Women of the Mongol Court

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Women of the Mongol Court

Morris Rossabi

These edited notes were taken from a lecture by Morris Rossabi, presented as part of the lecture series in conjunction with Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan, an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. (from website http://www.woodrow.org/teachers/world-history/teaching/mongol/women.html)

This material includes reasons for successful Mongol expansion, the role of Mongol women during the conquest, and the significance of the Mongol conquest in world history. It is good to keep in mind that modern Mongolia is three times the size of France and has a population of 2.2 million people. Professor Rossabi teaches at Queens College and Columbia University and is on the Editorial Board of the Journal of World History. He reads thirteen langauges and does research in nine of them. These notes were transcribed by Heidi Roupp from his lecture. Inaccuracies are hers, not Professor Rossabi's.

     The most important accomplishment of Chinggis Khan was uniting the Mongols not so much by conquest but by bringing together Mongols who were scattered throughout the country in the desert of the south, in the steppe lands of Central Mongolia, and in the forested and mountainous regions along the northern frontier.

How were the Mongols able to establish the largest contiguous land empire in world history?

     The Mongol Empire stretched from Korea and the Pacific all the way over to Georgia, Armenia, and Hungry. How were the Mongols able to establish such an empire with a population of 200,000 when China alone had a population of 100 million? The Mongols united at a time when disunity prevailed throughout Asia. As Chinggis Khan started his invasions, China was disunited, fragmented, and relatively weak. Similarly Central Asia was fragmented into a series of khanates and city states. In the Middle East, the Abbasid dynasty that ruled from Baghdad for five centuries was also declining. Southern Russia was a series of city states. There was no central government controlling the area. In a sense the Mongols were successful because there was a power vacuum in most of these regions.

     The Mongols had other advantages. The Mongols had a powerful military force based on the horse. They had the mobility to initiate full scale attacks, invasions, and hit and run raids. If they met a formidable enemy, they could retreat quickly. Another factor that led to their success was that the Mongols never had any intention of creating an empire. Each one of Chinggis Khan's discrete attacks was based on specific circumstances such as trade disputes or the treatment of Mongols or Mongol merchants. One of his first campaigns was directed at Yanjing (modern Beijing) in northern China. It was one of his greatest successes. In 1215 he laid siege to Yanjing, the capital of the Jin Dynasty, and succeeded in taking it. But instead of capitalizing on that victory to control northern China, when he got what he wanted, he simply went back to Mongolia. He barreled through Central Asia in a period of five or six years because of a dispute over trade. When he had conquered the whole territory, instead of going further west, he returned to Mongolia. Chinggis Khan did not have any vision of becoming a world khan.

Why did the Mongols leave Mongolia in the first place and head both south and west if they had no conception of world domination?

     First the Mongols as nomadic peoples were dependent on trade with sedentary folk. The Mongols and other nomadic peoples had a fragile economy. They never accumulated a surplus because they couldn't carry a surplus. If their animals got diseased or killed or if the animals couldn't get grass because of a bad winter, the Mongols had no reserves. So they depended on trade with the Chinese to get grain and other products they needed. The Mongols didn't have much of an artisan class in thiis initial period. The Mongols needed trade to acquire the products made by artisans. The Chinese, on the other hand, didn't need things the Mongols provided so there was an inequitable economic relationship. In 1200 A.D. the dynasty that controlled Northern China reduced trade with the Mongols. The Mongols had to attack to survive.

     The second explanation has to do with the climate. In 1974 a group of historical climatologists determined that from 1180 to 1290 the mean annual temperature of Mongols declined, not a lot, but enough that the growing season was reduced. Less grass forced the Mongols to move. At that point Chinggis Khan began organizing the tribes. This was probably his greatest accomplishment. It is almost impossible to unite nomads because the optimal size of nomadic groups is a tribal unit. A tribe is relatively small to allow groups to find grass for their animals. It is very difficult to persuade tribes to come into a supratribal group, a confederation, large enough to pose a challenge to a sedentary civilization. Chinggis Khan was able to do that. In 1206 all of Mongolia was under his rule. By the end of his life in 1227 he had conquered a limited territory. He was not the great conqueror but he fostered the Mongol Empire. It is really the second and third generations who expanded Mongol holdings.

How did women play a role in Mongol invasions and expansion?

     In a nomadic society each member of the society was critical to the survival of the group. Another explanation for Mongol success is that women played a very important role in the economy, they took care of the animals if need be. The Mongols had total male mobility for warfare. This made the Mongols a more daunting force than they might have been. Women also played a role in the military. Many women who actually took part in battle were mentioned in Mongol, Chinese, and Persian chronicles. Women were trained for the miliatry. Mongol women had rights and privileges that were not accorded to most East Asian women. Mongol women had the right to own property and to divorce. Although we don't know about ordinary Mongol women, we do know about prominent Mongol women among the elite. They were mentioned repeatedly in Mongol, Chinese, and European chronicles of the 13th century.

Sorghaghtani Beki

     Probably the most famous of these women was Kublai Khan's mother, Chinggis Khan's daughter-in-law, Sorghaghtani Beki. She is mentioned in so many sources as one of the great figures of the 13th century that we are assured that she was as remarkable as she is portrayed. European missionaries who visited the Mongols in the middle of the 13th century remarked that she was the most renowned of the Mongols. Persians wrote about her. A Middle Eastern physician wrote that "if I were to see among the race of women another who is so remarkable a woman as this, I would say that the race of women is superior to the race of men.

     She set the stage for all four of her sons to become khans. Although she herself was illerate, she recognized that her sons had to be educated. Each one learned a different language that the Mongols needed in administering the vast domain that they had conquered. Although she was a Nestorian Christian, she recognized that if the Mongols were to administer this vast empire that they had subjugated, that one of the ways of doing so was to ingratiate themselves to the clergy of these various religions. So she and her sons protected and provided support for each of the religions within the Mongol domains. She supported Muslims, Buddhists, and Confucianists. She introduced her son Kublai to the ideas of Confucian scholars to help him understand and be prepared to rule China. Her third contribution to Mongol rule was that she recognized that pure exploitation of subjected peoples would make no sense. Ravaging the economy of the conquered territories would ultimately be self defeating. Instead of turning China into one big pastureland, she supported the Chinese peasantry. If the Mongols bolstered the local economy, eventually that would lead to increased production and increased tax collections. Each of her sons followed the same philosophy. Religious toleration, support of the religions, support of the indigenous economy, and literacy--all proved crucial to her son Kublai, the man who really bridged the transition form nomadic steppe conquest to governance of the domains the Mongols had conquered.

     Kublai identified with the Chinese. He realized he would have to make concessions to the Chinese in order to rule China. There was no way for the Mongols to succeed on their own. 100 million people can't be ruled with a couple of tens of thousands Mongols. Mongols had no experience collecting taxes. In order to get that support from the Chinese, he began to act like a typical Chinese emperior. In the 1260's he began to restore Confucian rituals to the court. He moved the capital from Mongolia into China. He was responsible for selecting the site of Beijing as the site for the center of the Mongolian Empire. He patronized painting and painters in the Chinese tradition and supported Chinese drama. Chinese theatre went through a tremendous cultural efflorescence during Kublai Khan's era.


     In all of these efforts he was helped by his wife Chabi who played as important a rule as his mother had done. Chabi supported Tibetan monks who began converting the Mongol elite to Tibetan Buddhism. When Kublai conquered southern China, Chabi was influential in preventing revenge. She took measures to maintin the Song imperial family, to provide them with funds and a palace, not to enslave them or kill them. She too played a critical role in Mongol rule.


     One other extraordinary woman in Kublai Khan's era was Kublai's niece Khutulun. She relished the military life and loved combat. She even impressed Marco Polo who described her as so strong and brave that in all of her father's army no man could out do her in feats of strength. Her parents were a little concerned when she didn't marry by the age of 22 or 23. They were constantly beseeching her to enter into a marriage arrangement. She said she would only consent if a prospective suitor bested her in a contest of physical strength. She agreed to accept any challenge as long as the young man gambled 100 horses for the chance to beat her. Within a short time she accumulated about 10,000 horses. Finally a very handsome, confident, skillful young prince arrived at the court to challenge her. He was so confident of victory that he gambled a thousand horses rather than just the 100 she demanded. He bet he could beat her in a wrestling match. The night before the contest, Khutulun's parents implored their daughter to let herself be vanquished. But she would have none of that. She said that if she were vanquished in a fair contest, she would gladly be his wife but otherwise she wouldn't do it. So on the day of the wrestling match, the contestants appeared pretty evenly matched. The combatants grappled for quite a time. Then in a sudden movement, she flipped the prince over and won the contest. The prince took off and left the 1000 horses behind. She actually never did marry. She accompanied her father on all of his compaigns.

     While some of the stories may be hyperbolic, what they are telling us is that women in the elite were confident, were not about to be bowled over by men, and played an important role in Mongol society. There is so much emphasis on women playing military, political, and economic roles in this period that we're fairly sure this stretched beyond the elite woman. It trickled down to the ordinary women as well. Interestingly enough by the 14th century, there are no more Mongol women playing roles as leaders. They become increasingly acculturated. In the next generation after Kublai Khan, the daughters and granddaughter of Kublai Khan are no longer as prominent. They began accepting some of the restraints imposed on Chinese women. In that sense, in that sense alone, the Mongols were very much influenced by China.

What was the significance of the Mongol Conquest in world history?

     The Mongols brought the East and West together. For the first time the Europeans were in touch with East Asia. Not just Marco Polo but many Genoese and Venetian merchants as well as Persian astronomers and doctors came to Chna. In fact, four Persian hospitals were started in Beijing in the 13th century. The exchange of textiles and artisans influenced the art and culture of all Asia. The tremendous flow of ideas, of products, of people that occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries is the most important contribution the Mongols made.

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