Sometime around 225 CE, a baby girl was born to a high-ranking family in northern Vietnam. We don't know her original given name, but she is generally known as Trieu Thi Trinh or Trieu An. The scanty sources that survive about Trieu Thi Trinh suggest that she was orphaned as a toddler, and was raised by an elder brother.
Lady Trieu Goes to War:
At the time Vietnam was under the domination of the Eastern Wu Dynasty of China, which ruled with a heavy hand. In 226, the Wu decided to demote and purge the local rulers of Vietnam, members of the Shih Dynasty. In the uprising that followed, the Chinese killed more than 10,000 Vietnamese.
This incident was only the latest in centuries of anti-Chinese rebellion, including that led by the Trung Sisters more than 200 years earlier. When Lady Trieu (Ba Trieu) was about 19 years old, she decided to raise an army of her own and go to war against the oppressive Chinese.
According to Vietnamese legend, Lady Trieu's brother tried to prevent her from becoming warrior, advising her to get married instead. She told him, "I want to ride the storm, tread the dangerous waves, win back the fatherland and destroy the yoke of slavery. I don't want to bow down my head, working as a simple housewife." (Lockard, p. 30)
Other sources assert that Lady Trieu had to flee into the mountains after murdering her abusive sister-in-law. In some versions, her brother actually led the original rebellion, but Lady Trieu showed such ferocious bravery in battle that she was promoted to head of the rebel army.
Battles and Glory:
Lady Trieu led her army north from the Cu-phong District to engage the Chinese, and over the next two years, defeated the Wu forces in more than thirty battles. Chinese sources from this time record the fact that a serious rebellion had broken out in Vietnam, but they do not mention that it was led by a woman. This is likely due to China's adherence to Confucian beliefs, including the inferiority of women, which made military defeat by a female warrior particularly humiliating.
Defeat and Death:
Perhaps in part because of the humiliation factor, the Taizu Emperor of Wu determined to stamp out Lady Trieu's rebellion once and for all in 248 CE. He sent reinforcements to the Vietnamese frontier, and also authorized the payment of bribes to Vietnamese who would turn against the rebels. After several months of heavy fighting, Lady Trieu was defeated.
According to some sources, Lady Trieu was killed in the final battle. Other versions hold that she jumped into a river and committed suicide, like the Trung Sisters.
After her death, Lady Trieu passed into legend in Vietnam, and became one of the immortals. Over the centuries, she acquired superhuman traits. Folk tales record that she was both incredibly beautiful and extremely frightening to see, nine feet (three meters) tall, with a voice as loud and clear as a temple bell. She also had breasts three feet (one meter) long, which she reportedly threw over her shoulders as she rode her elephant into battle. How she managed to do so, when she was supposed to be wearing gold armor, is unclear.
Dr. Craig Lockard theorizes that this representation of the superhuman Lady Trieu became necessary after Vietnamese culture accepted the teachings of Confucius, under continued Chinese influence, which states that women are inferior to men. Prior to the Chinese conquest, Vietnamese women held a much more equal social status. In order to square Lady Trieu's military prowess with the idea that women are weak, Lady Trieu had to become a goddess rather than a mortal woman.
It's encouraging to note, however, that even after well over 1,000 years, the ghosts of Vietnam's pre-Confucian culture emerged during the Vietnam War (American War). Ho Chi Minh's army included a large number of female soldiers, carrying on the tradition of the Trung Sisters and Lady Trieu.
Jones, David E. Women Warriors: A History, London: Brassey's Military Books, 1997.
Lockard, Craig. Southeast Asia in World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Prasso, Sheridan. The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, New York: PublicAffairs, 2006.
Taylor, Keith Weller. The Birth of Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.