Princess Khutulun – not a woman to be messed with

Among the sexist comments I’ve had thrown at me in my professional life, was the suggestion that I didn’t have the physical presence to chair an interview panel. So this week I’ve chosen a woman who had possibly the most impressive physical presence in history. Princess Khutulun of the Mongol Empire was born around 1260 and was the daughter of Kaidu Khan, the most powerful ruler of central Asia, niece of Kublai Khan and great-granddaughter of Ghenghis Khan. She had fourteen elder brothers, so it’s probably not surprising that she learned to fight. But no-one expected her to turn out to be quite so good at it.

Khutulun was an all rounder: a champion archer and pretty good on a horse, too. The Mongols considered athletic prowess to be a spiritual trait, so Khutulun soon gained a reputation for being ‘blessed by the spirits.’ This made her a something of a lucky charm when she joined her father on the battlefield. Where Khutulun went, victory followed. Her unconventional fighting technique helped, too. Marco Polo described her as someone who could ride into enemy ranks and snatch a captive as easily as a hawk snatched a chicken.

It wasn’t unusual for a Mongol woman to go to battle. But what made Khutulun unique was her wrestling skill. Mongolian wrestling is pretty short on rules. There’s no matching for size or weight and no time limit. It lasts until any part of the body other than the foot touches the ground, so competitors can push and shove each other around for hours until one of them falls over. The long winter nights on the steppes must have flown by …

And while men queued up to take her on in wrestling, the same was true in life. Her beauty was as famous as her strength. But here’s the best bit of her story – she would only marry a man that would put up 100 horses and then beat her in wrestling. And no-one could. She remained undefeated and amassed 10,000 horses, more than the emperor of China. Then the rumours started. People said that she wouldn’t marry because she was involved in an incestuous relationship with her father. And so, to protect him, she married one of his followers, without fighting him. Marriage didn’t stop her from going to war, another thing that made her unusual.

Khutulun was her father’s favourite, and he tried to name her as his successor before his death in 1301, which didn’t go down too well with her brothers. She wasn’t keen on becoming ruler either, and made a deal with her brother that instead she’d become commander of the army and back his bid to become Khan. But a few years later she died in her mid-forties, of unknown cause. It’s hard to believe that one of those brothers wasn’t involved.

And our feisty warrior princess might have disappeared from history altogether if it hadn’t been for a French historian, Francois Petit la Croix. While researching Ghengis Khan, he found her story and rewrote it, changing her name to Turnandot, which means ‘Turkish daughter.’ The story then became the basis of Puccini’s opera (you know, the one with Nessum Dorma). So while Western culture portrays her as a woman defeated by love, in Mongolia she’s remembered as the most successful female wrestler in history. But the Mongols made sure that no more women made fools of their men. When wrestlers compete in the annual games, they have to wear a vest that’s open to the waist. At the end of the games the winner raises his hands above his head to demonstrate that he’s not a girl.

I think it’s fair to say that Khutulun would have had enough physical presence to chair anything she wanted. And if anyone dared suggest she didn’t, she’d have grabbed him by the throat.