People who live in Mongolia love their wrestling. For the past thousand years, they’ve spent hours watching each other getting pushed and shoved around until somebody falls down. I blame it on a lack of streaming services. Back in the early days, wrestling wasn’t exclusively a male sport among the steppe nomads. Nobody sent them the memo that said women should be excluded. In fact, the Mongols enjoyed lots of unisex activities. Take warfare, for instance. Mongol warriors fought on horseback, armed with bows and arrows. This technique didn’t require much brute strength to get the job done. Speed, agility, and accuracy of aim mattered far more than bashing and smashing. Warfare became a level playing field, and Mongol women could, and frequently did, gain recognition as warriors.
The heroine of this essay, Khutulun (1290-1306), was the greatest wrestler (female or male) that the steppes ever produced. She was the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan and the daughter of Kaidu Khan. Given her genetic inheritance, one wouldn’t expect this girl to be a lightweight, but she earned a postgraduate degree in toughness by being raised with fourteen brothers. Khutulun learned early on that it was either shove or be shoved. She chose the former and quickly rose to local fame by pushing harder than anybody else.
Mongolian wrestling has some interesting rules, or rather, very few rules. There are no weight classes, so there is no such thing as being fairly matched by size. Also, the bout has no time limit. It lasts until any part of the body other than the wrestler’s foot touches the ground. This means a contest could be over in no time, or it means the reverse. Two people grab each other around the waist or shoulders and tug and push until one of them falls down or they both die of old age.
Maybe the wrestlers’ tenacity was fueled by the size of the prize they hoped to win. They didn’t grapple for money. They fought for horses. To steppe nomads, the size of your herd was equivalent to the size of your wallet (only bulkier). During Khutulun’s years as a wrestler, she managed to amass quite a flock of fillies. Legend has it that she owned more horses than the emperor of China.
Her success as a wrestler (and warrior) was all very well and good, but her parents wanted her to get married and settle down. She agreed to their demands with one proviso. Khutulun said she would only marry a man who could throw her in a wrestling match. Suitors came from far and wide, ready to wager whatever horses they had on the off chance that Khutulun might be having an off day. She never did. They went home broke, and she added more hooves to her herd. Eventually, a wealthy prince showed up and wagered a thousand horses that he could beat the princess, so her parents sat her down for a little chat.
“Look,” they said. “This is the deal of a lifetime. He’s rich and handsome and will make a good son-in-law if you don’t break his neck first. For the sky god’s sake, throw the match! Take a fall!”
Khutulun wanted to make her parents happy. “OK, then,” she answered brightly and went out to do battle with her prospective fiancé.
The bout went on for quite a while. They pushed and pulled each other all over the Gobi Desert. The guy was pretty good, but, in the end, he was no match (pun intended) for Khutulun. Her competitive instincts kicked in, and with one mighty shove, she sent him flying into the dirt.
Her discouraged parents shook their heads. “She was so close!”
Khutulun smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”
The marriage project was put on hold for a while so that Khutulun could ride into battle beside her father and terrorize the various enemies of their tribe. The princess specialized in targeting an enemy soldier, chasing him down like a frightened deer, and dragging his carcass back to Daddy. There wasn’t much tactical advantage to her actions, but they did scare the compost out of the other side. Largely due to her efforts, the western Mongol provinces never came under the control of Cousin Kublai Khan and his Yuan Dynasty.
When Khutulun finally got around to revisiting the topic of matrimony, it was evident that she’d mellowed a bit. A cute soldier in her father’s army had caught her eye.
She walked up to him one day and said, “Here’s the deal. I like you. You don’t annoy me too much, so I’m gonna make this easy for you. Let’s get hitched. No wrestling required. What do you say?”
He scratched his head and thought about the consequences of saying no to the queen of steppe federation wrestling. “I guess so,” he answered timidly.
They were married shortly thereafter. A few years down the road, Khutulun’s father was ready to step down and hand the khanship to his daughter. (Technically, a Mongol queen is called a katun, not a khan. I thought I should slip in something factual lest you think this is all fluff.)
Khutulun’s brothers weren’t keen on the idea of Daddy’s favorite taking over. She wasn’t crazy about the idea either. She liked to fight and would much rather command the army than sit around signing documents all day. Her brother Orus came up with an alternative. If Khutulun would back his play to become khan, he would name her commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The alliance worked, at least for a short while. At the ripe old age of 45, for reasons which are still obscure to this day, Khutulun died unexpectedly. It has been speculated that somebody in the family feared she might fancy wearing the crown after all and poisoned her.
So, what does all of this have to do with V-neck shirts? Over the centuries, some new and highly misogynistic religious ideologies began to seep into the cultural values of the Mongols. It came to be viewed as unseemly for women to compete in wrestling matches, especially considering how often they seemed to trounce the male competition. To make sure no woman would ever again be able to compete, even by disguising herself as a male, a new dress code was enforced. Down to this very day, when wrestlers participate in the annual Naadam Festival, they wear shirts that are open from the shoulder down to the waist. At the end of the games, the winner raises his hands above his head to display his torso. That way, everybody can see he’s not a girl. Guess they’re all still a little worried that a reincarnated Khutulun might beat the pants off them and demand a thousand horses in prize money. Better to look silly and wear a deep V-neck shirt than let that happen!
(A bit of trivia: Puccini’s opera Turandot is very loosely based on the story of Khutulun.)
Khutulun is a Nasty Woman of Great Ambition.
© Nancy Wikarski 2023
Polo, Marco. “De la Grande Turchia.” Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo, circa 1300). 1982 edition by Italian publisher Editori Riuniti.
Weatherford, Jack. “The Wrestler Princess.” Lapham’s Quarterly, 2010.