When Everything Seemed Lost
By Phong Nguyen
Phong Nguyen’s 2022 Bronze Drum is a stand-alone historical fiction novel.
In the Red River Delta, Lady Man Thiện and Lord Trưng administer the territory of Cung Điện Mê Linh … but only so long as they keep their Han overlords satisfied. This is a difficult task, as the occupying Han are easily offended. As difficult as the Việt present is, the future may well be more difficult, as neither of the Lady and Lord’s daughters seem suited to rule. Trưng Trắc is not forceful while Trưng Nhị is woefully undisciplined.
Spoilers for the Trưng sisters’ rebellion.
The imperialist occupiers are sure that their Confucian way is the best way, the only right way, of ordering society. They are perpetually being affronted by the continued existence of Việt cultural traditions. Despite generations of effort to eradicate the local culture and impose Han practices, the Việt are unenthusiastic about Han marriage practices and even of Confucian patriarchy. There are many other differences.
In the eyes of the Han, this lack of enthusiasm for Han ways is indistinguishable from insurrection. The trick, therefore, is to find ways to perpetuate Việt ways without providing the Han with an excuse to apply the draconian punishments of which they are so fond.
That the sisters might inherit rulership from their parents is anathema to the Han. Only men may rule. Since the Lady and Lord have no son, older sister Trưng Trắc must be married to some suitable man who will rule once the Lady and Lord are gone. In the eyes of the Han governor, the most suitable man is Commander Ho.
While the Việt reject Confucian structure, they fully embrace class differences. Việt women are free to choose lovers as they see fit but there is an unspoken understanding that lovers will be selected judiciously, that they will be of an appropriate class. When the sisters break this unspoken rule — one by falling for scholar Thi Sách, the other for a gardener’s son — the unspoken rule becomes quite spoken. Despite the Lady and Lord’s best efforts, however, the sisters remain committed to their respective romantic choices.
The Han see the region largely in terms of how much wealth can be extracted from it. The ability to pay a given tax level suggests only that perhaps the locals could pay more. Faced with onerous new taxes, the scholar is employed to beseech the governor for mercy. This, combined with the sister’s romantic choices, spells doom.
To reject Ho in favour of scholar Thi Sách is a rejection of the governor’s wise counsel, which is to say insurrection. To protest taxes is likewise insurrection. The Han do not tolerate insurrection. An irate Ho descends on the household. The Lord and scholar are berated and executed. The sisters are beaten. The family holdings are confiscated.
The attack is intended to cow the sisters and their people into humble obedience. Instead, it sparks a rebellion that will drive the Han from the land, a humiliating defeat delivered to the patriarchal Confucians by an army of women.
At the risk of spoiling a narrative two thousand years in the making, the Trưng sisters’ rebellion is generally seen as Vietnam’s first independence movement. It was not, however, Vietnam’s first successful independence movement. The rebellion lasted three years, from Lạc Việt Year 2738 to 27411, and it ended with the rebels’ defeat, the sisters’ deaths, and the restored occupation of Vietnam by the Han, more determined than ever to erase local culture in favour of their own.
On the other hand, as a glance at a map would suggest, success in 43 CE did not translate into the irreversible and permanent assimilation of Vietnam into the greater Chinese state. Nationalist movements recurred, and the Trưng sisters were elevated to folk heroes. In 43 CE, matters would have seemed quite grim in Vietnam, because they were quite grim, but to quote American pundit Jon Osterman, nothing ever ends. What appears eternal now may vanish in a few centuries time.
One might expect Nguyen to focus on the uprising itself. In fact, the author devotes more pages to the cultural context of the rebellion, the Han-Việt conflict, and the events leading up to it than to the rebellion or its aftermath. Given that the intended audience does not seem to be Vietnamese readers to whom the story would be familiar2, this may be prudent.
The prose itself is perfectly functional, sufficient to convey the narrative without being particularly noteworthy. As one might expect from national heroes, the sisters are engaging characters, with whom the reader will sympathize.
Chief among the Han-Việt differences: views on the role of women. The Han were extremely patriarchal — part of the trigger for the uprising was their absolute disinclination to believe women were fit or able to rule — so even temporary setbacks inflicted by a legion of women, commanded by women, would have seemed unprecedented and unnatural.
I don’t often say this but I wish this had been a bit longer than it was. Still, I enjoyed the experience and can recommend the book.
Bronze Drum is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: Roughly speaking, 1905 to 1902 Pre-Atomic.
One cannot help but notice the parallels with the Boudican revolt twenty years later, on the other side of Eurasia. It is as though hegemonistic empires share a talent for arrogant provocation, whatever their other differences might be.
2: I might misjudge Western readers, inasmuch as Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s 1979 Amazons uses the Trưng sisters as one of many examples of women warriors, along with Lady Triệu, who rebelled against the Eastern Wu dynasty two centuries after the Trưng sisters’ rebellion.