Khutulun was known by several names, all meaning “moonlight,” and was born in 1260. She was the 14th child and first daughter of Emperor Qaidu (Kaidu) Khan (1230–1301), leader of the house of Ögedei and ruler of a large portion of the Mongol Empire, an area that now encompasses the section of Asia bounded by the Caspian Sea and modern-day Russia, China, and Afghanistan and also includes the Chinese region now called Xinjiang. According to contemporary accounts, Khutulun was beautiful, strongly built, and fiercely competitive, declaring that she would not marry a man unless he could defeat her in wrestling. She became her father's favorite, advising him and riding with him into battles as he waged constant war against is cousin, Yuang emperor Kublai Khan. Over time, Khutulun's prowess became so legendary that her presence on the battlefield was thought to make Qaidu's army invincible. Some sources claim that Qaidu wanted his daughter to inherit his kingdom, but when he died, she honored tradition and deferred to the elder of her brothers.
Born to Fight
In 1260, the year of Khutulun's birth, the Mongolian Empire was divided in parts, each ruled by a descendant of the great “universal ruler” Genghis Khan. Genghis was a brutal warrior, and after uniting several nomadic tribes into a huge empire with formidable armies, he conquered Central Asia and China, often massacring native populations during his military campaigns. At his death in 1227, Genghis divided his empire into khanates and distributed them among his sons and grandsons, making them inherited titles. The various khans vied with each other for power, none more so than Kublai, who had conquered what is now China, uniting its peoples and creating the first great ruling dynasty there. Qaidu remained at war with Kublai, off and on, for 30 years.
One source of conflict between the brothers was philosophical: Kublai, having established himself as emperor of China, adopted a luxurious, sedentary lifestyle. This was a rejection of the traditional Mongolian ethic of physical vigor and nomadic simplicity that was practiced by most of Genghis's descendants. Khutulun's people treasured athletic prowess and success in battle; rather than being cosseted by her father, she was raised to ride, wrestle, and gain mastery of weapons such as the bow and arrow.
Advisor to the Khan, Exemplar to His Armies
While women warriors were not uncommon among the Mongols, Khutulun's prowess and intelligence combined with superior instruction to set her above her peers, both male and female. Qaidu increasingly relied on his daughter's counsel and leadership, and she was respected by his troops. A remarkably fierce and fearsome warrior, Khutulun would ride at his side to war, then, as the opposing armies faced off, break away and gallop into the enemy ranks, haul a soldier off his horse, and drag him back to her father. This unanticipated act of bravado had an unnerving effect on Qaidu's enemies and added to Khutulun's reputation as invincible.
Such athletic prowess had deep spiritual meaning for the Mongols, and champions were understood to be blessed by the spirits. Khutulun's mastery in the arts of war made her much more than a good soldier or valued advisor; she carried a glow of invincibility that shone on her father and his forces. Success was their proof: father and daughter led successful campaign after successful campaign and held off Kublai's attempts to dominate both the steppes of western Mongolia, in present-day Khazakstan, and the mountainous regions of western China. For 30 years, Yuang armies found no purchase in this region and Qaidu and Khutulun kept their people's way of life secure.
An Unattainable Bride
Although Qaidu and his wife wished their only daughter to marry well, Princess Khutulun resisted the idea, declaring that she would marry no man unless he could beat her in wrestling. (In Mongolian wrestling, the only rule is that to win one must force any part of their opponent's body into contact with the ground; Khutulun generally threw her opponents there bodily.) In addition to beating her in wrestling, the young woman required that potential suitors would have to bring at least ten horses to wager, forfeiting them if they were defeated.
An eyewitness, Venetian traveling merchant Marco Polo (1254–1324) published his memoirs of traveling in East Asia in 1300, and in this account he described one Khutulun's wrestling encounters vividly. A wealthy prince from another ruling family wished to marry her and confidently wagered 1,000 horses that he could outwrestle her. Qaidu and his wife were pleased with the prospect of having this handsome and well-regarded man as their son-in-law and encouraged their daughter to allow him to win. They argued their point persuasively and begged her to give in. She agreed, out of a sense of duty.
The night before the contest, the prince met with Khutulun privately and asked her to let him win so they could be married. He promised to do her great honor and be a good husband. But it was not to be. Locked in combat and grappling her suitor by the arms, Khutulun could not bring herself to give in. After a painfully long struggle, she saw her opportunity and decked him. Deeply embarrassed, the young man left, leaving the horses and dashing her parents’ hopes.
Gossip grew about the unmarried princess. She was a prominent and colorful figure, and other kingdoms and chroniclers gave account of her. Her enemies speculated that she had an incestuous relationship with her father, permitting no other man to intervene. When Khutulun realized that this kind of nastiness was becoming a liability for Qaidu, she decided to marry. She chose a tall, handsome man from among her father's followers and married him, forgoing the requisite test of athletic skill.
By this point, Khutulun's herd of horses numbered 10,000, rivaling Qaidu's own stable. Undefeated in war or love, her value to her father continued to grow, and he relied on her more than ever. Some accounts claim that he wished her to rule his kingdom following his death. Her brothers were also talented warriors, and they resisted the idea. The princess did not make a claim on the khanate when Qaidu died in 1301, from wounds received during a battle near Karakorum. Ultimately the khanate was passed to Duwa, a relative in the line of succession.
After her father's death, Khutulun allied with her brother Orus and hoped that she could serve as his military commander. The alliance lasted a few years but was cut short when she died, mysteriously, in 1306, at age 46.
Khutulun's story was taken up by chroniclers of her day, not only Marco Polo but also Persian statesman and writer Rashid al-Din. Mongols remember her as a great warrior and athlete, while Western authors, such as Françoise Pâetit de la Croix, fictionalized her life and painted her as a headstrong woman ultimately defeated by love. Khutulun is thought to be the original basis for the character of Turandot, the subject of a famous opera by Giacomo Puccini, and she appears in other works of fiction set within her era.
Weatherford, Jack, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, Crown Publishing, 2010.
Yule, Colonel Henry, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, John Murray, 1875.