I’m still on princesses currently. Bear with me.
Sometimes, it’s good to be honest with oneself. There are a few things that I feel very sure about in regards to the general trajectory of my life.
Number one: I deeply doubt that I will ever be considered as an expert or consultant or Person Who Generally Knows Things, in military matters. Or in matters that are even vaguely military-ish. Not gonna happen.
Number two: if I am ever in a wrestling match, I will never, ever win. Not ever. Not for money. Not for horses. Not for my freedom. Just not. This is not to say I’m a weakling – I’m actually pretty strong. I do twenty to thirty pushups a day (though, not all at once) and and can lift heavy children and carry heavy Duluth packs and balance a canoe on my shoulders while hiking a mile-long portage and can shovel dirt in the garden til the cows come home. But wrestling requires a certain know-how and a certain willingness to knock a person on their back and hold them motionless for some given amount of time. I cannot do this.
Number three: No one will ever, ever, write an opera about yours truly. And I am not saying this to guilt any of you into whipping one out, mind you. It’s just that there’s nothing about my life that is particularly opera-ish. And I say this as an opera lover.
And so you might understand, then, my current obsession with the Khutulun, Wrestler Princess of the Mongol Empire. Because the words “wrestler” and “princess” should always go together. Always.
Now here is her story. Khutulun was the great-granddaughter of the great Genghis Khan (and if you want to read an amazing book about Mr. Genghis – the guy who ruled the world from atop his horse, and whose footprints were so heavy and so indelible that they still are seen today, you should stop what you’re doing right now and read Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. And then you should read The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. In fact, you should probably read those books right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) She was also the niece of Khublai Khan and the daughter of Khaidu. Khaidu had other daughters as well, but only Khutulun made the history books. And story books. And operas. But that was later.
Anyway, Khutulun (whose name means moonlight) was the youngest of fourteen brothers, so the story goes, and, being a self-respecting little sister in the face of a pack of rowdy ruffian brothers, did what any of us would have done. She learned to fight. And she was dang good at it too.
(You see! It is an accident of birth order. This is why I will never be a wrestler, not because of any kind of endemic flaw. Man! I am so glad I’m writing this post right now!)
Anyway, as she grew she became skilled in the arts of war. This was unusual for the time, but not altogether unheard of. After all, there are several Medieval accounts of Mongol hordes (because this is how Medieval Europeans were able to keep the moral high ground, you see. If you swap “horde” with “persons who are different from us” it’s much easier to hate them) that indicate that the sight of women fighting along side of men was a fairly regular occurrence.
Still, Khutulun was a wonder. Her wrestling prowess – in a culture that prized wrestling so much that it was one of their most popular sports and pastimes – was known throughout the empire, and no man could beat her. Big men, little men, men with blood on the brain and men with love in their hearts, she beat them all. She also excelled in the Mongol sports of competitive horse riding (apparently that was a thing) and archery. In her culture, athletic ability was so highly prized that it bore a spiritual component. That she was so physically adept and so skilled with her body, there was an aura of blessedness about her. This carried over to her prowess on the battlefield, and her presence among the warriors was not only an asset (because she was just that good) but she was like a talisman as well. Her presence made her co-warriors assured of their own victory. And they were victorious.
This was problematic for poor Khublai who was trying tame the Mongol’s nomadic way of life and their warmongering ways. He had already decided that China should be the main base and the central seat of the empire of the Golden Horde, and was trying to enforce the strict courtly manners of the Chinese upon his Mongol brethren. This did not go over well, and there were conflicts between the armies of Khublai and the armies of Khaidu. Which meant that Khaidu and his daughter Khutulu were often at war.
Remember that poem by Coolridge?
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Through caverns measureless to man
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
I know. It’s off-topic. But I like it, and this is my blog. And anyway, it’s not really off-topic, because it highlights the difference in attitude between the sedentary Khublai and the nomadic Mongol tribes. So there.
Now, Khutulu was a skilled warrior, and a keen strategist. Warfare was big with the Mongols – as it was for pretty much everyone in the Medieval era – and Khutulun was the best. She was so good, that people wrote her prowess down – something not often done. Because most of the writers were men, and they didn’t feel the need to write about women. Not to get all….. well anyway, it was true. Marco Polo, however, was amazed by her – not only her valor and cool-headedness amidst the chaos of the battlefield, but of her unorthodox way of fighting as well. She’d ride into the battle at her father’s side and scan the enemy. Then, before anyone could react, she would “make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.” This would freak the other side so much – just at the sheer scope of her speed, how she’d magically insert herself into their midst and grab some poor slouch by the throat and carry him off, that they’d panic. How can you fight a warrior like that? Answer: you can’t.
Lots of men wanted to marry Khutulun, but she would have none of them. Her parents begged her to choose someone, but she waved them off. Finally, she said that she’d offer a wager. Any man who wanted to marry her had to put up one hundred horses. And then they had to try to beat her in wrestling. No one could, and our Khutulun amassed over 10,000 horses. Which gave her both power and status among the Mongol tribes, so good on her.
She remained undefeated, but she did end up marrying a fellow warrior. A man of her choice, not a marriage of submission. And she continued her war-making even after her marriage, which meant that she remained unconventional.
Now, she likely would have faded way. While she’s mentioned by Marco Polo as well as a few Muslim writers who happened to be travelling with traders and who wrote about the Mongols as a curiosity, rather than documenting their own culture, Khutulun was rejected by the scribes in Khublai’s courts and generally was removed from any historical documents from the Mongols themselves. She remained in the oral history and folklore, and if it weren’t for the Marco Polo mention, she might have disappeared from the annals of history altogether.
However, there is the opera bit.
In 1710, the French historian François Petit la Croix came across her story while researching a book on Genghis Khan, and included it in a separate book of Asian themed fables and folklore. He changed her name, though, to Turnandot, which means “Turkish Daughter”, which isn’t quite right, but what can we expect from a Frenchman, really? He changed the story a bit, too. In his story, she wouldn’t marry a man who wasn’t her equal – not as a wrestler, but as a riddle-solver. Which is awesome, but slightly less awesome than wrestling. He also, instead of paying her in horses, her thwarted lovers were put to death.
And then Puccini turned it into an opera.
And as much as I love Puccini, and as much as I love opera – this one in particular – and as much as I am deeply jealous of anyone whose life – or fake life – or frenchified version of their life – or whatever, is so very very awesome that it is deemed opera-worthy? As much as that, I still like the original story better. And I still want Khutulun to be my spirit guide and guardian angel and imaginary best friend. Because holy heck does that lady rule. She rules.