April Magazine presents a new bi-weekly series that highlights the badass Asian women of history. If you have a heroine in mind, tell us in the comments.
The popular history of the Roman Empire is about conquest, expanding territories, assimilating the ‘less civilized’ parts of Europe, and protecting the glory of Rome, no matter what. From the Germanic point of view, however, Rome was just another foreign invader. Likewise, Alexander the Great could not be welcome in India. It’s a classic tale, a tale as old as history. In Asia, China’s neighbors tell similar stories.
Vietnam fell under the rule of China, then the Han Dynasty, in AD 43. Chinese dynasties and kingdoms ruled Vietnam intermittently over the next several hundred years, but the Viet never accepted the foreign empire into their hearts.
In the early 3rd century the Han dynasty collapsed and China divided into three kingdoms (yes, the famous three kingdoms of romance). Vietnamese rebels rose up here and there, taking advantage of the turmoil to throw out their Wu dynasty overlords. It was a David and Goliath fight, only without divine help.
Then a legendary warrior appeared to remind the world how fierce and resilient the Vietnamese people are. Her name was Trieu Thi Trinh, popularly known as Ba Trieu.
Born in a small northern Vietnamese town, Trieu lost her parents early and lived with her brother until her life changed at the age of 19.
After suffering for a long time, she slew the cruel wife of her brother and left home. Brave, strong, and smart, Trieu could have excelled at any career open to women of her time. She chose to fight for her people against oppression, so she went deep in the forest and raised an army. More than a thousand warriors followed her.
Hearing the rumor about his baby sister, the brother came to the mountain base and tried to ‘talk some sense’ into Trieu. We can imagine he told her to forget her ridiculous ambitions and be like other women. Trieu famously replied:
“I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the sharks of the Eastern sea, clean up frontiers, and save the people from drowning. Why should I imitate others, bow my head, stoop over and be a slave? Why resign myself to menial housework?”
Ladies, let these words sink in. Ride the wave, slay the shark, and save the people. A mission statement cannot get more badass than that. Her attitude was so cool even her brother joined the crew.
After that Trieu won more than 30 battles before the age 21. Her army fought the Chinese forces as guerrillas in the jungle as well as in the open field against walled cities. Legend says Trieu led the army wearing golden armor, with a sword in each hand, riding a war elephant. Hannibal must have looked nice on his Carthaginian elephant, crossing Alps, but this woman marched on a WAR ELEPHANT wearing GOLDEN ARMOR, with a SWORD IN EACH HAND. Why is there still no blockbuster, trilogy or HBO series, about this woman?!
The Chinese soldiers who underestimated a woman warrior (their own Hua Mulan came out a couple of hundred years later) were petrified by Trieu’s gaze, saying that facing a tiger is better than facing Trieu in a battle. Her voice in the field was clear and forceful, like a bell in a temple.
It was humanly impossible to defeat the massive Chinese army with a small band of rebels, of course. China sent more soldiers and worked on bribing the rebels. Facing defeat, Trieu jumped into a river rather than let herself be captured by the enemy. You see the resemblance with Joan of Arc by now? To be fair, Joan came much later (like, more than thousand years later) and had no war elephant.
It’s a shame that Joan of Arc is not called the Ba Trieu of France, and that Trieu is not even famous abroad. But to this day, Trieu inspires the Vietnamese people as a national hero and proud legend. Her temple is well kept. There’s a street named after her in Ho Chi Minh City. There is even a folk lullaby about her.
Sleep, sleep tight my child,
So that I can fetch water to wash the gilded saddle of the elephant.
Climb the hill if you want to watch,
Lady General Trieu on her golden gilded seat.
—Vietnamese folk song
It’s one hell of a story to tell little girls, for the budding warrior princesses.