The story of Vietnamese independence begins not 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 from a tiny kingdom by the Red River. The story is both familiar and fresh, about a people — united under a federation of city states and led by charismatic revolutionaries —deciding to wage war against their colonizers.
In Phong Nguyen's indelible rendering, Bronze Drum resurrects an early 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 on the principles of individual liberty while ignoring the harsh realities of slavery, but clear-eyed Southeast Asian women who understand the cost of war and the fraught legacy of peace. The sisters' short-lived quest for independence actually brings on nine centuries of direct Chinese rule, but also heralds Vietnam's spirit of resistance that persists through the millennia.
Spanning seven years, from 36 A.D. to 43 A.D., Bronze Drum is at heart a riveting bildungsroman about Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, noble women of Mê Linh — a feudal state within the kingdom of Lạc Việt that 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 battle against the Hans, they proclaim themselves kings of Lạc Việt. But their dynasty, beset by doubts and internal dissent, only lasts about two years, from 40 to 42 A.D., prior to their fatal defeat by Ma Yuan, a seasoned Han general sent by the Chinese emperor to quell the rebellion. Trained from infancy in the art of war, the sisters' tragic predicament is not due to any delusion of grandeur that often afflicts male heroes in Shakespearean tragedies, but the opposite — the outsized contours of their public life demand that they suppress their best and truest selves.
Aside from using a few acknowledged anachronisms, such as the wearing of áo dài and conical hats in the first century A.D., 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 natives' matriarchal model giving 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, sea birds, 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 story-telling, 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 shifting nature of war and peace, life and death, feminine and masculine. In battle scenes, swords and spears are wielded alongside sinuous, 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, proceeds to give birth in the midst of carnage, then repurpose a quiver of arrows into an infant carrier.
Shaped by war, almost all characters in Bronze Drum struggle with peace. Trưng Trắc fights for peace but prefers the simplicity of war, since post-revolutionary politics, with its complex system of rewards and punishments, seems more vexing than war. For her mother, Lady Man Thiện, peace means the courage to self-destruct in an emergency, "If you are born to die by your own hand, then you have nothing to fear from war."
Ma Yuan, the Chinese general who successfully suppresses the Vietnamese revolution, also understands the price of peace. Leaving a resentful wife and infant child to travel 1,600 miles southward to neutralize unruly elements, Ma Yuan loses many of his talented soldiers along the way to tropical diseases and Vietnam's treacherous terrain. Ultimately, his scorched-earth strategy to erase Lạc Việt culture seems Sisyphean when juxtaposed across the vastness of time and space.
Bronze Drum's epigraph 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 becomes imprinted upon a culture's collective memory, and transformed in each retelling, until a reconciliation with the past is reached. Any effort to censor this memory would paradoxically ensure its longevity. As Sethe tells Denver in Morrison's Beloved, "If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place — the picture of it — stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world."
Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh