I visited the Vietnamese language page of Radio France International and came across an article on the Trưng sisters. It was nationalistic, and like most nationalistic writings, it projected the nation back into a period when we have no evidence that a nation, or a consciousness of a nation existed.
To quote a couple of paragraphs from the article:
Going back 2,000 years through the pages of ancient history, we see that when people speak of “100 years protected/colonized by the Western bandits and 1,000 years colonized/protected by the Chinese bandits,” in the “1,000 years protected/colonized by the Chinese bandits” the first uprising to successfully gain national independence was led by women. From that we can see the talent of Vietnamese women, and we can understand the role of Vietnamese women in the heroic history of the nation.
Hai ngàn năm giở lại trang sử cũ, ta thấy rằng trong cái mà người ta thường nói “ Trăm năm đô hộ giặc Tây, ngàn năm đô hộ giặc Tàu ”, thì trong cái “ Ngàn năm đô hộ giặc Tàu ” đó, cuộc khởi nghĩa thắng lợi giành lại độc lập dân tộc đầu tiên lại do phụ nữ lãnh đạo. Thế mới biết cái tài của phụ nữ Việt Nam, thế mới hiểu được vai trò của phụ nữ Việt Nam trong lịch sử hào hùng của dân tộc.
Going back 2,000 years through the pages of ancient history, we can gain a lesson on the two precious traditions of the Vietnamese nation, that is the spirit of unifying against foreign aggressors and the tradition of “putting the country before one’s family,” putting the collective good of the nation above all else. Those are also the two extraordinary strengths of the Vietnamese nation, that have helped the Vietnamese nation pass through countless storms of foreign invasion to maintain freedom and independence.
Hai ngàn năm giở lại trang sử cũ, qua câu chuyện Hai Bà Trưng, ta lại được thêm một lần ôn về hai truyền thống quí báu của dân tộc Việt Nam là tinh thần đoàn kết chống giặc ngoại xâm và truyền thống “ việc nước trước việc nhà ”, đặt lợi ích cộng đồng dân tộc lên trên hết. Đó cũng chính là hai sức mạnh phi thường của dân tộc Việt Nam, đã giúp dân tộc Việt Nam vượt qua biết bao bão táp ngoại xâm để giữ vững nền tự do độc lập.
I translated “đô hộ” as “protected/colonized” as this is a term that changed in meaning in the twentieth century. In pre-twentieth century texts, I cannot find evidence that đô hộ had negative connotations. It was simply a fact that the Tang had established an administrative unit called the “Protectorate of Annam” (An Nam đô hộ phủ).
However, in the twentieth century the term “đô hộ” came to signify “colonialism” through the French use of this term in the title of the Protectorate of Annam and the Protectorate of Tonkin.
The above paragraphs contain other twentieth-century terms that one cannot find in pre-twentieth century texts, such as “nation” (dân tộc), “freedom” (tự do) and “independence” (độc lập). These were all concepts that Vietnamese adopted from the West in the twentieth century.
As for the anachronistic description of the two Trưng sisters “putting the collective good of the nation above all else” and protecting the nation from foreign invasion, it is interesting to see how this also mirrors certain twentieth-century ideas.
During WW II, the Vichy French government that at least partially controlled French Indochina, was extremely nationalistic. A key figure in Vichy nationalism was the fifteenth-century Joan of Arc, who had led a French army against invading British forces.
In the aftermath of WW II there were a few new histories that were published in Vietnam, and they differed from histories that had previously been published. They were more nationalistic, and emphasized issues such as “struggle.”
A good example of this is Phạm Văn Sơn’s 1949 work, The History of the Struggle of Vietnam [Việt Nam tranh đấu sử]. This history does on start with the Hùng kings, but with “The Two Joan of Arcs of Việt Nam,” that is, the Trưng sisters.
Phạm Văn Sơn began his work by stating the following:
“That which is of historical value to a nation (dân tộc) is the spirit of struggle (tinh thần tranh đấu) and the mindset of modesty (óc liêm sỉ) of that nation. If when France was conquered by the Romans and brought under the protection (đô hộ) by the British there had been no Vercingétorix or Joan of Arc, then how would we have the glorious France of today?”
He then compares the histories of Việt Nam and France and finds them to be very similar. Both peoples originally constituted small groups that bordered more advanced societies (the Romans and the Chinese), and that while there were numerous times when the Vietnamese and French had lost to bigger nations, they had also at times defeated those larger nations as well, and this was something extraordinary (một điều phi thường).
One could add to this that the degree to which Pham Văn Sơn represented Vietnamese history in nationalistic terms that had been adopted from the West was also something extraordinary.
The images above come from the Harry S. Truman Library & Museumand were taken in Saigon on 3 March 1960. This is the information about them:
1. Title: School Girls Featuring the Trung Sisters
Description: Two young girls riding on elephants, portraying the historic Trung Sisters of Vietnam, during the parade in Saigon for Vietnam Women’s Day. Girls and all others are unidentified.
Accession number: 2014-2045
2. Title: Aides-de-Camp for the Trung Sisters
Description: Young women seated on horses, with men standing and holding the horses, during the parade in Saigon for Vietnam Women’s Day. The young women are portraying the aides-de-camp to the historic Trung Sisters of Vietnam. All are unidentified.
Accession number: 2014-2046
3. Title: Wreath Laying Before the Altar of the Trung Sisters at Me-Linh Place
Accession number: 2014-2064