Successful rebellion leaders and teen queens in 1st century AD

To promote understanding of the nature and extent of women’s leadership throughout history, it is unlikely that any researcher would think of looking at Asian history in general and Vietnamese history in particular. And yet, in the 1st century AD, two Vietnamese sisters of the Trung family succeeded in not only driving back the armed forces occupying the land which is now the heartland of North Vietnam but also in keeping them at bay for 3 years during which time, they reigned as the “Trung Queens”. The occupying forces belonged to no less than the mighty  Chinese Han Empire which spread from Mongolia in the West to Korea in the East, from Siberia in the North to North Vietnam in the South.

“The Trung sisters” have been so revered through Vietnamese history that they are perceived more like superhero deities rather than flesh and blood women. This attitude is a shame as it denies to women, especially young Vietnamese women, the opportunity to identify and be inspired by “Hai Ba’’ (The Two Ladies). Trung Nhi was unmarried, in an age when girls were married soon after the onset of puberty, in their early or mid-teens. There was no record of Trung Trac’s age or how long she had been married before her husband was executed for rebellion. But as she had no children, it would be fair to guess that she was probably in her late teens or early twenties. As young women leaders, they should be re-assessed through the lens of not only scholars & specialists of various professional background but also through the lens of ordinary 21st century men and women, old and young.

How did two young women succeed in convincing so many, presumably older, men and women to become their followers and join their barefoot “guerrilla” army? That army raised and equipped on a shoestring was able to inflict such casualties on Chinese occupying forces that they ran away. It took them three years to progressively re-conquer the province. It is true that the sisters and Trac’s husband were from the local gentry, the leading class but, then as now, there should not have been any dearth of would be male older leaders. How did the sisters overcome the twin handicap of youth and femaleness? How could such extraordinary charisma be explained?

Another remarkable feat is how the Two Sisters were able to so seamlessly continue the task of continuing the rebellion, after Trac’s husband  was executed by the authorities. Was it because Trac’s relationship with her husband was a partnership closer and more equal than anything we could imagine even now? Or was such a smooth transition due to mere luck or effective succession planning?

In Vietnamese songs and poems about Hai Ba, there is usually talk of “hận nước” (nationalist anger) and “thù chồng” (hate on account of what happened to her husband) but  what were the two sisters’ true or main motivation?  In pre-historic times, 2879-258 BC, a mythical dynasty reigned in what is now North Vietnam. Chinese occupation started in 258 BC. The Two sisters were apparently connected to the old dynasty. As to the interpretation that Trung Trac did what she did out of hate, would it stand up to close scrutiny? For had Trac gone to the people, crying and ranting about her anger and hate of the Chinese occupying forces for executing her husband, people would merely feel pity for her as a grieving widow. Why should they accept her as leader ?

As to the interpretation that she did what she did out of nationalistic anger, one may wonder at the level of nationalistic identity or nationalism of her contemporaries. How could she inspire them so much that they were willing to put their lives on the line? For with Thi Sach’s execution, everyone would have realised the danger of participating in a rebellious movement: the Giao Chi fighting  the might of the Han empire was like a David and Goliath struggle. At stake was not only a matter of life & death in actual battles,  followers would have had to plot & train for months, going through a lot of stress, sweat and tears as such covert activities must have required trust, effort and commitment over an extended period.

How could Trung Trac have been so inspirational that not only her little sister  was willing to back her all the way but so were thousands of total strangers. When I was visiting the temple of “Hai Bà” in Hanoi in 2000, I was surprised to see among the list of names of the female generals, the name of a Buddhist nun. Buddha’s message is universal love and compassion, certainly not hate and revenge. Could it be that in her grief following the death of her husband, Trung Trac came to the decision that she did not want any other or any more Giao Chi women to suffer the heartbreak that she was suffering? Could it be out of love of justice & compassion for fellow beings that she decided to take up the banner of rebellion from her fallen husband to chase away a cruel and unjust administration ?

As rebellion leaders, the two sisters could not possibly have bought the support of the people through giving out either money, land, goods, positions or titles. However, if we look at the story of another teenage heroine, this time on the other side of the globe, the key factor was  admiration. After Joan of Arc, then a 17 years old simple peasant girl, was able to convince the King of France of the genuineness of her holy voices and he appointed her as commander of his troops in 1427, his generals did not take her seriously at first. It was only after a few months, when they realised she was a brilliant strategist, that they did follow her orders.

When objectively assessed, rebellion against the Han Empire must have appeared clearly a reckless and impossible task, yet after the two teenage sisters Trung started their open rebellion, Two adjoining provinces and over 500 citadels came to their side! Analysing the social, religious, political, economic and technological features of the environment they were operating in, how were the two sisters able to overcome such formidable challenges? For instance, how did the two sisters travel from one hamlet to another, from one village to another, across rivers, forests and rice fields, on foot or horseback, by row boat or ox cart, in order to mobilise the people? What were the dangers apart from being caught by the authorities? Strong currents, leeches and crocodiles, tigers and panthers, snakes and spiders, mosquitoes, heat and cold, etc..? How did they have the stamina and endurance? How did they communicate with their followers in distant locations? Orally or in writing? If in writing, what materials or tools were used? How could secret messages be delivered? How fast or slow? How the two sisters were able to first, train and instruct their followers, then, so successfully co-ordinate the uprising under the very noses of the occupying army. The slower the means of communication, the more thorough must the strategic planning be and plans B be developed. In brief, it is extraordinary how the Trung sisters were able to achieve what they set out to achieve. Their courage, vision, perseverance, resilience, leadership, public relations, strategic thinking, martial and other skills, combined most probably with compassion and integrity helped them to  achieve what no other women succeed in achieving, before or since, anywhere, in the history of mankind, that is successfully leading a rebellion, not against any occupying forces but the forces of the mighty Chinese Han empire. That the Two Sisters were finally defeated by the far superior Chinese forces was only to be expected. There is no doubt those Two queens of the 1st century  could become outstanding role models for modern women leaders if their skills and strengths are professionally re-assessed in 21st century language. Their achievements, glory and tragedy helped shape the identity of the Vietnamese nation. Their memory lives in the hearts of millions of Vietnamese who call themselves “children and grandchildren of the Two Ladies” (con cháu Hai Bà) and inspires all those who fight for freedom, justice and independence in the last 2 millenia. Joan of Arc had inspired a number of world class novelists, playwrights, painters & sculptors. Among these are outstanding names such as Schiller, George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh and  Mark Twain. There are not only countless statues for Joan of Arc in France but also one in New York and paintings of her in top museums.

On the one hand, it is hoped that eventually, the Trung queens will become internationally known and inspire world class authors and artists, academics and historians, something which they richly deserve. On the other hand and more importantly, it is hoped that a revival of interest in the Trung Queens will inspire not only Vietnamese women in Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora across the five continents but the whole Vietnamese people to take pride in their Vietnamese identity and fight for their national rights against stealthy encroachment by their mighty neighbour.

That is why the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association is organising an international writing competition in both English and Vietnamese on the theme: “The Trung Queens and women in the 21st century”. Top prizes are $5,000, $2,000,$1,000 and many other prizes in kind or money. Winners will be announced, on March 4th 2011, to celebrate both The Centenary of the United Nations International Women’s Day and The life and achievements of the Trung Queens.

Cam Nguyen