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Sunday, March 20, 2011


The word "khatun" in the Mongol language is today used to describe anything or anyone that does not break no matter how much pressure is applied. It is a word that conveys stateliness and strength. It symbolizes power, firmness combined with beauty and grace. It can appear in the name of either a male or a female.

And it means Queen.

Genghis Khan had a brilliant system of keeping his vast empire under control, starting with his own nomadic tribes. I would imagine that it isn't easy to unify nomadic peoples, because they're always on the move. You have to find them before you can fight them, and before they can yield.

Genghis Khan fought them and then he married them. And it was through a thick web of inter-tribal marriages that he did 2 things: (1) he kept the tribes loyal, and (2) he elevated the status of Mongol women. When he was born, women were bought, sold and captured. When he died, women ruled the territories their men conquered. "Whomever can keep a house in order, can keep a territory in order" said Genghis Khan, and with that he and his men left home to the women and went to conquer new lands.

His daughters married men from the aristocratic lineages of the steppes. Mongol sons-in-law perform bride service in order to prove their worth. In any other family, it involved herding. But if you married one of Genghis Khan's many daughters, you proved your worth by fighting. Tribes looked forward to their sons marrying Genghis Khan's daughters because it conferred status and wealth. However, these sons were immediately enfolded into Genghis Khan's personal fighting corps and were sent on the most dangerous missions, from which they often did not return. This was not a problem because in the interests of tribal relations, the tribe simply sent another aristocratic warrior son.

What an ingenious way of keeping down rebellion. The best of the sons from other tribes were thus separated from their own people, and sent into the service of the Great Khan. None could emerge as a strong enough leader, with a strong enough power base to threaten the Great Khan from within the steppes of Mongolia.

Sons-in-law of Genghis Khan gained no title, only glory in certain death. Very raw deal indeed!

Daughters that married the Great Khan's sons however, gained a title "beki" (princess), or "khatun" (queen). Each khatun served her tribe at the court of the Great Khan representing her tribe in all the important decisions taken at court. The status of each khatun in court rituals reflected her relationship with her husband as well as the diplomatic importance of her tribe.

Genghis Khan's first conquest of the rich kingdoms of China was preceded and greatly facilitated by his daughter Alaqai Beki, who became Alaqai Khatun when she married into the ruling family of the Onggud, a country which controlled the swathe of land between the Mongolian steppes and the rich countries of the south. Alaqai Khatun's rule in Onggud provided her father richly provisioned access to the Turkic and Chinese worlds. By controlling the Onggud lands Alaqai Khatun supplied the army with provisions and new horses while acting as a buffer from counter attack. From this springboard, Genghis Khan leapt to conquer an empire that stretched from sea to sea.

When he first became Great Khan, he did not divide his lands amongst his generals or his sons. He gave a quarter of all Mongolia to each of his wives. Each wife was given military might (which he often borrowed), a vast retinue and herds. The thought occurred to me again... What an astute man!! In giving away power and wealth to his wives, all still were his because women would never challenge his military might. Women fight only to defend. It is men who fight to offend. A woman's strength is felt only when pressure is applied. A man constantly seeks to test his own strength on another.

Genghis Khan built his empire on the soft, inviting and yet unbreakable loyalty of women - his mother, his wives and his daughters. He is quoted to have said "My wives, daughters-in-law, and daughters are as colourful and radiant as red fire... It is my sole purpose to make their mouths as sweet as sugar by favour, to bedeck them in garments spun with gold, to mount them upon fleet-footed steeds, to have them drink sweet, clear water, to provide their animals with grassy meadows, and to have all harmful brambles, and thorns cleared from the roads and paths upon which they travel, and not to allow weeds and thorns to grow in their pastures" (pg. 39, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, by Jack Weatherford).

Genghis Khan's empire was built with the iron strength of men, and the silk strength of women. His daughters administrated his vast empire for him. Under their rule, the Silk Route moved goods faster, more safely and more efficiently. Through the control of the Silk Route, his daughters managed a global financial institution of unparalleled importance. In their own vast tracts of land, Genghis Khan's daughters administrated policies of religious and inter-racial tolerance. These were the Margaret Thatchers of their day.

Even more shockingly for us today, no one ever questioned a child's paternity. Genghis Khan rescued his wife, Borte, 6 months after she was kidnapped by another tribe. When she gave birth to a son some time later, Genghis Khan insisted that it was no one's business apart from the mother, how that child came to be. This son was accorded full princely honours because Borte the Great Khan's wife, was his mother.

More generally, children were blessings and it didn't matter who conceived them. Genghis Khan's mother ran an orphanage for children whose parents were killed (even enemy children). When the Alaqai Khatun married her Onggud in-laws, her new husband had to divorce every other wife he had but Alaqai Khatun adopted every child from his previous marriages. This makes sense. You need to have numbers when you fight a war. No sense killing potential killing machines eh?

It would seem that the Mongols (of Genghis Khan) unlike many chauvinistic cultures, cherished their women and their children. No wonder they vanquished all in their paths for it is women's love and loyalty that make men and nations strong from within, and their ill will and insecurities that weaken men and nations from inside. And so it was that the Mongol Empire began to fall apart when Mongol men turned against their women... And it started with the mass rape of 4000 of the Mongol Empire's daughters from age 7 up, on an open plain. A son of Genghis Khan was atempting to take the lands of a daughter of Genghis Khan by force. Soon, control over the Silk Route ended, and without the Silk Route, there was no Mongol Empire, and for the next 3 centuries the Mongolians reverted to barbarism. It was only when Queen Manduhai the Wise (whom folklore held to be the reincarnation of Genghis Khan) took power that Mongolia was united again. More about this queen in the next post.

It occurs to me that today, in countries where women's rights are consistently violated, there is bloodshed and violence. Perhaps it is true that harmony and health result from the fine balance between the male and female essences of our universe. After all, the peace and prosperity we enjoy in Singapore was built on the equilibrium found in the relationship between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mdm Kaw Geok Choo, no?

And if there was any woman in recent history who deserved to be called "khatun" (power, firmness combined with beauty and grace), it would have to be Mdm Kwa Geok Choo.


Wen-ai said...

Interesting post, I learnt something new today. Thanks Petunia!

petunialee said...

Isn't it absolutely fascinating!! I can't wait to start on my next Jack Weatherford book.

Blur Ting said...

Yes, very educational and interesting. You should rewrite history books because only you are able to make history come alive with your clever writing.

petunialee said...

Ting - You're so sweet!! Thank you!! I don't think I'm anywhere near Jack Weatherford though. His books read like novels.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...


petunialee said...

Fry - *Big smile*

My SINFONIA said...

Hey, this is an interesting one. Thanks for that. Did not know that about the Khan!

Malar said...

This post on Khan is totally new to me too! Your writting skill is excellent! Are you a writer / editor?

petunialee said...

Sinfonia + Malar: Yup! I was intrigued too.

petunialee said...

Malar - I WISH!! Those are my DREAM jobs!!

Inez Deborah Emilia Altar said...

There is an interesting recurrent trend in a monogamist undercurrent among the Mongols, who both accepted women in their council and sometimes as fighters and commanders.
"The way to hell is paved with good intentions!" and sometimes people have been better intended than it appears, it is a pity that less effort was made to preserve and repair genetic damage to the surviving or existent variants of the ethnicity in the 21st century

petunialee said...

Inez - Thanks for dropping a comment!!