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'Bronze Drum,' an Entertaining, TV-Ready Reimagining of the Legend of Hai Bà Trưng

Turning a beloved but brief legend based on scant historical evidence into a page-turning novel is no easy task. But Phong Nguyen’s book Bronze Drum succeeds in depicting the upbringing and rebellious triumphs of Hai Bà Trưng as a gripping epic that hits conventional storytelling beats.

From youths spent sparring with each other in their palace’s courtyard under the tutelage of their father, Lord Trưng, to amassing an army to expel the Hán to plummeting to death in defeat, the novel imagines the Trưng sisters' lives in vivid detail with aims of introducing the myth to a wider audience.

The fictionalized life of Hai Bà Trưng

Writing the book was frustrating at first because he "thrive[s] on information, the more the better," Nguyen shared on The Vietnamese podcast, and there simply isn’t much known about the Trưng sisters and the world they inhabited. From available medicines to styles of speech to bureaucratic routines, many aspects of Vietnamese daily life 2,000 years ago were not contemporaneously recorded. And most of what we know about the sisters — Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị — as historical figures comes from a few brief sections in an official Chinese history book written more than 400 years after their deaths and very short references in Vietnamese texts, so Nguyen had to invent various elements of their personalities and experiences with the guidance of anthropologist Nam C. Kim. As the novel's acknowledgment stresses, it is a work of fiction with imagination filling in gaps in the historical records and at times consciously including anachronisms. 

The Trưng sisters are amongst the most prominent historical figures in Vietnamese popular culture, being featured in countless works of art, literature, music and even video games, along with temples, street names and frequent evocations for a variety of nationalistic purposes. Truths and likelihoods are frequently sacrificed when societies collaborate to craft meaningful myths and the Trưng sisters are no exception. For example, despite often being depicted in áo dài atop ferocious war elephants, that attire is a much more recent invention and elephants are not thought to have been used in warfare in the region at that time.

Despite often being depicted in áo dài atop ferocious war elephants, that attire is a much more recent invention and elephants are not thought to have been used in warfare in the region at that time.

“Where I was choosing between history and myth, I chose myth because it was more interesting and most of the times between myth and invention… I chose invention because it couldn’t work dramatically the other way,” Nguyen explains regarding the task of blending important cultural elements with historical records and factual uncertainties to produce a book that meets expectations for American novels in the 21st century. 

One important deviation from the agreed-upon tale, for example, involves the violent attack on Mê Linh that proves to be the catalyst for the rebellion against the Hán. The sisters are not believed to actually have been present to witness the murder of Thi Sách and their father. Sách was Trưng Trắc’s husband, who has been demoted from his status as the son of a powerful lord in most tellings to a humble teacher in this work. But the novel makes a compromise for the sake of the theatrical and allows them to witness the murders to underscore the effect they had on them. New characters are also added to fill out the story. And while there is no wise-cracking animal sidekick as in many Disney films, there are supporting characters that fit familiar archetypes, adding balance, humor and contrast to the leading women.

Making over history into a pop sensation

I continue to make the comparison to Disney films because, like them, Bronze Drum grafts a story rooted in some historical realities onto a familiar plot arc and heroic journey structure that revolves around clear themes and lessons. Readers will be able to predict the roles characters will play and what outcomes await. Especially because the broadest elements of the narrative remain true to facts, reading the book is not a matter of anticipating what will happen, but rather how it will happen. In that context, Nhị, Trắc and the other characters are occasionally flat characters who declare beliefs and feelings, rather than act in ways that reveal the messy and ugly contradictions of the human condition and muddy the morals.

In no way does Bronze Drum seek to rewrite history, however, one can observe some contemporary values in it. The Trưng sisters have rightfully been praised as female warriors fighting against the patriarchy and in defense of women and the nation. The novel doubles down on this theme, perhaps inflating its prominence. For example, the sisters adopt a strict rule that no men were allowed to join their ranks, despite the unlikelihood of such a position, as reflected in Vietnamese artworks that include men on the battlefields (along with the dubious elephants, for what it's worth) and accounts of male generals who contributed to the rebellion. And because it is a fairly light-hearted read, while promoting the virtues of a matriarchal society, it largely glosses over grim realities of class hierarchies and exploitations. But these are of course compromises we make for entertainment and neat, uncomplicated messaging which is a primary goal for stories since before written languages.

I continue to make the comparison to Disney films because, like them, Bronze Drum grafts a story rooted in some historical realities onto a familiar plot arc and heroic journey structure that revolves around clear themes and lessons.

While Nguyen says there have been some discussions about a translation into Vietnamese, nothing is certain and as it stands, Bronze Drum is very much aimed at western readers who are likely encountering the legend for the first time and in doing so, learning about Vietnam beyond the very narrow context it typically occupies. As Nguyen explains in an interview published with the novel: “I myself was born in Boston and grew up in central New Jersey… Growing up in the 1980s, screen media offered few if any positive portrayals of Asian, Asian American, or especially, Vietnamese characters. Hearing stories that featured Vietnamese heroes likely saved me from the self-loathing that I might have felt if my only exposure to Vietnamese characters was through depictions of the Vietnam War.”

It’s nearly impossible for a book to become popular today without people questioning its potential for adaptation for large or screen screens. And whether a gritty prestige series or a family-friendly cartoon, given its misty source material, Bronze Drum would work very well filmed. But in its current form, the fast-paced book helps bring an important Vietnamese legend further beyond its borders while providing an easy, entertaining read.

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