I read an article that South Vietnamese historian Nguyễn Phương wrote in the 1960s on the Trưng sisters. I had never looked closely at the sources of information for their uprising, but Nguyễn Phương’s article made me realize that they are problematic.

trung sisters

What I can now see is that there were two early accounts about the Trưng sisters, and that one of these versions came to dominate the historical tradition (although it also changed over time), while the other did not. And as far as I can tell, the version that did not come to dominate is more accurate.

The first version appeared around 445 CE in Fan Ye’s History of the Later Han (Hou Hanshu 後漢書) and is as follows:

“In the 16th year, Giao Chỉ woman Trưng Trắc and her sister, Trưng Nhị, rebelled and attacked the [administrative center of] the commandery. Trưng Trắc was the daughter of a Lạc general from Mê Linh District. (Mê is pronounced ‘mê,’ and Linh is pronounced ‘linh.’) She married Thi Sách from Chu Diên as his wife, and was very powerful and brave. Giao Chỉ Governor Su Ding used the law to punish her. Trắc became angry, and therefore rebelled. After that, the savages in Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam and Hợp Phố all responded [to their call] and plundered 65 citadels. Trắc declared herself to be a monarch.”

至十六年,交阯女子徵側及其妹徵貳反,攻郡。徵側者,麊泠縣雒將之女也。(麊音莫支反,泠音零。) 嫁為朱䳒人詩索妻,甚雄勇。交阯太守蘇定以法繩之,側忿,故反。於是九眞、日南、合浦蠻里皆應之,凡略六十五城,自立為王。

Hou Hanshu 116

The second version appeared close to a century later (~515-24) in Li Daoyuan’s Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu 水經注), where it says the following:

“Later, a Chu Diên Lạc general’s son named Thi sought as his wife a Mê Linh Lạc general’s daughter named Trưng Trắc. Trắc was courageous. She led Thi to raise rebels (Note: ‘Thi’ has recently been carved erroneously as ‘wife’), attack the [administrative centers of] regions and commanderies, and subjugate the various Lạc generals, all of whom then entrusted Trưng Trắc to be monarch, and to establish an administrative center at Mê Linh.”

後朱䳒雒將子名詩索麊冷雒將女名徵側為妻。側為人有膽勇,將詩起賊 (案近刻訛為妻),攻破州郡,服諸雒將,皆屬徵側為王,治麊泠縣。

Shuijing zhu

The first difference that we see here is that in the Annotated Classic of Waterways the name of Trưng Trắc’s husband is Thi, rather than Thi Sách. This actually makes more sense.

In the eighteenth century there was a scholar by the name of Zhao Yiqing who pointed out this problem in an annotated version of the Annotated Classic of Waterways that he created – the Exegesis of the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu shi 水經注釋).

The problem revolved around the character “sách” 索 which Fan Ye had understood as part of a name, and Li Daoyuan had understood as a verb meaning “to seek.” This is what Zhao Yiqing noted:

“‘to seek a wife’ (索妻) is the same as to say ‘to take as a wife’ (娶婦). The [passage in] ‘The Account of the Southern Savages and Southwestern Barbarians’ in Fan [Ye]’s history which states ‘married Thi Sách from Chu Diên as his wife’ is completely erroneous.

一清按索妻猶言娶婦。範史南蠻西南夷傳云,嫁為朱鳶人詩索妻,亦謬之甚矣。

嫁為朱䳒人詩索妻,甚雄勇。

Shuijing zhu shi

This makes sense, because the sentence in the History of the Later Han is awkward (“She married Thi Sách from Chu Diên as his wife, and was very powerful and brave” – 嫁為朱䳒人詩索妻,甚雄勇), particularly the “married as. . . his wife” 嫁為. . . 妻 and the transition between “wife” 妻 and the next character, which means “very” 甚.

On the other hand, the sentence in the Annotated Classic of Waterways is smooth: “Later, a Chu Diên Lạc general’s son named Thi sought as his wife a Mê Linh Lạc general’s daughter named Trưng Trắc. Trắc was courageous” 後朱䳒雒將子名詩索麊冷雒將女名徵側為妻。側為人有膽勇.

Shuijing zhu shu

Then in the early twentieth century, Yang Shoujing and Xiong Huizhen produced yet another annotated version of the Annotated Classic of Waterways – the Commentary on the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu shu 水經注疏) – in which they pointed out that there was a passage in a tenth-century encyclopedia, the Record of the World During the Taiping Era (Taiping huanyu ji 太平寰宇記) which demonstrated that this term, “sách” 索, was used in the area of the Red River delta (i.e., Giao Chỉ or Giao Châu) to mean “to seek [a wife].”

There is a passage in that work on customs in Giao Châu, which states that “for a man seeking a wife [索婦], before he gets married he sends a tray of betel nut. Once the girl has consumed it all they become a couple.”

索婦之人,未婚前,先送檳榔一盤,女食盡則成親

Taiping huanyu ji

So it seems pretty clear to me that the passage about the Trưng sisters in the Annotated Classic of Waterways is more accurate on this point. However, the information that was eventually recorded by Vietnamese followed Fan Ye’s History of the Later Han. There are other ways in which Vietnamese sources followed the History of the Later Han as well.

I wonder why that was the case? Didn’t people remember the name of Trưng Trắc’s husband?

I’m attaching the Nguyễn Phương article that I mentioned here (Nguyen Phuong on Trung sisters).