History and Asian Women
Recently, I saw an unusual sticker on a car. It said “Asian Women are never spoken of in History”. It was not clear to me what the owner of this car was trying to say, but it led me to thinking about the stories that I had heard in Mongolia about the famous women who made tremendous contributions to this Asian society.
Doing a little research and sending emails to my Mongolian students about this, I thought it might be educational for all of us to learn more about the women who lived in the 13th century in Mongolia. It may be good also to clarify that outer Mongolia is part of China and the country of Mongolia is north between China and Russian Siberia for those who may not be clear on this.
In my previous blog, I wrote about the changes that have happened in Mongolia since I was there in the 90’s. The Mongolians today continue to honor their most famous ancestor, Chinggis Khan. We know that in reality he was probably the most vicious warrior in human history. Nevertheless, he had a mother who contributed to some of his better aspects of character. She sought for him an understanding of languages, religion, and politics. Other women of his era were also influential Asian women. Below is something of what I found concerning notable Asian women.
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.
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 military. 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. (Below are short summaries of a few.)
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 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.
Sorghaghtami Beki was a Nestorian Christian (Nestorianism taught that the human and divine essences of Christ are separate and that there are two persons, the man Jesus Christ and the divine Logos, which dwelt in the man. This concept was rejected by the Church of Ephesus. Christ was considered divine in both areas.)
She recognized, however, 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. (Today we would call this Freedom of Religion)
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 people 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.( Perhaps the modern-day world has something to learn from this 13th century woman.)
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 from 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. (Readers may also be interested in the fact that while China ruled for limited children in a family, the Mongolians support multiple children because of the fewer numbers in population of Mongolia to the Chinese.)
In all of these efforts Kublai Khan 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 maintain 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. (It should be noted that during Mongolian history, that a message was sent out to the ruling Pope in Rome to send Christian missionaries to Mongolia to help the people understand the message of Christ. Only two priests started the long journey to Mongolia and finally returned to Rome before reaching Mongolia. This was when Mongolians turned to Tibet who did send missionaries and the people were converted to Buddhism.)
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. (Quite the business woman!)
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. (or allow herself to be defeated) 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 campaigns.
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.” (This may show us that where women…or men…are especially effective in one generation, it may not continue to the next. We, in modern times, have called a previous generation “The Greatest Generation”….and we may wonder as there has been a shift from the home to the work place, how our succeeding generations are doing?)
One of the stories that was told to me while I was in Mongolia was about a female champion wrestler. Wrestling in Mongolia is considered one of the manly sports. The others are archery and horseback riding. This woman wanted to enter the competition so she disguised herself as a man. She won and when it was discovered that she was female, the men changed the uniform of the wrestlers. You will notice from the picture below of a present day Mongolian wrestler that he may have sleeves, but nothing in the front. Even though traditionally, women in Mongolia found an honorable place, the men were determined that only this sport would remain manly.
To the woman who had the sign on her car about Asian women not making history, I hope she will be referred to this blog. Asian women everywhere should be proud.