Đàm Trung Pháp
“THE TRƯNG SISTERS”
A POEM BY LÊ NGÔ CÁT
Vietnam’s revered heroines Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were sisters, who in the year 40 recruited thousands of followers who helped them rout the greedy and cruel Chinese governor Su Ding (Tô Định), who had killed Trưng Trắc’s husband Thi Sách. Su Ding’s cowardly escape to China marked the end of Vietnam’s first Chinese occupation, which had lasted 150 years . Trưng Trắc became the reigning queen of Vietnam until the year 43, when she and her younger sister were defeated by the Chinese marshal Ma Yuan (Mã Viện) and subsequently killed themselves by jumping into a river. Since their deaths almost two thousand years ago, they have been reverently commemorated as the nation’s paragons of heroism on their death anniversary (the sixth day of the second month of the lunar year). Shrines in their honor exist in many places, even in southern Guangdong (Quảng Đông) in China, but the two best-known ones are in Đồng Nhân village near Hà Nội and Hát Môn village in Sơn Tây province.
According to the book Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái (Wonders Plucked from the Dust of Lingnan) written in the fifteenth century, the Trưng sisters were born in Mê Linh village, Phong prefecture. Their father was a Lạc lord in Giao prefecture. Trưng Trắc was a strong and brave woman who was married to Thi Sách, a resident of Diên prefecture. When the egregious Chinese governor Su Ding killed Thi Sách, Trưng Trắc and her sister Trưng Nhị started an uprising against the Chinese occupation. Supported by the people of Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam, and Hợp Phố districts, the sisters pacified sixty-five strongholds throughout Lĩnh Nam . As the country’s new sovereign, Queen Trưng Trắc set up her court in Mê Linh, abolished the insidious tribute taxes imposed by the Chinese, and restored a simpler form of government reflecting traditional Vietnamese values. Su Ding escaped to China and was dismissed by the Han court, which later dispatched Ma Yuan (Mã Viện) and Liu Long (Lưu Long), two seasoned generals, to Lĩnh Nam to reclaim it. The fighting lasted for more than a year in Lạng Sơn. Outnumbered by the much more adept enemy, the Trưng sisters and their troops had to retreat to Cấm Khê, where they were defeated. As their troops dispersed, our heroines killed themselves by drowning. In the thirteenth century, the historian Lê Văn Hưu  did not mince his words when he wrote about the heroic deeds of the Trưng sisters, as recorded in Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư (Complete Book of History of Great Viet) compiled by the historian Ngô Sĩ Liên  in the fifteenth century:
“Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were women. They gave one shout and the Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam, and Hợp Phố districts, along with sixty-five strongholds, responded to them. Their setting up the nation and proclaiming themselves as queens was as easy as turning over their hands. This shows that our land was able to establish a royal tradition. Alas, for a thousand years after this uprising, the men of our land bowed their heads, folded their arms in servitude to the Chinese. How shameful this is in comparison with the Trưng sisters!”
The scholar Phạm Huy Thông  in his 1975 article on a new synthesis of Vietnamese history inspired by recent archeological discoveries, published in Học tập 21, pointed out that the destruction of the ancient Viet civilization by the Chinese victors after the Trưng sisters’ short-lived era was a “death that did not become death,” and that “though oppressed by a foreign country for a thousand years, the will that “we are we” among our people was not something that could be shaken loose.” Reflecting on scholar Pham’s astute thinking,Taylor in his book The Birth of Vietnam (1983, p. 339) cogently summarized how contemporary Vietnamese evaluate the Trưng sisters:
“It implies that if the Trung sisters had not resisted, there would be no Vietnamese nation today, that the uprising of A.D. 40 effectively ‘froze’ the Dong-son heritage  in a moment of historic courage, insuring that it would not degenerate and invite the scorn of later generations. The Trung sisters were the last of the pre-Chinese popular leaders; their deeds echoed across the centuries of Chinese rule, calling the Vietnamese back to an ancient inheritance.”
A translation of the poem about the Trưng Sisters – excerpted from the Đại Nam’s National History Explained in Verse (Đại Nam Quốc Sử Diễn Ca) – appears below alongside its original in Vietnamese:
Enraged by a tyrant, determined to avenge her husband – Giận người tham bạo thù chồng chẳng quên.
She and her younger sister, who shared a solemn oath – Chị em nặng một lời nguyền,
Raised the lady-general flag asserting their command  – Phất cờ nương tử thay quyền tướng quân.
From the west surged wind and dust – Ngàn Tây nổi áng phong trần,
Troops and horses thundered toward Long Biên – Ầm ầm binh mã xuống gần Long Biên.
On horseback, the ladies agilely deployed their soldiers – Hồng quần nhẹ bức chinh yên,
Quickly routing Su Dinh and flattening his fortress – Đuổi ngay Tô Định dẹp tan biên thành.
Mê Linh was to become their capital – Đô kỳ đóng cõi Mê Linh,
Lĩnh Nam was where they held their own court – Lĩnh Nam riêng một triều đình nước ta.
For three years they served the country – Ba thu gánh vác sơn hà,
Having both taken vengeance and ascended the throne – Một là báo phục, hai là bá vương.
Their heroic reputation reached the north – Uy danh động đến Bắc phương,
Causing the Han court to dispatch Ma Yuan to topple them – Hán sai Mã Viện lên đường tiến công.
In Hồ Tây the two sides battled – Hồ Tây đua sức vẫy vùng,
But how could women match seasoned male warriors – Nữ nhi chống với anh hùng được nao?
Held at bay in Cấm Khê – Cấm Khê đến lúc hiểm nghèo,
The defeated sisters drowned themselves in a river – Chị em thất thế cũng liều với sông.
The Wave-Calming general  erected a bronze pillar  – Phục Ba mới dựng cột đồng,
To mark the southernmost border of his country – Ải quan truyền dấu biên công cõi ngoài.
With Queen Trưng gone, who could be counted on – Trưng Vương vắng mặt còn ai?
A Han mandarin would be free to rule the land – Đi về thay đổi mặc người Hán quan.
 Vietnam was under Chinese rule four times, totaling 1,007 years. The first time lasting 150 years (111 BC – 39 AD) was ended by Queen Trưng Trắc. The second time lasting 501 years (43 – 544) was ended by Lý Nam Đế. The third time lasting 336 years (603 – 939) was ended by Ngô Quyền, and the fourth time lasting 20 years (1407 – 1427) was ended by Lê Lợi.
 Lĩnh Nam (Lingnan) literally means “south of the mountain range” and is an ancient Chinese name for the area that covered China’s Guangdong (Quảng Đông), Guangxi (Quảng Tây) and northern Vietnam.
 Lê Văn Hưu was Vietnam’s first historian. At the request of King Trần Thái Tôn, he became the chief compiler of the 30-volume History of Great Viet (Đại Việt Sử Ký) which was completed in 1272.
 Ngô Sĩ Liên was asked by King Lê Thánh Tôn to compile the 15-volume Complete Book of History of Great Viet (Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư) which was completed in 1479.
 The French-educated archeologist Phạm Huy Thông (1916-1988) was also a noted poet and educator. He directed the Institute of Archeology in Hanoi from 1967 to 1988.
 The Đông Sơn culture flourished during the Bronze Age in Vietnam, when the first Vietnamese kingdoms named Văn Lang and Âu Lạc existed. Also known as Lạc Việt, the Đông Sơn people were good at growing rice, raising buffaloes and pigs, fishing, and sailing. They were also skilled bronze casters whose amazing works included the famous Đông Sơn and Ngọc Lũ drums.
 The image of two brave young women on top of elephants leading the troops and raising swords and flags of command is such a sublime icon of heroism!
 Wave-Calming is the translation of the honorific title Fu Bo (Phục Ba) that was bestowed upon marshal Ma Yuan when he was dispatched to battle the Trưng sisters.
 Before Ma Yuan returned to China, he had a bronze pillar erected to mark the southernmost border of China. On the pillar was engraved this haughty warning: “If this pillar breaks, Giao Chỉ will perish.” Giao Chỉ was the name of Vietnam at that time.