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The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford

Puccini’s Turandot, it seems, was a real person. But we’ll come back to this later.

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, Jack Weatherford (Crown Publishing Group (NY), February 2010)

When Mongolia was released from the embrace of the Soviet Union some two decades ago, it gained more than its de facto (to go along with its de jure) independence: it also regained its history. The Mongol Empire and Genghis Khan himself have undergone considerable re-evaluation if not rehabilitation in recent years, a correction (would say those scholars involved) to previous misinformation, ignorance and neglect: Mongolia’s more recent few centuries as a tributary state of, first, the Chinese Empire and then the USSR—a period which only ended with the latter’s collapse—did little to enhance its perceived significance.

While some of the revived interest might be merely the (for contemporary tastes) appeal of the Mongols’ combination of machismo with a respect for the environment, one could make an argument, as did Jack Weatherford in a previous book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, and as have others, that the shape of the modern world owes much to the Mongols: that, for example, the pax mongolica allowed the Europe to come into direct contact with East Asia pretty much for the first time, allowing the transfer of technologies and a taste for trade goods that ultimately led to the age of exploration. Christopher Columbus may have used Marco Polo as a guide, but it was the Great Khan that gave Marco somewhere to go and something to write about.

In his latest book, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, Weatherford argues that the protectors of Genghis Khan’s legacy were not his sons, but rather the women of his family. “Genghis Khan,” he writes, “sired four self-indulgent sons who proved good at fighting, mediocre in fighting, and poor at everything else; yet their names live on despite the damage they did to their father’s empire. Although Genghis Khan recognized the superior leadership abilities of his daughters and left them strategically important parts of his empire, today we cannot even be certain how many daughters he had.” This ignorance seems to be the result of a deliberate act of censorship: “On an unknown day late in the thirteenth century, an unidentified hand clumsily cut away part of the text from the most politically sensitive section of The Secret History of the Mongols... Through oversight or malice, the censor left a single short sentence that hinted at what had been removed: ‘Let us reward our female offspring.’”

Weatherford goes on to tells the stories of these queens, who ruled (and sometimes fought) like (or, indeed better than) men, often shunting their husbands aside. These included Alaqai Beki, who was sent to rule over the Onggut, strategically situated on the Silk Road and Checheyigen who went to rule over the Siberian Oirat people. Other sisters were sent to what is now Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. When Genghis died, these sisters provided some mitigation against the less than salutary behaviour of their brothers.

Although the Mongol Empire continued to grow after Genghis’s death, among other things incorporating China under the Yuan Dynasty and Genghis’s grandson Kublai Khan, the seeds of subsequent rapid decline had, says Weatherford, already been sown; the Empire disintegrated and the Mongols in China returned to the steppe and those elsewhere were absorbed into the local cultures. If that had been the end of the story—and it usually has been portrayed as the end of the story—Weatherford’s thesis that the women made a difference might seem a bit thin. But the history of the Mongols did not end with the collapse of the Yuan: they regrouped under the leadership an extraordinary woman by the name of Manduhai in the second half of the fifteenth century.

The story is almost Homeric in its complexity, which is what makes it a good story, told here by a excellent storyteller and far too complicated to even summarise here. A teenage bride of a Great Khan in name only, the puppet of a warlord, is left alone on his death; she finds one of the last remaining direct descendants of Genghis Khan, living as a young child in dire poverty, and raises him to be Great Khan. She marries him, and together they reunite the steppe (with Manduhai charging into battle while pregnant) and threaten China once more.

“Genghis Khan was reincarnated as a woman,” Weatherford is told by an old Mongolian woman. “It was our Queen Manduhai.” Weatherford has a way with a story.

And Turandot? That’s another story. She was originally Khutulun, another legendary Mongolian princess, who refused to marry any man who could not defeat her in wrestling. She never was. To this day, “when Mongolian men wrestle, they wear a particular vest with long sleeves, a small back, but no shoulder covering and completely open front... the open vest allows each wrestler to inspect his opponent’s chest before wrestling and make sure he is genuinely male.”

After all this history that reads like saga, it seems churlish to remember that Weatherford’s book has a thesis about the role of women in Mongolian government and politics. It seems hard to argue with the proposition that the female members of Genghis’s family, by marriage and birth, included some extraordinary women, but one could say the same about Henry VIII. And the best efforts of the women aside, the Mongol Empire flamed out pretty quickly. It was China, which kept its women in rather more traditional roles, that ultimately triumphed. To draw conclusions from that would be to fall for a post hoc fallacy, but the censor of The Secret History of the Mongols might well have done just that.

Weatherford’s fascination for now largely forgotten corner of the world is infectious, as his evident affection for the Mongolian people. History can be dry: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire is anything but.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.