A stunning novel of ancient Vietnam based on the true story of two warrior sisters who raised an army of women to overthrow the Han Chinese and rule as kings over a united people, for readers of Circe and The Night Tiger.
Gather around, children of Chu Dien, and be brave.
For even to listen to the story of the Trung Sisters is,
in these troubled times, a dangerous act.In 40 CE, in the Au Lac region of ancient Vietnam, two daughters of a Vietnamese Lord fill their days training, studying, and trying to stay true to Vietnamese traditions. While Trung Trac is disciplined and wise, always excelling in her duty, Trung Nhi is fierce and free spirited, more concerned with spending time in the gardens and with lovers.
But these sister's lives—and the lives of their people—are shadowed by the oppressive rule of the Han Chinese. They are forced to adopt Confucian teachings, secure marriages, and pay ever‑increasing taxes. As the peoples' frustration boils over, the country comes ever closer to the edge of war.
When Trung Trac and Trung Nhi's father is executed, their world comes crashing down around them. With no men to save them against the Han's encroaching regime, they must rise and unite the women of Vietnam into an army. Solidifying their status as champions of women and Vietnam, they usher in a period of freedom and independence for their people.
Vivid, lyrical, and filled with adventure, The Bronze Drum is a true story of standing up for one's people, culture, and country that has been passed down through generations of Vietnamese families through oral tradition. Phong Nguyen's breathtaking novel takes these real women out of legends and celebrates their loves, losses, and resilience in this inspirational story of women's strength and power even in the face of the greatest obstacles.
Release date: August 9, 2022
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 384
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Listen to a sample
Behold the lacquered puppets dancing on a clear pool of water under the moonlight, and think back farther than you ever have before, to your ancestor-memory, and witness:
Here are the Trưng Sisters! Trưng Nhị is wild and venturesome, while Trưng Trắc is disciplined and proud. They ride into war on the backs of elephants, wearing golden armor, brandishing swords that flash in the sun, leading an army of women. And in the distance, the thrashing of the bronze drum, announcing the battle at hand.
Look! The wicked Hán governor enters the stage. He takes Việt honor and blood as if they were shimmering coins in his hands. He will settle for nothing but total subjugation.
Soon the armies will clash on the field. The Việt women love freedom and will not bow. The Hán men fight to conquer what was never theirs to rule: the soul of this country, its unobtainable heart.
Now watch as I, Kha the guardsman, ride between the two, and carry the heroic secret of how to vanquish the Hán to the Trưng Sisters, She-Kings of the Việts. I will not presume to claim responsibility for their victory—suffice it to say the outcome would have been uncertain without my help.
Let us clear the stage before we go too far. Let us focus instead on this sublime moment: the cusp of the Trưng Sisters’ triumph. There is nothing more beautiful than the intake and outflow of breath from the bodies of free men and women.
Today, on the sands of Tượng Lâm, there loom two vast bronze columns. General Ma Yuan, who erected them, said that the Hán will rule in this land as long as they stand. Yet the shift in the fortunes of women and men is as swift as the darting of the black-winged kite, soaring in one direction, then jinking suddenly in another. The work of nature upon us is more patient and, like the crawl of the snail, seems to leave only a faint trail behind it. Yet the shell endures, emptied of its life, to be worked on by the elements until it is indistinguishable from a rock, until it, too, joins with the grains on the beach.
Children, I say to you this: the bronze columns on the sands of Tượng Lâm one day will sink, to be swallowed by the tide and, over time, taken by the ocean as easily as a body.
Lady Man Thiện stirred restlessly beneath the furs. Her neck twinged in the recess of the stone pillow. Soon, the lord lying beside her would begin to dream, and within these troubled dreams, another night of frantic fear would ensue. But rather than wander the grounds at night, as was her habit, Lady Man Thiện shook her husband awake and asked him to tell her a story.
“What kind of story?” the lord asked.
“Something other than a nightmare,” said Lady Man Thiện. “I’ve heard enough of your nightmares.”
“Right now? You know how much trouble the night brings.”
“I want to hear something pleasant for once. Tell me how our daughters come to prosper.”
“Okay,” said the lord, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He leveled a placating stare at his wife and spoke in his most assuaging tone. Hers was not an idle worry. Their daughters would one day rule in Mê Linh, though neither showed the right disposition for it. The lord shared his wife’s fears for the future, that Trưng Trắc might never possess the forcefulness of a leader and Trưng Nhị may never yield to tradition. Yet Lady Man Thiện needed his assurances. “Years from now, Trưng Trắc will be the most desired woman in Lạc Việt, and though she will receive the attention of the strongest and handsomest men in the region, she will choose to marry none of them. Instead, she will give birth and raise children here in Cung Điện Mê Linh.”
“What about Trưng Nhị?” Lady Man Thiện asked.
“Well, Nhị is skilled at horse riding, so she will join the army, and rather than starting out as an officer, she will train cavalrymen until she learns enough discipline and responsibility to become a leader. Then she will marry a lord—”
“Why should she marry?” Lady Man Thiện asked.
“Nhị is too wild. She needs the taming influence of a husband,” the lord said.
“Oh? And have you tamed me?”
“That would be impossible,” said the lord, but his playful smile gave way to worry lines upon his brow. “Yet the Hán have tamed us all.”
Silence prevailed in the complete darkness of the lord’s chamber.
“I thought you were going to tell me a happy story?” Lady Man Thiện said.
“The only happy story you want to hear begins with a revolution.”
Trưng Trắc, the elder sister, was imperious, solemn, and filial; Trưng Nhị, the younger, was ardent and restless to become a woman. Trưng Trắc had recently reached her age of maturity, and Trưng Nhị was not far behind. Trưng Trắc could often be found indoors, studying the history of the Việts and the Hán, while Trưng Nhị was usually out in the garden, idling among the marbled cats and painted turtles and peacocks, if she could be found at all. The one space they shared with comfort and equanimity was the courtyard of Cung Điện Mê Linh. Here the sisters recited poetry and sparred with lacquered wooden staffs on a dirt-floored, sun-speckled patch of earth, in the shadow of a great stone sculpture of an elephant. The ointment of music soothed the sisters’ restless spirits and focused the mind so that even the most contentious wills could sync as one. Outside the courtyard, they never spoke about how each sister inspired the other, but in the songs they sung, one could imagine a unity that was impossible to break. When they sang together, their harmony reached the far corners of the palace and seemed, from a distance, like the keening of unhappy ghosts.
It was easy to glean each sister’s temperament by watching her spar. Trưng Trắc’s movements were patient and controlled, her every strike flawlessly executed but performed dispassionately, as she threaded the air with her staff like a needle in the hands of a seamstress. Trưng Nhị struck wildly, guided by the same instinct by which an ox charges a rival. Trưng Trắc’s formal style, honed through innumerable hours of practice, bested Trưng Nhị’s powerful but undisciplined stance. At the end of a spar, Trưng Trắc would help the fallen Trưng Nhị to her feet and apply a balm of camphor and paraffin to the bruises that covered her sister’s arms, her torso, her back.
Mornings, the golden light upon the dun clay walls of Cung Điện Mê Linh ascended over the ceramic tiles and through the slats in the wooden windows, like a purifying fire. For the night was full of the sounds of their father’s howling and crying.
Lord Trưng’s visions were occasionally so powerful that he believed he could see the future. The voices threatened to strangle him in his sleep. Many nights he would stir his family awake and beg them to leave their home, clothed in rags, and become a family of peasants. Lady Man Thiện would soothe him by stroking his hair like a child’s, though he was an old man whose gray beard had grown down to his navel.
Trưng Nhị often listened to her mother’s calm entreaties from the hall, as she lay down on the cold stone at the threshold of her father’s chamber like a guard dog. The sound of her father’s whimper excited the deepest protective instinct of her nature. Her memories of childhood were still sharp, and she recalled the times when, after being lulled to sleep by his sweet singing, she refused for days afterward to leave his lap. Back then, Trưng Nhị wished never to leave his embrace.
Every night, she swore to protect him; and every morning, after another night of listening to his howling in the dark, she swore that she would become nothing like him—that she would never be controlled by her fears.
The foundation for the lord’s latest dream was the introduction of a new governor, Tô Định, who was rumored to be ruthless, and who forbade the men and women of Lạc Việt from honoring the Guardian Spirit, forcing them to worship Hán gods. The governor, the lord dreamed in one of his nightmares, had learned of a plot among the Việt people to rise up.
For three generations, the Hán had occupied Lạc Việt and imposed their laws and customs on the Việt people. The Việts—tribal, communal, and matriarchal—were now separated into familial units governed by men, according to the Confucian tradition. Yet the legacy of their ancestors was preserved in stories passed from mother to daughter and sung in the corridors of every home, and the next generation of Việt aristocrats were emboldened to challenge the Confucian order.
But a new Hán governor in Lạc Việt asserted his will among the populous. He demanded the conscription of young Việt men to fight in distant wars, strict adherence to Hán law and religious practice among the peasantry, and marriages for Việt aristocrats so that the Hán could keep track of households and therefore debts.
The Trưng Sisters watched their father maintain an uneasy peace with the Hán, their historical enemy and their current regents—a powder keg that threatened to explode with the slightest spark.
In his dreams, the Hán swarmed the palace, the mud of their boots scuffing the stone floor, overwhelming the meager guard of Cung Điện Mê Linh, and leaving headless bodies everywhere they went. “If they mutilate our men, what will the Hán barbarians do to our daughters?” Lord Trưng begged his wife to understand.
“Our daughters are safe from the Hán,” said Lady Man Thiện. “If the time comes, they will know to take their lives rather than to have it taken from them by an enemy. If you are born to die by your own hand, then you have nothing to fear from war.”
From her perch outside the lord and lady’s chambers, these words rang and echoed in Trưng Nhị’s ears. She felt detached from this vision of her nobly taking her own life, landing with all the force of prophecy as though it were the fate of a stranger. Why did Man Thiện insist that war would shape their lives’ contours? Trưng Nhị did not believe she was born to die by her own hand, and imagined the day that she could run her own palace and entertain visitors freely—the kind of guests who would laugh at the solemnity of duty and the sacredness of war. She defied her mother’s notion of what it means to be a leader; but she was utterly alone in this defiance. She longed for friendships twined in pleasure, not forged in battle.
Framed by the window, the turtle named Kim Quy canted its leg and crooked its neck, as though to bring itself into perfect synchrony with the bending branch of willow buds behind it. A cicada from the field chirped its shrill ascending clicks, and the stalks of wheat waved slightly as though in response.
Seated ceremonially on the floor beside Trưng Trắc, Trưng Nhị was brought back from her reverie of this never-to-be-repeated moment in nature by a swift strike on the neck from their mother. Trưng Nhị’s attention immediately fixed itself on the assortment of stones, shells, and coins in front of her, representing the three constituencies of war: enemies, allies, and innocents. If she could trace a path to the stones through the sand without touching any of the coins, she would win. These war games were Trưng Trắc’s favorite challenge of her martial education, but the lure of battle—simplified and abstracted into shapes representing the field of combat—was lost on Trưng Nhị.
“What is your move?” Lady Man Thiện repeated now that Trưng Nhị was finally focused.
Trưng Nhị pinched her brows together in concentration. Her eyes always seemed to glint with mischief, and her high forehead formed an arch, unlike the widow’s peak upon her mother’s and sister’s browlines. Taking her stick in hand, she traced a line in the white sand between a shell and a stone that passed through a coin in the middle.
Lady Man Thiện let out a restrained laugh. “You cannot just trample over the innocents,” she said. “You must find another way to reach your enemy.”
Trưng Nhị resented being corrected in front of her older sister, who always seemed to find favor with their mother. She retraced the line, making a harder mark in the sand than the first time. “There are no innocents in war,” she said. “I must make them my ally, or they will become my enemy.”
Lady Man Thiện walked over to the table, took up a brush, and returned to the floor near the window where her daughters sat. She carefully erased the line Trưng Nhị had drawn with her stick. “That’s what the Hán say,” said Lady Man Thiện. “But if there are no innocents, then the Hán have already won. It is their purpose to divide Việt from Việt.”
Trưng Nhị felt the thumb of her mother’s disapproval pressing down upon her, but she refused to be cowed. “The Hán have won,” she said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t live by their laws.”
Lady Man Thiện turned to look at Trưng Trắc hopefully. “What would you do, elder daughter?”
Trưng Trắc lifted the sleeve of her robe with one hand; then, with contained eagerness, deftly flanked the rear position with two shells. Her movements appeared to flow in and out like a breath, and matched her pacific expression. The arcs in the white sand, one short and one long, looked like the trajectories of two arrows.
“Why?” Lady Man Thiện said. “You have trapped yourself in the snake’s nest.”
“To cut off the snake’s head,” said Trưng Trắc.
Trưng Nhị scoffed. Her sister’s move was bold, but it angered her to think of a cadre of generals sitting atop a hill and plotting while the war raged in the valley. “The generals are cowards, and always place themselves at the rear, where they are spectators to war.”
“A leader should never be a coward,” said Lady Man Thiện. “Especially not a Việt.”
Trưng Nhị said nothing, though she knew she would never be a leader and suspected herself to be, deep down, a coward.
Cung Điện Mê Linh was more than a palace. Overlooking the Red River, where the city of Mê Linh resided, Cung Điện Mê Linh was like a town unto itself, populated by workers and surrounded by a low stone wall. The servants and their families lived in separate longhouses on the grounds, and the Trưng family, the guardsmen, and their guests lived in the main palace, which, though its corrugated roofs were no higher than the back of an elephant, boasted a terrace overlooking the gardens.
Trưng Nhị strolled in the flower garden with the gardener’s son, Phan Minh, who was one year younger than Trưng Nhị. His father was responsible for keeping the animals. Trưng Nhị called Phan Minh “Keeper of the Names,” and presently she tested his knowledge of them. “One day it will be your duty to care for our animals, and you must treat them like your equals,” she said.
“My equals?” Phan Minh said. “They are my superiors. A gardener’s son has no status and no name but that which you bestow upon him.”
The fountain burbled as the water spilled from the mouth of a stone fish into a pool of real ones, multicolored and moving in every direction, popping their mouths above the surface of the water as if waiting for flakes of feed to fall from the heavens. The palace stood squat and wide and gray in the background, a horizon over which the late morning sun shone. Trưng Nhị thought that, with a little bit of luck, every day could be like this.
“All right,” replied Trưng Nhị with a wicked smile. “I now bestow upon you the name of Animal Acquirer. Furthermore, it shall be your job to bring more animals into our parks and gardens.”
“I am already struggling to remember the names of the fifty-five animals,” said Phan Minh.
“You aren’t counting the fish! The fish have names, too,” Trưng Nhị said, gesturing at the fountain. The idleness of a sun-warmed day and Phan Minh’s banter, alternately earnest and playful, blended into an ointment that spread along the surface of her skin. His friendship demanded nothing but her presence and her attentiveness, which he returned with equal fervor. She basked in it. She did not have to strive to earn his respect, as she would with her sister and mother, because it was easily given. “So, Animal Acquirer, when will we get a dog in Cung Điện Mê Linh?” Her voice was sincere but her eyes betrayed her mischief.
“A dog,” said Phan Minh, “would harass the marbled cats, scare away the painted turtles, and snap its jaws at the peacocks.” He made a snapping motion with his hands to show her how the peacocks would feel about such an arrangement.
“If we cannot get a dog,” said Trưng Nhị, “then I declare you to be the dog of Cung Điện Mê Linh. I hereby bestow upon you a new name: Minh the Dog.”
Playfully, Phan Minh immediately dropped to his hands and knees, barking and bounding around the garden like a new puppy. His boisterous play was infectious. Trưng Nhị laughed, taking a stick and hurling it over Phan Minh’s head, which he chased and brought back in his teeth, dropping it at her feet. He panted like a dog, and Trưng Nhị patted his head fondly. But when Phan Minh licked her hand, Trưng Nhị slapped him for his impertinence. It was an innocent reflex, though she was immediately flooded with both a yearning and pride, at once embarrassed by his audacity yet desperate for the kind of familiarity that it implied. He looked at her with wavering, watering eyes.
“Fine,” Trưng Nhị said, offering her hand condescendingly. “You may lick.”
Trưng Trắc sat on a stone recess in the wall, while Trưng Nhị leaned against a pillar. The great hall was the innermost room of the palace, allowing the sisters to look out upon the courtyard, the great elephant statue, and the moss-covered stone. This vision of the elephant was so familiar that it was like a silent, watchful parent. “Do you want to wander in the garden?” asked Trưng Nhị. She could still feel her muscles aching from their morning bout and she wanted her sister’s tenderness now that she had been beaten and mended. Trưng Trắc’s quiet studiousness simultaneously frustrated and impressed her. She could not help but seek her sister’s approval.
“I’m too old to wander in the garden,” said Trưng Trắc, her face impassive. Her expressions were slighter than Trưng Nhị’s, yet to those who knew her, the slightest curl of the lip or bend of the eyebrow could communicate more than any sutra.
“What do you do all day indoors?” asked Trưng Nhị. She felt sorry that her sister was content to be confined to pacing within the clay walls of the palace, while her own domain was all the world outside it.
“I write.” Trưng Trắc gestured with her arms to indicate the scroll upon her lap, feeling vulnerable at the prospect of sharing her private musings with her callous sister.
“Military strategy,” Trưng Nhị said dismissively. Trưng Trắc’s filiality almost sickened her in such moments. She might as well have been talking to Lady Man Thiện. How could she have a real relationship with her sister when Trưng Trắc spent her whole life emulating her parents, living accordingly to their will and whim?
“No,” said Trưng Trắc defensively. “I write letters, notes, lists… jokes and riddles.”
Trưng Nhị laughed almost witchily, but with an undertone of warmth. Trưng Nhị’s crooked, comely smile always risked a look of impishness.
Trưng Trắc looked at Trưng Nhị. “You’re laughing,” she said. “But I haven’t even told you a joke yet.”
“It’s just that you never mentioned this before,” she said. Trưng Nhị pictured her sister diligently and dutifully and humorlessly crafting a joke. “I never imagined you trying to be funny. Please tell me one?”
“Okay. Let me think of one you’d like.” Suddenly Trưng Trắc sprang to her feet and performed the joke like a puppet, shaking her head from side to side and saying in a shrill voice, “Our Hán cat never sleeps. He keeps us up at night, making bad smells. Why does he never sleep?”
“Why?” asked Trưng Nhị.
“Because he’s dead!”
Trưng Nhị’s expectant face turned indignant. “Dead cats are not funny. You are not funny. Go back to studying.”
“Maybe you didn’t get it,” said Trưng Trắc. “He never sleeps, but smells bad because he’s dead, right?”
Feeling cheated by the promise of a moment to smile and laugh together, Trưng Nhị’s eyes lingered for a moment on her sister’s face. She wished to find her own wildness, the inner animal that stirred and roared, reflected back at her in Trưng Trắc’s expression, but saw only the tight line of her mouth with the slightest bend to suggest that she had been amused by her own joke. Trưng Nhị stood up and walked away, her egg blue silk robe gently undulating in the wind from the courtyard.
“Wait, I have others,” Trưng Trắc said.
“I don’t want to hear them,” said Trưng Nhị to the air. She had tried to connect with Trưng Trắc and felt pitiable now for abasing herself in the name of familial harmony—a virtue she detested.
Trưng Trắc stared at the space vacated by her sister, before turning her attention to her pages of military strategy. “Each opponent is different, but their universal quality is fallibility,” it read. “Every enemy is vulnerable in its own way, whether an excess of pride, or a habit of indulgence, or a surfeit of will. To discover where the ship is weakest, you must use an awl to prod the wood, cubit by cubit.”
A month later and the monsoon season was almost upon them. For the feast of the Golden Turtle, Lord Trưng and Lady Man Thiện hosted the Lords and Ladies of Chu Diên, Cửu Chân, Nhật Nam, and Hợp Phố at the palace. The dining hall was lit by beeswax candles, and all the lords and ladies sat on the floor, holding their bowls to their lips to taste of the ox broth. Only when the last bowl was emptied, and the wine poured, did the talk begin.
“Your daughters are grown now and beautiful beyond any parent’s fondest hope,” the Lady of Nhật Nam said.
“Yes, grown,” said the Lord of Nhật Nam. “So when will they marry?”
“My daughters are not made to marry,” said Lady Man Thiện. “Marriage is an economic arrangement for the benefit of the Hán.”
“What will they do?”
“They will do as our mothers did and take whatever lover will bring them joy, and make them the best children, to raise in their own homes.”
“To raise children alone?” asked the Lord of Nhật Nam.
“Maybe,” said Lady Man Thiện. “What does a husband do but let himself be taken care of?”
The Lord of Nhật Nam scoffed. “But who will protect them?”
Lady Man Thiện raised an eyebrow. “You speak like a Confucian.”
The Lord of Nhật Nam, his legs crossed and his hands planted on his thighs, raised his chin as though he had just awoken. “Maybe I am a Confucian, then. I am just thinking about what is best for your daughters. It is my intuition that, even though our society has allowed women to choose mates at their own will, what women secretly want is a husband and head of household.”
“Maybe so, maybe not,” said Lady Man Thiện. “There’s only one way to know. Let’s ask.”
The Lord of Nhật Nam looked amused by the challenge. “If we are going to ask your daughters such a question, it is not enough that they give an answer. They must be persuasive.”
“You and I have already shown our bias,” said Lady Man Thiện, then gestured across the table to a thin, elderly woman, whose bowl of wine shook in her arthritic hands. “Why don’t we enlist the Lady of Cửu Chân as an impartial judge?”
The Lord of Nhật Nam’s lips pinched into a straight line, failing to conceal his amusement. “If we have a lady judge, we must also enlist a lord. The Lord of Hợp Phố will serve as a judge.”
So Trưng Nhị and Trưng Trắc were called in. Trưng Trắc stood with her arms rigid at her sides, like a soldier, as Trưng Nhị crossed her arms and scanned the room with a sour expression. Both women wore áo dài, the flowing silk gowns embroidered with floral patterns, Trưng Nhị draped in the orange of sunrise, and Trưng Trắc in the dark blue of twilight. When the sisters learned of the terms of the contest, they looked at each other for some invisible cue as to who should make the first attempt, and it was Trưng Trắc who finally spoke.
“A woman wants the same things a man wants,” she said, as though repeating instructions from a manual. “Glory in battle, comfort in bed, and the freedom to choose one’s own fate.”
“What of marriage?” asked the Lord of Nhật Nam.
“Marriage is an institution forced upon us by the Hán. It is the legacy of Confucianism, and should be abolished,” she said. But she felt the cold draft of disapproval wafting from the judges, and added, “Though marriage is fine for your generation, which has had to accept the yoke of Confucianism, and your own marriages are, I’m sure, sacred things.” As she spoke, everyone in the room could see her confidence waver.
Trưng Nhị, seeing her sister beginning to flail, interceded. Despite her feelings of rivalry with Trưng Trắc—despite her hope to surpass her in their morning sparring sessions and her dream to one day reign in her own palace far from Mê Linh and the Hán occupation—she hated to see her elder sister wriggle like a carp in a net. She stepped forward and gestured wide with her arms, a posture that suggested a story was forthcoming.
“Here in Mê Linh there was once a beautiful and proud girl named Hoàng Tâm, whose silken hair grew so long that it brushed the floor. She wanted nothing more than to mate with Trần Thuận, a handsome boy who lived in the same quarter. Trần . . .
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