Women of the Mongol Court

These edited notes were taken from al ecture by Morris Rossabi, presented as part of the lecture series in conjunction with Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan, an exhibitionat the Denver Art Museum.

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 amore 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 militry. 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 inthe 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 illiterate, 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 t he 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 beself 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, supportof 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'sera.


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 eliteto 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 the1000 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 theordinary 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.