The Heroic Warrior Ba Trieu: A figure of Resistance Against Patriarchy and the Enemies of Vietnam
Warfare is a field that has long been dominated by men. Yet, in the history of war, there are a number of women who have emerged as great warriors or military leaders. One of the lesser known female warriors (outside of her country of origin, at least), is a Vietnamese woman known as Bà Triệu, which means “Lady Triệu”. Bà Triệu is known also as Triệu Ẩu, Triệu Trinh Nương and Triệu Thị Trinh, although remarkably her actual given name is unknown. Some scholars have called Bà Triệu as the ‘Vietnamese Joan of Arc’.
The Political Setting During Bà Triệu’s Time
Bà Triệu is believed that have lived sometime during the first half of the 3rd century AD. During this time, Vietnam’s powerful northern neighbor, China, was going through the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 AD), and was divided into three states – Wei, Shu, and Wu. The southernmost of these, the Kingdom of Wu, possessed some territories in northern Vietnam, and occasionally came into conflict with the people of this region. This is the political setting for the story of Bà Triệu, who was one of the figures fighting against the Chinese.
According to a 3rd century AD Chinese source, Chen Shou’s Records of the Three Kingdoms, during the reign of Sun Quan, the emperor of Wu, a rebellion broke out in the northern Vietnamese areas of Jiaozhi and Jiuzhen. As a result, the emperor appointed a general to subdue the rebels. Through the use of military force and diplomacy, the rebellion was eventually suppressed. None of the rebels, however, were named individually in this Chinese source. Therefore, one needs to turn to Vietnamese sources in order to find out about Bà Triệu.
The Bà Triệu temple, Thanh Hóa province, Vietnam. (Public Domain)
Legends Describing Bà Triệu
Amongst the Vietnamese sources that wrote about Bà Triệu are the Complete Annals of Đại Việt and the Imperially Ordered Annotated Text Completely Reflecting the History of Viet. Unlike the Chinese source, these two works were not written during the time when Bà Triệu supposedly lived, but much later. The former was written in the 15th century as the official Lê Dynasty history, whilst the latter was written in the 19th century as the official history of the Nuyen Dynasty.
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Additionally, Bà Triệu is an extremely popular figure amongst the people of Vietnam. Traditionally, Bà Triệu is said to have been 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall and had breasts that were 3 feet (0.91 meters) long. One account states that Bà Triệu had a voice like a temple bell, was capable of walking 500 leagues (almost 3000 km) in a day, and was extremely beautiful.
As a warrior, she is said to have worn a gold tunic, strapped her breasts over her shoulders, and rode into battle on a war elephant. She is also believed to have led an army of 1000 strong (men and women included), and fought in 30 battles (all presumably against the Chinese).
Đông Hồ folk painting of Bà Triệu riding an elephant. (CC BY NC SA)
A Fear of the Impure and Bà Triệu’s Supernatural Powers
Another tradition states that one of Bà Triệu’s weaknesses was her fear of anything smelly, impure, or dirty. This was exploited by the Chinese and is said to have been the cause of Bà Triệu’s death. In one story, Bà Triệu was alleged to have been waiting for the Chinese to emerge from their fortress to engage in battle, as she did not have any siege equipment.
When the Chinese commander finally decided to join battle, he ordered his men to surge out of the fort like wild animals – naked, yelling, and kicking up dust. Seeing this, Bà Triệu was immediately disgusted and left the battlefield. When her troops witnessed her leaving, they were struck by panic and also retreated. Bà Triệu was soon surrounded, and the tale says that she chose to commit suicide, rather than allowing herself to be taken alive.
Bà Triệu is also believed to have supernatural powers, as she was not done with the Chinese even after her death. One tradition states that after Bà Triệu’s death, the warrior appeared in the dreams of the Chinese commander, and gave him nightmares. Furthermore, a plague that struck the Chinese troops was blamed on her. To counter and ward off Bà Triệu’s spirit, the Chinese commander ordered his woodcarvers to make hundreds of penis images and hung them over doors.
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A Symbol of Resistance
The Vietnamese people celebrated and venerated Bà Triệu even following her death. Furthermore, when Vietnam was under local rule, Bà Triệu was honored by the court with posthumous titles. Nonetheless, it is possible that the incredible stories of Bà Triệu are embellishments by the common people as they were passed down (perhaps orally) from one generation to the next. It may also be possible to classify Bà Triệu as a folk hero, who may have been based on a historical figure whose existence we might never be able to certify.
Shrine of Bà Triệu at the Bà Triệu temple, Thanh Hóa province, Vietnam. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Regardless of whether Bà Triệu did exist, was based on an actual person, or was an invention of the people, it is undeniable that she has become a symbol of resistance. She has, most notably perhaps, been molded as a figure of resistance against the Chinese as well as patriarchy. As long as Bà Triệu remains in the hearts and minds of the people, her spirit will continue to be raised by various ideologies to fight for their cause.
Featured image: A painting of Bà Triệu on her elephant. Photo source: (The Vietnam National Forum)
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