The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 2

A titled lady, Trung Trac, avenging the murder of her dissident husband by a Chinese commander, led the first major Vietnamese insurrection against China. She and her sister, Trung Nhi, mustered other restive nobles and their vassals, including another woman, Phung Thi Chinh, who supposedly gave birth to a baby in the middle of the battle yet continued to fight with the infant strapped to her back. They vanquished the Chinese in A.D. 40 and, with the Trung sisters as queens, set up an independent state that stretched from Hue into southern China. But the Chinese crushed it only two years later, and the Trung sisters committed suicide—in aristocratic style—by throwing themselves into a river. The Vietnamese still venerate them at temples in Hanoi, Sontay and elsewhere and the Communists ac¬claim them as pioneer nationalists. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, the sister- in-law of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem, erected a statue in Saigon in 1962 to commemorate their patriotism—and also to pro¬mote herself as their reincarnation.
Another woman, Trieu Au, the Vietnamese version of Joan of Arc, launched a revolt against China in A.D. 248, a generation after the collapse of the Han dynasty, wearing golden armor and riding an elephant as she led a thousand men into battle. Gloriously defeated at the age of twenty-three, she committed suicide rather than suffer the shame of surrender. Like the Trung sisters, she is remembered by a temple, and by her words of defiance: “I want to rail against the wind and the tide, kill the whales in the sea, sweep the whole country to save the people from slavery, and I refuse to be abused.”
These feminine exploits, doubtless inflated in popular legend, il¬lustrate the unique status of women in Vietnamese society. In contrast to their counterparts elsewhere in Asia and even in Europe, emanci¬pated only recently, they could traditionally inherit land, serve as trustees of ancestral cults and share their husbands’ property.
Though the Chinese conquerors referred to Vietnam as Annam, the “pacified south,” it was not peaceful. Resistance against China per¬sisted, often led by Chinese colonists who, like English settlers in America many centuries later, fought to free their adopted country. Revolts recurred chronically, and dissident nobles gradually perceived the need to mobilize peasant support. They broadened their move¬ments and stressed that Vietnam’s customs, practices and interests differed from those of China. Even then, a glimmer of Vietnamese nationalism was discernible.
The defiance of Chinese rule accelerated as China’s T’ang dynasty began to crumble after three hundred years in power, ravaged by palace conspiracies, corruption, agrarian unrest and alien incursions from the north. The Vietnamese again struck in the tenth century, this time successfully. Their hero was Ngo Quyen, a provincial man¬darin.
China had deployed fresh forces in Vietnam, some arriving by sea. In 938, as a large flotilla of armed Chinese junks approached the Bach Dang River, a tidal waterway in the north, Ngo Quyen resorted to a trick. He ordered his men to drive iron-tipped spikes into the riv¬erbed, their points concealed below the water’s surface. Then, at high tide, he engaged the Chinese, his own vessels deliberately retreating as the tide ebbed. The pursuing Chinese ships became impaled, and Ngo Quyen turned back to destroy them. The maneuver was a var¬iation of the guerrilla tactics that the Vietnamese would use again and again in the future as they faced superior foes.
The nature of Vietnamese resistance against China changed in the tenth century. A new emperor, Dinh Bo Linh, ascended the throne in 967, calling his state Dai Co Viet, the Kingdom of the Watchful Hawk. The son of an official, he had organized a peasant army com¬manded by urban intellectuals. His dynasty lasted only a decade, but it won Chinese recognition of Vietnam’s independence in exchange for regular payments of tribute. The tributary arrangement, which was typical of Chinese relations with the other states of Southeast Asia, endured for centuries.
But Sino-Vietnamese relations were recurrently turbulent. During the thirteenth century, the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan invaded Vietnam three times, pushing south to control the spice routes of the Indonesian archipelago. The Vietnamese, commanded by the illus¬trious Tran Hung Dao, repulsed each offensive. Like outnumbered Vietnamese officers before and since, he relied on mobile methods of warfare, abandoning the cities, avoiding frontal attacks, and harassing his enemies until, confused and exhausted, they were ripe for final attack. In the last great battle, which took place in the Red River valley in 1287, the Vietnamese routed three hundred thousand Mongol troops. In a victory poem, a Vietnamese general affirmed that “this ancient land shall live forever.” Seven centuries later, the Vietminh commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, evoked Tran Hung Dao’s memory as he launched an operation against the French in the same area.
The Vietnamese were no less aggressive toward their neighbors. After defeating the Mongols, they turned south to conquer Champa, the Indianized kingdom of central Vietnam. The seesaw conflict, which dragged on through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, reached its climax in 1471, when the Vietnamese razed the Cham capital of Indrapura, slaughtering forty thousand of its inhabitants. All that remains of Champa today are its magnificent stone sculptures, silent testimony to an extinct society. But its fate has not been for¬gotten by Cambodians and Laotians, who regard Vietnam’s present domination of their countries to be merely the most recent episode in a relentless history of expansion.
Exhausted by their campaigns against Champa, the Vietnamese again fell prey to China, now unified under the Ming dynasty, whose brief rule over Vietnam was probably the harshest in its history. Chinese gauleiters forced Vietnamese peasants to mine for gold and other ores, cut rare woods and grow spices, all to be exported to China along with elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, pearls and precious stones. They drastically imposed Chinese culture, confiscated Viet¬namese literature and compelled schools to teach in Chinese, sup¬pressed Vietnamese cults and permitted only the worship of Chinese gods. They decreed Chinese dress for women, prohibited men from cutting their hair and even outlawed betel nut, the Vietnamese equiv¬alent of chewing gum. They created an administrative grill, issuing identity cards to families, partly to control them and partly to stream¬line tax collection.
The Ming occupation inevitably provoked an insurrection. Viet¬nam’s savior this time, Le Loi, became its greatest emperor, equal only to Ho Chi Minh in its pantheon of heroes. Not only did he crush the Chinese decisively, but his dynasty, the longest in Vietnamese history, became a model of enlightenment—at least during the early phase of its nearly four-hundred-year span.

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