Wondrium Series Explores Great Women before 1400

joan of arc, pulcheria, and other historical woman included in series

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

From Herodias to Joan of Arc, strong women fill pre-15th-century history. A Wondrium series tells the stories of 36 such warriors, queens, and intellectuals. Vietnam’s Trung sisters rebelled against China 2,000 years ago.

Saigon 1960 - School Girls Featuring the Trung Sisters
During a Vietnam Women’s Day parade in Saigon, March 3, 1960, two girls riding on elephants portray the historic Trung Sisters. Photo by manhhai / Flickr / (CC BY 2.0)

A Celtic warrior, Boudicca, led a rebellion against the invading Roman Empire around the year 60 CE. The 13-year-old Roman empress, Pulcheria, shaped policies of the Roman Empire and established modern Catholic worship of the Virgin Mary. Leif Erikson’s sister, Freydis, made a fortune and contributed to the changes in Europe during the Viking age.

What do these women have in common? All three are powerful, history-making women who helped shape the world before the dawn of the 15th century. Yet, in the annals of history, women are often overlooked or forgotten entirely. There may be no better example of this than the Trung sisters of Vietnam, who in the 1st century CE rebelled against invading and oppressive Chinese forces.

In her video series Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400, Dr. Joyce E. Salisbury, Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, recounts how the Trung sisters were spurred to action.

Who Ruled Vietnam When the Han Dynasty Was Restored?

In the beginning of the 1st century CE, a restored Han dynasty tightened its grip on Vietnam. The new emperor, Guangwudi, raised taxes throughout his empire, sending a man named Jen Yen to serve as prefect in Vietnam and govern the tax collection. Jen Yen brought iron to Vietnam, but also Confucianism.

“In a nutshell, Confucius believed that a good society was a hierarchic society, with all content in their status and obedient to those above them,” Dr. Salisbury said. “In this system, women were also placed in the hierarchy, and they were always to be subservient to fathers and husbands, and in their old age, their sons.

“This philosophy was incompatible with traditional Vietnamese views on women’s personal sovereignty and sexual freedom.”

Jen Yen passed laws mandating that all men between the ages of 20 and 50 were to marry, and all women between the ages of 15 and 40 were to marry. Despite the public’s well-documented anger, the Han dynasty kept the laws in place. A decade later, a corrupt new governor, Su Ting, levied heavier taxes on the Vietnamese, angering a local leader named Thi Sach and his wife Trung Trac.

How Did the Trung Sisters Rebel against the Hans?

Thi Sach complained publicly about the Han rule and, rumor has it, was killed for his disloyalty, though this remains unconfirmed.

“In either case, Trung Trac decided it was time to throw off the Chinese yoke,” Dr. Salisbury said. “She enlisted her sister, Trung Nhi, and they called together the local clan leaders and stirred them to fight. Even the Trung sisters’ mother joined the movement, leading troops of her own. The combined forces included a number of men and women generals fighting together leading their own troops.”

Beginning in the year 39 or 40, the women’s armies captured 65 cities. The people of the reclaimed cities gathered together and proclaimed Trung Trac their queen, and her first act was abolishing the Chinese taxes. Emperor Guangwudi responded by sending 20,000 troops to quell the rebellion, though they faced monsoons and malaria.

“The Chinese were weakened and outnumbered, but the skill of the general more than made up for these weaknesses,” Dr. Salisbury said. “The discipline of the Chinese soldiers confronted chaotic charges of tribal forces, and the Vietnamese were soundly defeated. Several thousand of the Trungs’ troops were killed, and over 10,000 either surrendered or were captured. The sisters fled the field.”

The Chinese general, Ma Yuan, spent years pursuing the sisters, who in turn tried to gather their remaining forces and continue the rebellion. Ma Yuan eventually found them. History says he killed and beheaded both sisters, sending their heads to the emperor for proof of victory. However, the Vietnamese version of the story claims the sisters drowned themselves in the Hat River rather than be taken by the Chinese.

Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400 is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily