She-Kings Against Empire: A Review of Phong Nguyen’s Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War

Phong Nguyen’s post-colonial and feminist retelling of the Trưng sisters, national heroes of Vietnam, humanizes these women who have become legend. His historical novel Bronze Drum narrates the women-led rebellion against the Chinese occupation of Vietnam from 36-43 CE. Amidst the dramatic backdrop of political intrigue and sweeping battles, however, are the intimate moments between the rebellion’s leaders, sisters whose pursuit of joy leads them down a path of heroes, kings, and ultimately martyrs. Nguyen portrays the women who were devoured by history as real people who were imbued with national symbolism, much like the bronze drums the women armies strike to win their initial battles against their Chinese (i.e., Hán) occupiers. As younger sister Trưng Nhị muses when a second Hán army occupies the land, “‘Becoming a legend […] is the thing I’m afraid of.’” Likewise, the sisters’ grief and loss are deeply felt as they navigate a series of trials that transform into revolutionary leaders. While epic in its storytelling, Bronze Drum is more a compelling portrayal of the women who sacrificed everything to establish an independent Vietnam amidst patriarchal, colonial rule, and in doing so echoes more recent Western occupations of Vietnam and the losses suffered across the people’s history. 

Throughout Bronze Drum, Nguyen skillfully depicts the country’s landscapes, cultural values, and language in ways that reinvigorate a historical Vietnam. Ngyuen evokes the lushness of a country before its twentieth century devastation that lingers as an act of remembrance. Within Cung Điện Mê Linh, the Trưng 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 wind so that even the most contentious wills could sync as one.” Throughout the narrative arc the sisters often use this land as refuge and as defense from their occupiers. Similarly, names and locations are not simplified for readers. Instead, Nguyen provides a glossary, and Google Translate is helpful for pronunciation for non-speakers, another nod toward heritage and language that are fully embedded within the novel, refusing to be directly translated within its pages. 

Women’s agency and value occupy the novel. The Trưng sisters, daughters of the Lord of Cung Điện Mê Linh, a regional palace their ancestors historically ruled that is now under Hán control, dominate the narrative’s perspectives. Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị are fully realized and nuanced, with each sister going through her own trialsbefore ultimately spearheading their war against the Hán. While both young women were raised in the art of war by their parents under Hán rule, each sister has her own pursuits; Trưng Trắc is more scholarly and analytical, occupied by her writing and books, while Trưng Nhị is adventurous and impulsive, especially in her anger. Struggling to connect with her sister, Trưng Nhị “wished to find her own wildness, the inner animal that stirred and roared, reflected back at her […].” But each sister eventually endures traumas that harden their youth into that of seasoned generals and rulers, becoming less yielding to each other as their stories unfold, a distance that contributes to their eventual undoing. 

Over the course of three major epochs in Bronze Drum, both sisters pursue their desires: first, youth’s need for instant gratification; then love and revenge; then the imperative to reunite a country independent from the growing Hán empire. These wants are steeped in a longing for joy; frequently the sisters think about need for joy or the lack thereof in a world that has become subservient to Confucian ideals and patriarchy, an antithesis to the Viet ways. With independence instilled into them by their mother at a young age, above all else is a desire for freedom, to be unyoked from Hán colonial rule, which draws sharp parallels between more recent French and American occupations. The sisters yearn to be self-determined once again. Even Trưng Trắc, the elder and more obedient sister more willing to please, feels a storm brewing inside her when the Hán governor commands her to marry, “[…] which corrupted this duty and made it a prison; and all of this churned up by the monsoon of being promised to a husband in marriage.” When Trưng Trắc follows her desires, disobeying her father and the Hán by marrying the scholar Thi Sách, bloodshed soon ensues. 

Stark violence sparks the sisters’ transformation into revolutionary leaders. In a moment of defiance against the overseeing Hán lord, the Trưng sisters witness their father and Trưng Trắc’s husband, the defiant scholar Thi Sách, slaughtered before them. While the men figure less into the grander perspective, their influences and details matter greatly to the sisters, their mother, and the women of Vietnam, all enraged at the conscription of their men to fight wars for the Hán and their senseless loss of life. As Trưng Trắc reacts to her husband’s murder, she realizes amidst her outburst that “Life became weighted with numinous meanings, and that meaning, to last the rest of her days, was revenge.” The women’s rage and grief lend them the fuel to turn into otherworldly figures, particularly Trưng Trắc and her ascension to the throne as the first queen of Vietnam, although in the novel she calls herself a “she-king” or just “king.” The sisters cling to their identities as Viets and revolutionaries to recruit an army, entirely led and filled by women, that initially helps ensure their victory before causing their downfall in a land where men eventually grow suspicious of women in control. Upon the arrival of the second Hán army, the Viet lords do not intervene. One lord reasons, “‘It was always an illusion, an idle dream woven by the witchery of angry women.’”

Bronze Drum is a searing portrayal of the devastation of imperialism. In the Trưng sisters’ act of resistance against the Hán empire, Vietnam is temporarily freed, signaling a moment of cultural unity amidst conflicting interests of power and control. For readers familiar with the fate of the Trưng sisters, their reimagined ending in defiance of Chinese general Ma Yuan is poignant and impactful. While the sisters’ desire for independence and peace is not fully realized within their lifetimes, their acts serve as a conduit for cultural legacy and memory. The bronze pillars the Hán order the Viets to forge and the women to carry on their backs call back to defiance rather than subservience. The women in Vietnam’s history are so much more than myths. Rather, they are now embodied in future generations due to their will to move beyond survival and flourish in their own country. 

Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things: A Poetic Biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, 2020) and three chapbooks. Her reviews and poems have appeared widely in journals such as AGNIAlaska Quarterly ReviewColorado ReviewSouthern Indiana Review, and West Branch. She serves as Poetry Editor for Cherry Tree and teaches at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.