Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens:
 How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire
By Jack Weatherford
Crown Publishers February 2010
277 pages
From that beautiful place where they let you borrow books...

Professor and author Jack Weatherford discovered that in The Secret History of the Mongols, the section enumerating the deeds and rewards of Ghengis Khan’s daughters had been unceremoniously removed. His curiosity was piqued and he began researching the ways in which the female descendants of the Khan were instrumental in keeping their people united.

I found this book disappointing in two ways. Firstly, there just isn’t that much information about Ghengis Khan’s extended family. Weatherford is forced to do a lot of guessing and a lot of dot connecting. I felt like there wasn't particularly enough information for a book, but they stretched what they had because the concept was interesting. Every time you learn enough about someone to be truly interested, they are deposed, murdered, or the records simply stop. This makes it difficult to really get into the book because few things are certain and you don’t have a lot of time to become invested in these people.  Reading goes slowly, to say the least, when you aren't invested. 

When you read the book description, you expect it to be full of strong women making independent choices and generally kicking butt and taking names. Weatherford writes, “Four became ruling queens of their own countries and commanded large regiments of soldiers. At least one became literate, but several supported scholars, schools, and the publication of religious and educational texts. Some had children, while others died without surviving descendants…The royal Mongol women raced horses, commanded in war, presided by judges over criminal cases, ruled vast territories, and sometimes wrestled men in public sporting competitions. They arrogantly rejected the customs of civilized women of neighboring cultures, such as wearing the veil, binding their feet, or hiding in seclusion. Some accepted the husbands given to them, but others chose their own husbands or refused any at all. They lived by the rules of society when prudent, and they made new rules when necessary.
Without Ghengis Khan’s daughters, there would have been no Mongol Empire.”

But it doesn’t quite work that way. The first portion of the novel is not so much about women who asserted themselves and took power. Instead, it is about Ghengis’ realization that the men in his family, particularly his sons, were either weak or corrupt. He then transfers control of certain territories to his daughters by marrying them to strategic leaders, so he can go out and conquer more land. While his daughters do thrive in these positions of leadership, the more interesting thing is that the Khan seems to have progressive views on gender (or at least thinks that his own daughters are brilliant and capable).

This doesn’t mean that I regret reading this book. I have a much better understanding of the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongol people and the ways in which they intersected with their neighbors. The last woman mentioned in this book is truly awesome in an “I’m going to do things my way and then I’m going to ride into battle and oh, did I mention I’m also pregnant?” sort of way. Mundahai became a widowed queen in 1470 with no heir apparent. She refused the offers of marriage that were made and instead installed the last living descendant of Genghis Khan as co-ruler, despite the fact that he was only a boy. She and her child king Batu Mongke found common ground in their lack of family. Their friendship, camaraderie, and what appears to eventually be love made them an unstoppable team. Mundahai’s accomplishments as queen are truly amazing.

This is an interesting book, but the little bit of information about the Mongol Queens just isn't enough to make an entire book. It might have been more interesting to focus solely on Mundahai, the female descendant of Genghis Khan who rose to power and united the Mongol tribes, since the history of her rule has survived through the ages. Despite its faults, I’m glad I had the chance to learn more about Mongol culture and the women who had the ability to hold power in a time ruled by men. 


  1. That's a shame - the description does make it sound like there is going to be a lot of kick-ass women inside!