Visible Women

Forgotten Women: The rebel warrior who led a nation

Posted by
Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of Vietnamese warrior Lady Trieu, who led an army into 30 battles in the 3rd century.

Lady Trieu was Vietnam’s Joan of Arc or Boudica – a warrior so fierce she’s passed into legend (read on for details of her extraordinary height and other measurements). For hundreds of years we’ve lived in a world of male military leaders and we have to go a long way to find a time when women commanded armies and were all-round hardcore warrior queens. Way, way back to third-century Vietnam (then the kingdom of Nam Viet), under the rule of the Chinese, who wanted to aggressively assimilate its natives (if not stamp them out). China’s Han dynasty had collapsed and the Three Kingdoms had begun, allowing pockets of rebellious Vietnamese to try to regain control of their country.

Growing up in this atmosphere of unrest was a little girl whose exact origins are lost in the mists of time, but who was probably orphaned as a toddler and lived with her elder brother in a northern Vietnam village. The girl’s original name is unclear, but she was known as Trieu Thi Trinh or Bà (Lady) Trieu, and would become rebel queen of ancient Vietnam, depicted in folk art with a fierce expression and fairly massive bangers, while riding an elephant like a total boss.

It was at the age of 19 that Trieu realised her true calling – she wanted to become a warrior, to raise an army and go to war against the hated Chinese in order to release her country from the tyrannical empire. Hurrah! 

But Trieu’s path to heroism was not a smooth one – first she had to get round her brother, who tried to make her marry, rolling out the tired old idea that subservient wifedom would be a more suitable path than being a powerful rebel commander leading an insurrection against violent overlords. Huh. 

According to legend, Trieu set her brother straight, saying: “I want to ride the storm, kill the sharks, win back the Fatherland and destroy the yoke of slavery. I don’t want to bow down my head, working as a simple housewife.” (Some sources say Trieu also bumped off her brother’s annoying wife.)

Reading the traditional descriptions of Trieu, one wonders if the idea of her in the minds of the men writing her history several hundred years later might have become a bit, well, exaggerated. She acquired some interesting superhuman traits over the centuries. Lady T is said to have been a whopping 9ft tall and apparently had 3ft long breasts. (So many questions here, mostly to do with where they went during battle.) She also had a voice like a temple bell. Cool.

Whatever her physical appearance, Trieu got on with the job and led her army into more than 30 battles with the Chinese. She held the oppressors back for two years before finally being defeated aged 23, either by being killed in battle or by committing suicide by jumping into a lake. 

Trieu Thi Trinh became an icon of national defiance in Vietnam, a symbol of strength and courage and an inspiring example of a heroic woman who liked not doing what she was told. And riding elephants.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.

Main illustration: Josie Jammet