Despite the relatively loose control, cultural differences made relations between the Vietnamese and their Chinese conquerors tense. In particular, Han China followed the strictly hierarchical and patriarchal system espoused by Confucius (Kong Fuzi), whereas the Vietnamese social structure was based on more equal status between the sexes. Unlike those in China, women in Vietnam could serve as judges, soldiers, and even rulers. They also had equal rights to inherit land and other property.
To the Confucian Chinese, it must have been shocking that the Vietnamese resistance movement was led by two women - the Trung Sisters, or Hai Ba Trung.
The Trung Sisters:
Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were the daughters of a Vietnamese nobleman and military general in the area near Hanoi. In 39 CE, Trung Trac's husband, a noble named Thi Sach, lodged a protest about increasing tax rates. In response, the Chinese governor apparently had him executed.
The Chinese would have expected a new widow in her early thirties to go in to seclusion to mourn her husband. Trung Trac, however, did nothing of the kind. Instead, she rallied supporters and launched a rebellion against foreign rule. Along with her younger sister Trung Nhi, the widow raised an army of some 80,000 fighters, many of them women, and drove the Chinese from Vietnam.
In the year 40 CE, Trung Trac became the queen of northern Vietnam; Trung Nhi served as a top advisor and possibly co-regent. The Trung sisters ruled over an area that included about sixty-five cities and towns. They constructed a new capital at Me-linh, a site long associated with the primordial Hong Bang or Loc Dynasty, which legend holds ruled Vietnam from 2879 to 258 BCE.
China's Emperor Guangwu, who had reunified his country after the Western Han kingdom fell apart, sent his best general to crush the upstart Vietnamese queens' rebellion. General Ma Yuan was so pivotal to the emperor's successes that Ma's daughter became the empress of Guangwu's son and heir, Emperor Ming. Ma rode south at the head of a battle-hardened army. The Trung sisters rode out to meet him on elephants, in front of their own troops. For more than a year, the Chinese and Vietnamese armies fought for control of northern Vietnam.
Defeat and Subjugation:
Finally, in 43 CE, General Ma Yuan defeated the Trung sisters and their army. Vietnamese records insist that the queens committed suicide by jumping into a river, once their defeat was inevitable. The Chinese claim that Ma Yuan captured and beheaded them, instead.
Once the Trung sisters' rebellion was put down, Ma Yuan and the Han Chinese clamped down hard on Vietnam. Thousands of the Trungs' supporters were executed, and many Chinese soldiers remained in the area to insure China's dominance over the lands around Hanoi. Emperor Guangwu even sent settlers from China to dilute the rebellious Vietnamese - a tactic still used today in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Legacy of the Trung Sisters:
China controlled Vietnam until 939 CE. It succeeded in impressing many aspects of Chinese culture upon the Vietnamese, including the civil service exam system and ideas based on Confucian theory. However, the people of Vietnam refused to forget the heroic Trung sisters, despite nine centuries of foreign rule.
Even during the decades-long struggles for Vietnamese independence in the 20th century - first against the French colonists, and then in the Vietnam War against the United States - the story of the Trung sisters inspired ordinary Vietnamese. Indeed, the persistence of pre-Confucian Vietnamese attitudes about women may help to account for the large number of female soldiers who participated in the Vietnam War. To this day, the people of Vietnam perform memorial ceremonies for the sisters every year at a Hanoi temple named for them.
Sources on the Trung Sisters:
Lockard, Craig A. Societies, Networks, and Transitions: To 1500, Cengage Learning, 2010, p 127.
Logan, William Stewart. Hanoi: Biography of a City, UNSW Press, 2000, pp 45-7.
Sandler, Stanley. Ground Warfare: An International Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, ABC-CLIO, 2002, p 898.