Đông Hồ painting of the Trung sisters / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
You have probably watched Disney’s animated film “Mulan” numerous times. Maybe you feel inspired by this story of how a Chinese girl disguised herself as a man to save her ailing father from serving in China’s Imperial Army. By doing so, she skillfully saved China and was regarded as a hero.
But before there was Mulan, there were the Trung sisters of Vietnam. These Vietnamese sisters ruled the military for three years and led many rebellions against the first Chinese domination of Vietnam. To this day, they are still regarded as national heroes. They saved Vietnam at a time when the country was most vulnerable.
If it weren’t for the Trung sisters, Vietnam could possibly be a very different country today. Learn more about the heroic sisters, and how they were real-life versions of Mulan.
About the Trung sisters
Before we can learn about the sisters’ heroic feats, we need to learn about their early beginnings. The sisters were destined to excel in martial arts and military leadership.
Born in Giao Chi, in rural northern Vietnam, their names were Trung Trac (the eldest sister) and Trung Nhi. The dates of their births are unknown, but it’s believed they were both born by 12 A.D.
The sisters were constant companions growing up. They were the daughters of a powerful lord, who expected his daughters to become highly educated young women of Vietnam. The sisters were fortunate to live in an era when Vietnamese women had more freedom to do what would later be forbidden to females.
For example, women of that era could own property through their mother’s name and become political leaders, judges, traders, and warriors. These freedoms would eventually be taken away from women. The Trung sisters excelled in the study of literature and martial arts. They were set to inherit their father’s land and his elite titles upon his death.
The Trung sisters’ military involvement began when Trung Trac married a powerful lord, Thi Sach. He was an advocate for defeating the Chinese during the southward expansion of the Han dynasty. This was a series of military campaigns in southern China, which spread the Chinese influence (including the Han Chinese culture, trade, and political diplomacy) across Southwest Asian kingdoms.
Because Thi Sach was working to defeat the Chinese in this expansion, he gained many enemies. The Chinese eventually executed him. They used this execution as a warning to anyone who threatened a rebellion against the powerful country.
Now a widow, Trung Trac had to decide what to do next. Ultimately, she decided the best thing to do, perhaps the only thing she could do, was to fight back. She had to honor her husband’s death.
Therefore, in 39 A.D., she convinced the Vietnamese lords to rebel against the Chinese. Of course, she needed one constant companion by her side: her younger sister.
Starting a rebellion
Working together, the Trung sisters began their rebellion at the Red River Delta, but it quickly spread to other Yue tribes along the north and south coast of Vietnam.
The sisters gained the support of approximately 65 neighboring towns and settlements. Trung Trac was proclaimed queen of the rebellion.
This wasn’t your typical army. Mostly every soldier in the sisters’ rebellion was a woman, including the sisters’ mother. Whoever said women couldn’t fight hadn’t met these soldiers. Together, the women marched on Lien Lau, forcing the Chinese commander to flee.
They continued to take several fortresses from the Chinese and liberated the ancient kingdom of Nanyue.
The Trung sisters were respected everywhere they went in Nanyue. They gained the confidence and trust of the people they met by committing acts of bravery, such as killing a ferocious tiger. They used the tiger’s skin to write a promise to the people of Vietnam, urging them to follow the sisters in their rebellion against the Chinese.
It somehow worked, because the sisters’ rebellion grew at an impressive rate. They weren’t going to stop fighting anytime soon.
The Trung sisters convinced 80,000 people to join their army and helped drive the Chinese out of their lands. Of the soldiers who volunteered to fight, the Trungs ultimately chose 36 women for their more elaborate military rebellions. The sisters trained their warriors to be generals.
By 40 A.D., the Trung sisters and their army drove the Chinese out of Vietnam. During this attempt, Trung Nhi proved to be a more skilled warrior, while Trung Trac was a better leader.
After the victory, the people of Vietnam named Trung Trac “Trung Vuong” or “She-king Trung.” She established her own royal court in Me-linh, a political center in the Hong River plain.
One of her more favorable actions was abolishing the hated tribute taxed imposed by the Chinese.
She also worked to restore a simpler form of the Vietnamese government, in line with the country’s traditions and core values.
The Trung sisters continued fighting and engaging in heated battles for three years, until 43 A.D. when they met their ultimate demise. Every army is good until they meet an even better force.
The Trung sisters were excellent at martial arts but their army lacked crucial elements. They didn’t have enough supplies and trained soldiers. Eventually, they encountered the seasoned Chinese troops of General Ma Yuan.
Ma Yuan managed to defeat the Trung sisters at Lang Bac, the present-day site of Hanoi. Knowing they were growing weak, the sisters retreated to Hat Mon (now known as Son Tay). While there, they were both beaten. The sisters had a hard time facing the facts and they hated that they were being defeated.
Rather than accepting their defeat, the sisters supposedly (according to popular folklore) committed suicide by drowning themselves at the juncture of the Day and Red Rivers in 43 A.D.
However, other Vietnamese folklore tales suggest the sisters simply “disappeared into the clouds.” That would be a more pleasant perspective of the sisters’ unfortunate deaths.
Trung sister’s legacy
The Trung sisters are highly respected in Vietnam. Their story has been portrayed in legends, poems, plays, postage stamps, posters, and monuments. The Hai Ba (translating to “Two Sisters”) pagoda at Hanoi and a pagoda in Hat Mon are both dedicated to the heroic sisters.
An avenue in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) is also named after the sisters, as are several schools.
Every monument or piece of literature inspired by the sisters glorifies their heroic campaigns and expeditions.
Every February, a holiday commemorates the sisters’ 43 A.D. death. The people of Vietnam haven’t forgotten that the sisters led the first major resistance movement against the opposing Chinese, which occupied Vietnam for 247 years.
The Trung sisters’ legacy persists in Vietnam even 2,000 years after their revolts against the Chinese. The sisters are a national symbol of Vietnam, representing the country’s independence. Paintings of the women depict them as riding on two giant war elephants, leading their followers into fierce battles.
To many Vietnamese citizens, the Trung sisters were more than just sisters. They were powerful symbols of the country’s resistance and freedom.
The idea of female warriors
The Trung sisters are perhaps recognized by Vietnamese citizens because they were women. You don’t hear stories every day about female military leaders, especially in ancient Vietnam. The sisters fought for freedom but not everyone was pleased with the female warriors.
Many people believe the sisters’ ultimate defeat was because of their status as female leaders. People blamed the sisters for the defeat because they “did not believe they could win under a woman’s leadership.”
However, other historical Vietnamese texts counter this argument, mocking men for doing nothing while “mere girls” decided to stand up for what was right and revolt.
Women fought for their country, and they didn’t stop until they could no longer fight back.
Yes, the Trung sisters were ultimately defeated but, as many Vietnamese citizens acknowledge, they still resisted the opposing Chinese.
For that reason, they will (hopefully) always be praised for their heroic battles.
The Trung sisters aren’t the only famous warriors to come out of Vietnam. During the 3rd century A.D., Lady Trieu continued the Trung sisters’ legacy by resisting the Chinese state of Eastern Wu when it occupied Vietnam.
She led troops, joined by her brother’s rebellion, and managed to fight back the opposing forces for five or six months. She was brave but, like the Trung sisters, she was ultimately defeated when she didn’t have enough troops. She also fled and committed suicide.
Like the Trung sisters, Lady Trieu is recognized for her commitment to Vietnam. They call her the Vietnamese Joan of Arc. Many streets are named after her and she has been honored with statues and temples.
Vietnam knows how to honor its heroines. The Trung sisters and Lady Trieu helped secure Vietnam’s safety and traditions when Chinese forces wanted to defeat the country. The women warriors wouldn’t allow this and stood up for their country. They weren’t so different from Mulan, after all.
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
Learn about some of the fiercest women of all time, including the Trung sisters.
The Vietnam War was a politically-driven, violent war in U.S. history. Learn more about what went well with the war, as well as some of the war’s failures.