Attempts by the Han Chinese to control or at least dominate Vietnam have been taking place for some 2,000 years. Vietnam offers a gateway to the warm tropical waters of insular Southeast Asia and beyond, as well as access to fertile land. Further, the populous and industrious Vietnamese represented a good source of exotic and valuable tribute.
When the Chinese first controlled Vietnam, they introduced irrigation, waterways and roads that seem substantially to have increased the standard of living. The preferred method of control was to establish military commanderies which served as collection points for tribute; the access to Chinese cultural artefacts and institutions and trading possibilities surely would have more than compensated for the trivial loss of suzerainty suffered.
And yet, of course, the Vietnamese seem to have spared few efforts in shaking off what they considered to be a terrible burden of subjugation. In this, they followed a pattern observed by a huge number of people throughout history – many struggles have continued for hundreds of even thousands of years in examples of the staggering waste of life and resources of which mankind is relentlessly capable. The Vietnamese are a distinctive ethnic group with connections to the Chinese and Tai groups. Their exact origin is unknown but the most recent evidence suggests a location in the coastal region between the Yangze and Red River Deltas.
Vietnamese origin stories are shrouded in myth, as might be expected. The first king of Vietnam was said to be De Minh, who was descended from the Chinese deity who invented agriculture. His grandson, via a fairy of the mountains and the king of land of red demons, was Lac Long Quan who married the Chinese Immortal Au Co, who bore him 100 sons. These sons established the first known Vietnamese dynasty.
The lineage of Vietnamese rulers is not much better established when it comes to the time of the Trung sisters. It is known that the Han Chinese ruled Vietnam with the leniency described above for several decades before an ambitious local Han governor decided that this leniency was standing in the way of the sinicisation of the ‘barbarian’ Vietnamese and hence denying resources to the central government and, presumably, perquisites to his own authority.
Rebellion broke out, as it has broken out uncounted times in uncounted lands subsequently. The leaders of this particular rebellion were reputed to be the two Trung sisters: Trung Trac and her younger sister Trung Nhi. The elder sister had been married to a Vietnamese chieftain who had been executed by the Chinese in the period preceding the rebellion. The two Trungs gathered together the remaining Vietnamese chieftains, forty in number, who had submitted to the Chinese, leading them into battle.