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Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Khutulun

Undefeated wrestler, freedom fighter,and owner of 10,000 horses


For the last feet weeks at TWOC, we’ve brought you  stories of diverse women in history, one badass at a time. See how the series began, and catch up on the previous installments on a pioneering astronomer, and a master tactician.

The year was 1293 A.D. and the continent-spanning Mongol Empire had formally broken up after a civil war. The new Mongolian Yuan Dynasty controlled a tiny fraction of the Empire’s former territory–from present-day Southern Russia to Northern Thailand, the entirety of Tibet, and through to the Korean Peninsula. Emperor Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) had his work cut-out, keeping the peace. Throughout his life, he would be constantly thwarted in his efforts to take over the mountainous lands of Western Mongolia and China, by, of all people, his own niece — Khutulun.

As the great-granddaughter of the most successful warlord in human history (no exaggeration), Khutulun could easily have lead a privileged life of palaces and fine food, had she chosen to ally with Kublai Khan. Instead she dedicated herself to the traditional Mongolian pursuits of riding horses, archery, and kicking the shit out of anyone who crossed her. Above all else, Khutulun’s true passion was wrestling.

Legends say that Khutulun was the youngest child in her family, with fourteen older brothers. Elder siblings are the best sparring partners that nature ever made, and as Khutulun grew older her reputation as a strong and cunning fighter grew. When she reached adulthood, she frequently entered wrestling competitions–a popular spectator sport in the Yuan Dynasty. Khutulun was far from the only Mongolian woman who rode horses and wrestled, but what set Khutulun apart was that she never lost, ever.

As good wrestlers were highly respected, her reputation for never losing meant that she more than her fair share of suitors. Despite being royalty, Khutulun publicly announced that she would marry any suitor, as long as he could beat her in a wrestling match. To deter non-serious offers, she also stated that any man who challenged her would have to wager 100 horses.

Though few records exist from Khutulun’s wrestling matches, we know that by the end of her life she had over 10,000 horses.

Khutulun didn’t just fight for sport, however–she battled Kublai Khan’s forces in Western China, and with her father, established the borders of an independent, Central Asian kingdom. While Kublai Khan wanted his people to settle down and live sedentary lives as rulers of the new Yuan Dynasty, Khutulun fought to maintain independent and nomadic Mongolian life.

Marco Polo wrote about her in his travels through China, praising her cool-headedness and unorthodox strategy: “Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.” In short: outrageously badass.

Khutulun was so triumphant in battle that soldiers began to consider her a good luck charm. Her father wanted to name her the next Khan (wouldn’t you?), but unfortunately, her many brothers didn’t take kindly to the idea. Tough as she was, she wasn’t beyond being gossiped about, and the the latter half of Khutulun’s life was plagued by rumors that she had an incestuous relationship with her father. After marrying another man to quell the rumors (who, disappointingly, had never beaten her at wrestling), Khutulun died under suspicious circumstances when she was just forty-five years old.

Khutulun’s legacy lives on through the epic, though historically inaccurate opera Turandot, but more importantly, through the folk tales that were passed down about her life and legacy. Before Marco Polo’s writings about her were discovered, she was thought to be mythological only, but details of her life have been confirmed by recent Yuan Dynasty findings. Who knows what new details will surface about the life of this wrestler, warrior, and all-around badass.



Image courtesy of Getty Images, from GlobalPost (X)

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