When they were girls, sisters Trac and Nhi played a game where one hummed three notes and then the other had to guess the desired melody and continue it. Eventually they sang in rounds and the discordant melodies somehow resolved into one harmonious melody.
As adults, the sisters merged their disparate personalities – Trung Trac, the eldest, was “imperious, solemn and filial”, while Trung Nhi, the youngest, was “fiery and restless to become a woman” – to become the leaders of an all-woman military who achieve a short-lived but significant victory in what would eventually become modern Vietnam. “Bronze Drum,” a novel based on real historical events from 2,000 years ago, tells their brave but ultimately sad story, a tale emotionally rendered by novelist Phong Nguyen.
The sisters are the daughters of a Vietnamese lord; their lives and lands are controlled by the Han Chinese, whose harsh rule eventually forces them to take up arms, with Trung Trac and Trung Nhi leading the military effort. But their expressions of equality do not always correspond to the expectations or conventions of the first century of the common era.
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“A woman wants the same things a man wants,” Trac says at the start of the novel. “Glory in battle, comfort in bed, and the freedom to choose your own destiny.”
The title bronze drum takes on a similar scope of meaning and possibility, as “an object forged with so much care, one that took on a thousand meanings depending on where it was struck and the lightness of the touch”. It was used in times of peace, but in times of battle it became a rallying signal.
Part of the novel involves potential romantic matches for the two sisters, told with words and customs reminiscent of later practices in the era of works like “Bridgerton” or “Downton Abbey”, where women are meant to find suitable partners of similar background and pedigree. Unsurprisingly, none of the Trung sisters are inclined to adhere to such conventions.
When the battle with the Han Chinese finally comes, Trac proclaims that she has become “Trung Vuong, She-King of the Viets”.
“And it is my sacred duty to return the Viet lands into the hands of the Lac Viets.” The ultimate fate of her female-led army is a matter of history, and the Trung sisters’ last act of courage is a logical culmination of the lives they led.
Nguyen, who teaches fiction writing at the University of Missouri at Columbia, says in an introduction that the story of the Trung sisters is “historical fact, but veiled in myth. The traditional Vietnamese account canonizes the Trung sisters as saints and attributes their success to divine favor. It is full of legends of daring, seemingly impossible feats and a thirst for independence that permeates Vietnamese literature through the ages. It’s also filled with names and places that might be unfamiliar to most readers, and a helpful glossary serves as a welcome guide.
“Bronze Drum” is a worthy descendant of earlier accounts of the sisters’ exploits, skillfully combining historical legend with 21st century sentiment and sensibility. To use a more recent expression of female power and authority, these sisters do it for themselves, with the help of a female army of 70,000 men and soulful drumbeats that inspire them in battle.
And what about the bronze drums that played such a crucial role in the military exploits of Trung Vuong and Trung Nhi? A Han general ordered them to be seized, melted down, and then remelted into giant columns, symbols of Han victory. Yet despite the insistence of the ultimate victors that the instruments be destroyed, Nguyen says many drums survive today, just as the story of Viet women’s victory lives on through her novel.
“But many Vietnamese women did not voluntarily submit their bronze drums,” he wrote in the introduction. “[T]they hid or buried them, and two thousand years later archaeologists still find these artifacts in dig sites scattered throughout the north, as a reminder of the Trung sisters’ lasting legacy.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in West St. Louis County.