietnam fought for its independence for centuries, so it comes as no surprise that they chose freedom from oppressors as their highest value. What is surprising is the symbol, two sisters from the first century, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi. 

The Red River flows 750 miles from Southwest China to northern Vietnam. From there it spreads out 5,000 square miles creating a fertile lowland of rich fields irrigated by the Vietnamese people the Chinese called the Lac (Dong Son culture). In the time of the Trung sisters, the first century, the region was ruled by kings in the Chinese Hung dynasty (from about 2800 BC). The villagers prospered not only because of the rice exports to China, but also because of the wealth of natural resources such as copper, gold, jade, and silver. 

Around 1000 BC, the Lac people learned to cast bronze. Professor Joyce E. Salisbury writes: “Their most striking artifact was a bronze drum that they cast and decorated beautifully. The drums sounded the heartbeat of the villages and clans that spread throughout the delta and the neighboring highlands. They were played for feasts and funerals, and they called the clan’s warriors together for war.”

Their widow mother raised Trac and Nhi in what some anthropologists consider a matriarchal society. As such, the mother was considered more important than ties of paternity. She had her daughters skilled in the martial arts, sword fighting, archery and riding elephants that trailed armies through jungles. 

Women of the delta could choose lovers at spring festivals (hard to believe this was the first century). If a woman got pregnant, the man married her—an endearing idea for shared responsibility. If no conception took place, she was free to choose another partner. Women were consulted about plans and decisions and were responsible for the offsprings, birth to adulthood.   

The people of the delta thrived under a “light touch” oversight of the Chinese (the Han dynasty). There was no attempt to dictate to them how to conduct their lives or what to believe. But the light rule of the Han in Vietnam changed when a new ruler with “better ideas” took charge. In other words, a political shift imposing self-serving ways for the benefit of the power elite. 

We are familiar with leaders who see taxation as a way to support their war adventures and pass laws to reign in women’s rights. The Chinese first century emperor Guangwudi needed money to pay for losses of recent wars. He was also keen on building a new big and glorious city where he and his friends could enjoy the finest. The poorly paid 99% would build and stitch. He declared new taxes across the empire and promoted a man named Jen Yen to serves as prefect (governor) to Vietnam. 

With Jen Yen unpacked and ready to rule, radical changes rained over Vietnam. Although never forced on the Vietnamese, the Han-dynasty emperors were embracing Confucianism and its view that a good society was a hierarchic society. Women were subservient to fathers, husbands, and sons in old age, and everyone obeyed the emperor. This view was incompatible with traditional Vietnamese views related to women’s sovereignty and sexual freedom (no 14th amendment for our Asian sisters). Confrontation was just a matter of time.

Jen Yen, like Augustus in the Roman Empire, passed a law ordering all men between 20 and 50 and women between 15 and 40 to marry (it’s likely the attendance at spring festivals dropped). The inevitable outcome was the weakening of the traditional structure of the Lac society; women were bumped down three rungs of the ladder. But in the spirit of fair reporting, Jen Yen also brought in iron and tools, increasing the wealth of the Dong Son culture. 

Ten years after the marriage laws went into effect, a new prefect unseated Jen Yen. Equally true today, a new sheriff in town means changes. Joyce E. Salisbury: “This man was Su Ting, and according to even the Chinese sources, he was the worst kind of administrator. He was corrupt and laid ever‐heavier taxes on the people. The bronze drums began to sound in the hills, beating of their discontent with this ruler, and among the discontented were a local ruler named Thi Sach and his wife, Trung Trac.”

Thi Sach was outraged at the treatment of his people. Without a Twitter account, he’d confront those in power face-to-face and was eventually killed for speaking up.

Even though women’s rights were getting knocked down, righteous indignation lived in the hearts of women who’d seen and heard enough. Perhaps they chanted, OFF WITH THE CHINESE YOKE (freedom)! Reminds me of a chant at the 2018 Women’s March in DC. “This is what democracy looks like (equality for all)! Trung Trac recruited her sister, mother, local leaders, and several women who’d engaged in skirmishes with the Chinese. The result was a force of men and women generals each leading their troops but fighting together. 

The rebellion began as people gathered for spring festivals (39 or 40AD). The beat of the drums traveled over the land, calling everybody from the delta and neighboring provinces. The size swelled and the sisters mounted war elephants and led the people toward freedom from China’s oppression. 

At first, it was a huge success. This tribal armies of men and women took 65 cities, unifying their territory under their rule. People proclaimed Trung Trac queen. Salisbury writes: “The end of the spring campaign saw these stunning victories. The people gathered together and proclaimed Trung Trac, the elder sister, queen. She began her benign rule in the year 40, establishing her capital near modern Hanoi in the rich delta. Her first act as queen was to abolish the taxes that had been imposed by the Chinese. Beyond that, legend says that she ruled lightly, favoring trade both from the sea and through woodland trails into the highlands. Both these practices suggest she wanted to restore the customs of the native Vietnamese, as well as foster the prosperity that had always come with trade into the delta.”

The Chinese emperor Guangwudi was not about to let women deprive him of taxes from these prosperous provinces, areas he considered south China. He had the money, power, and patience to plan and plot. Two to three years later, he sent in an army of two thousand troops, too many for Trung Trac to push against. With the sisters’ heads chopped off, the Chinese would continue the rule until 939. Gradually, old ideas of matriarchy and tribal society gave way to hierarchy and patriarchy. 

End of the story? Not quite. The story of the Trung sisters didn’t die. Told from one generation to the next, they became symbols of freedom. It may account for the large number of Vietnamese women who joined the army when foreigners (France and the US) invaded. Each February in Hanoi, at a temple named for them, the Vietnamese perform memorial ceremonies that commemorates their death for the sisters.  

Today, there is peace in Vietnam. But history repeats. As I write this, thousands of anti-government protesters are taking to the streets in Hong Kong opposing China’s harder line on how the city should be governed. Future history will tell its outcome.

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