The history of Vietnamese independence does not begin with Ho Chi Minh’s victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu, nor with the fall of Saigon and the reunification of the country in 1975, but two thousand years earlier, with two sisters of a small kingdom by the Red River. The story is both familiar and fresh, of a people – united in a federation of city-states and led by charismatic revolutionaries – deciding to wage war on their colonizers.
In Phong Nguyen’s indelible rendering, bronze drum brings to life a first segment of Vietnamese history that both evokes and subverts the founding myth of the United States. The revolutionaries in this story are not white men expounding the principles of individual freedom while ignoring the harsh realities of slavery, but bright-eyed Southeast Asian women who understand the cost of war and the heavy legacy of peace. The sisters’ short-lived quest for independence actually results in nine centuries of direct Chinese rule, but also heralds Vietnam’s spirit of resistance that persists through the millennia.
Spanning seven years, from AD 36 to 43, bronze drum is at the heart of a riveting bildungsroman about Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, noble women of Mê Linh – a feudal state within the kingdom of Lạc Việt which corresponds to present-day Hanoi.
The sisters represent two incomplete halves of a whole: Trưng Trắc is wise but inflexible, Trưng Nhị impulsive but empathetic. Initially victorious in their fight against the Hans, they proclaim themselves kings of Lạc Việt. But their dynasty, plagued by doubts and internal dissent, only lasted about two years, from 40 to 42 AD, before their fatal defeat by Ma Yuan, a seasoned Han general sent by the Chinese emperor to suppress the rebellion. Trained from childhood in the art of war, the plight of the sisters is not due to the delusions of grandeur that often afflict the male heroes of Shakespearian tragedies, but on the contrary – the outsized contours of their public life demand that they suppress their best and truest. self.
Apart from the use of a few recognized anachronisms, such as the wearing of ao dai and conical hats in the first century CE, Nguyen combines meticulous historical research with cinematic immediacy to illustrate the cultural chasm between Han and Lạc Việt worldviews. The Chinese imposition of a tightly controlled patriarchal system directly conflicts with the indigenous matriarchal model that gives women the freedom to inherit property, have multiple partners, and form flexible family arrangements.
The novel’s title also alludes to the Đông Sơn culture in Vietnam’s Red River Delta, an advanced Bronze Age civilization that produced bronze drums with concentric carvings of animals, seabirds, vivid scenes of maritime exploits and daily life. These bronze drums, when orchestrated to produce a series of coded rhythms for battle formations, represent the sisters’ most ingenious weapons against the Chinese invaders.
Above all, the bronze drums embody the tale, being objects that take on “a thousand meanings” depending on how they are played. Nguyen’s nuanced yet visceral reimagining of the sisters’ trajectory fully captures the changing nature of war and peace, life and death, feminine and masculine. In battle scenes, swords and spears are wielded alongside winding, tumescent tools normally seen in a kitchen or boudoir. Besides the ubiquitous bronze drums, an earthen jar can make a bomb that immolates an entire city; a rock, sheathed in silk, can become a whip that crushes an enemy’s head. A pregnant Vietnamese general, after slitting her enemy’s throat, delivers the baby amid carnage, then transforms a quiver of arrows into a baby carrier.
Shaped by war, almost every character in bronze drum struggle against peace. Trưng Trắc fights for peace but prefers the simplicity of war, because post-revolutionary politics, with its complex system of rewards and punishments, seems more vexing than war. For his mother, Lady Man Thiện, peace means the courage to self-destruct in an emergency, “If you were born to die by your own hand, then you have nothing to fear from war.”
Ma Yuan, the Chinese general who successfully suppressed the Vietnamese revolution, also understands the price of peace. Leaving a resentful wife and toddler to travel 1,600 miles south to neutralize the unruly elements, Ma Yuan loses many of his talented soldiers in the way of tropical diseases and the dangerous terrain of Vietnam. Ultimately, his scorched-earth strategy to obliterate the Lạc Việt culture seems Sisyphean when juxtaposed across the vastness of time and space.
bronze drumThe epigraph of reiterates the tenet “Nothing Ever Dies” articulated in both Toni Morrison’s fiction and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection of essays on war and remembrance. This concept explores how conflict is imprinted in the collective memory of a culture and is transformed with each story, until a reconciliation with the past is achieved. Any attempt to censor this memory would paradoxically ensure its survival. As Sethe tells Denver in Morrison’s Beloved“If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the image of it – remains, and not just in my memory, but out there in the world.”
Thúy Đinh is a freelance literary critic and translator. His work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh