The Trưng Sisters, known in Vietnamese as Hai Bà Trưng (the two Trưng ladies) (c. 12 - 43 AD), are two 1st century women regarded as national heroines of Vietnam after they successfully repelled Chinese invasions for three years.
The sisters were known as Trưng Trắc (Traditional Chinese: 徵側; pinyin: Zhēng Cè) and Trưng Nhị (Traditional Chinese: 徵貳; pinyin: Zhēng Èr) and were born during the thousand-year Chinese occupation of Vietnam. The dates of their birth are unknown, but Trưng Trắc was older than Trưng Nhị. The exact date of their death is unknown but they both died in the year AD 43.
The motivation of the Trưng sisters and what happened is open to dispute. The traditional Vietnamese account has been alleged by many to be a highly fictionalized account created in the 14th century to encourage Vietnamese patriotism. The traditional Chinese account, of course, could have been simply a history written by the victors.
Traditional Vietnamese account
The third book of Đại Việt Sử ký toàn thư (大越史記全書 Complete Annals of Great Viet), published in editions between 1272 and 1697, has the following to say about the Trung Sisters:
Trưng King: Ruled for 3 years. The king was very brave, expelled Tô Định (蘇定, Su Dinh), established a state and declared herself king, but because she was a woman, she wasn`t able to repeat her feat. Her real name was Trắc (側, cè), family name Trưng (徵, Zhēng). Originally from the Lạc clan, she was the daughter of the Lạc lord of Mê Linh (麊泠, Miling) County, Phong Châu, wife of Thi Sách (詩索, Shi Suǒ) in Chu Diên District (Thi Sách is also the son of a Lạc lord, they are from Lạc families marrying each other. The book Cương mục tập lãm is mistaken to say that their family name is Lạc). Established her capital in Mê Linh. Canh Tý, year 1  (16th year of Jianwu). Spring, second month, she suffered because Governor Tô Định used the law to bind her, also had enmity with Định because he had killed her husband, together with her younger sister Nhị (貳, Èr) gathered troops and fought the provincial center. Định fled back to his country. The commanderies of Nam Hải, Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam, Hợp Phố joined in, and they took 65 cities in Lĩnh Nam, proclaimed herself to be king, of the Trưng family. Tân Sửu, year 2 , (17th year of Jianwu). Spring, second month, day 30, solar eclipse. The Han Dynasty saw that Trưng claimed to be king, brought troops to retake the cities, the border commanderies suffered, ordered that Trường Sa, Hợp Phố, and Giao Châu to prepare wagons and boats, to repair the roads and bridges, to open the mountain passes, and to save food supplies, so that Mã Viện the Phục Ba General and Phù Lạc the Lưu Long General as deputy can bring troops to invade. Nhâm Dần, year 3 , (18th year of Jianwu). Spring, first month, Mã Viện advanced along the coast, razed mountains into roads for more than a thousand li, arrived at Lãng Bạc (west of Tây Nhai of La Thành) and fought against the king. The king saw that the enemy is too strong, thought that her own troops is a motley mixture, feared that she can not defend her position, retreated to and held Cấm Khê (also written as Kim Khê). The troops also thought that since the king is a woman, afraid that they can not defeat the enemy, so they ran. The country is lost. Lê Văn Hưu [one of the historians editing the annals] says: Trưng Trắc, Trưng Nhị are women, only had to make a shout and the prefectures of Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam, Hợp Phố, and 65 strongholds beyond the hold answered their call, establishing a nation and proclaiming king is as easy to them as turning their hands, we can see that our nation has the potential to be independent. Unfortunately, after the Triệu Dynasty and before the Ngô Dynasty, in the span of more than one thousand years, men only bowed their heads and gave up, accepting the fate of servitude to the people from the North [Chinese], don`t they feel ashamed with the two sisters of the Trưng family? Oh! It is enough to make one want to die! Became Trưng Nữ Vương [Trưng the Female King], starting from Canh Tý and ending in Nhâm Dần, for a total of 3 years [40-42].
The Trưng sisters were born in a rural Vietnamese village, into a military family. Their father was a prefect of Mê Linh, therefore the sisters grew up in a house with a lot of militaristic influence. They also witnessed the cruel treatment of the Vietnamese by their Chinese subjugators. The Trưng sisters spent much time studying the art of warfare, as well as learning fighting skills.
When a neighbouring prefect came to visit Mê Linh, he brought with him his son, Thi Sách. Thi Sách met and fell in love with Trưng Trắc during the visit, and they were soon married.
Soon, the Chinese became intolerably cruel, and exploited the Vietnamese, as well as forcing them to assimilate into the Chinese. Thi Sách believed this oppression was unbearable and made a stand against the Chinese. In an effort, made by the Chinese, to deter any insurrectionary activity, Thi Sách was executed. However it was in fact this event that probably spurred rebellious behaviour on faster.
In AD 39 Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, after successfully repelling a small Chinese unit from their village, together amassed a huge army, consisting mostly of women and within months had taken back many (about 65) citadels from the Chinese, and had liberated Nam Việt. They became queens of the country, and managed to resist all Chinese attacks on Nam Việt for two years.
Their revolution was short lived however, as the Chinese gathered a huge army that managed to overrun and finally recapture Nam Việt. The Chinese army did this by fighting the battle naked. It was an unspeakable taboo for a woman to see a man naked who wasn`t her husband, and therefore not all the women fought in the battle, and subsequently, with so little numbers, most of the male battalions were wiped out. Phung Thi Chinh, a pregnant noble lady was the captain of a group of soldiers who were to protect the central flank of Nam Việt. She gave birth on the front line, and with a baby in one arm, and a sword in the other, continued to fight the battle.
However, the Trưng sisters realised that they had been defeated and that to fight now would be death at the hands of the Chinese. Therefore to protect their honour, and to elude ridicule, the two queens committed suicide by drowning themselves in the Hat River (AD 43). Some of their loyal soldiers continued to fight to the death, whilst others committed suicide (including Phung Thi Chinh, who also took her newborn baby`s life). There is a story of one woman who would randomly charge through Chinese camps, screaming and slaying random men. Finally, after killing many more, she committed suicide in the hope of returning to her respected commanders.
Traditional Chinese account
The Chinese traditional historical accounts on the Trưng sisters are remarkably brief -- found basically in two different chapters of Hou Han Shu, the history for the Eastern Han Dynasty, against which the Trưng sisters had carried out their uprising.
Chapter eighty six of Hou Han Shu, entitled Biographies of the Southern and the Southwestern Barbarians, has this short description:
In the 16th year of Jianwu , Jiaozhi (Giao Chỉ) [modern northern Vietnam and extreme western Guangdong and western Guangxi] women Zhēng Cè (Trưng Trắc) and Zhēng Èr (Trưng Nhị) rebelled and attacked the commandery capital. Zhēng Cè was the daughter of the sheriff of Miling (Mê Linh; 麊泠) County, and she married a man named Shi Suo (Thi Sách; 詩索) from ....(Chu Diên)  She was a ferocious warrior. Su Ding (蘇定), the governor of Jiaozhi Commandery, curbed her with laws. Cè became angry and rebelled. The barbarian towns of Jiuzhen, Rinan, and Hepu Commanderies all joined her, and she captured sixty five cities and claimed to be queen. The governors of Jiaozhi Province and the commanderies could only defend themselves. Emperor Guangwu therefore ordered the Changsha, Hepu, and Jiaozhi Commanderies to prepare wagons and boats, to repair the roads and bridges, to open the mountain passes, and to save food supplies. In the 18th year , he sent Ma Yuan the General Fupuo and Duan Zhi (段志) the General Lochuan to lead ten odd thousands of men from Changsha, Guiyang, Linling, and Cangwu Commanderies against them. In the summer of the next year , Ma recaptured Jiaozhi and killed Zhēng Cè, Zhēng Èr, and others in battle, and the rest scattered. He also attacked Du Yang (都陽), a rebel of the Jiuzhen Commandery, and Du surrendered and was moved, along with some 300 of his followers to Lingling Commandery. The border regions were thus pacified.
Chapter twenty four, the biographies of Ma and some of his notable male descendants, had a parallel description that also added that Ma was able to impress the locals by creating irrigation networks to help the people and also by simplifying and clarifying the Han laws, and was able to get the people to follow Han`s laws.
The traditional Chinese account therefore does not indicate abuse of the Vietnamese population by the Chinese officials, although that appears to be quite likely based on the negative implication from Ma`s biography -- if there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, why would Ma need to improve on them in a major manner? However, it also implicitly disavowed the traditional Vietnamese accounts of massive cruelty and of the Chinese official killing Trưng Trắc`s husband. There was further no indication that the Trưng sisters committed suicide, that other followers followed example and did so, or that the Chinese army fought naked to win the battle. Indeed, Ma, known in Chinese history for his strict military discipline, would not have likely carried out cruel or unusual tactics.
The Trưng Sisters are highly revered in Vietnam, as they led the first resistance movement against the occupying Chinese, after 247 years of domination. Many temples are dedicated to them, and a yearly holiday, occurring in February, to commemorate their deaths is observed by many Vietnamese. In addition, numerous large streets in major cities are named after them. They are often depicted riding on elephants into battle.
The stories of the Trưng sisters and of another famous woman warrior, Triệu Thị Trinh, are cited by some historians as hints that Vietnamese society before Sinicization was a matriarchal one, where there are no obstacles for women in assuming leadership roles.