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Khutulun

In this week’s episode of Bustles & Broadswords, hold your horses or wager them in a wrestle for a wedding because it’s time to talk about Khutulun, a Mongolian wrestling legend of a woman – and how her story was adapted for the stage in an iconic (and problematic) opera.

Show notes and full transcript below!

Transcript 

Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords, a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the weird limbo in between. I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. And I think variety is the spice of the warrior woman life. So sometimes instead of only talking about women with weapons alone, we talk about women…wrestling.
As we press into a curious crowd somewhere on the steppes of 13th century Mongolia – to catch a glimpse at the ongoing drama. Because this isn’t just any random brawl.
Muscles ripple with the push and pull of bodies, grappling and struggling, clouds of dust raised by dragging feet, grunts and the cheers of the crowd. Before a sudden thud…brings about silence. The one rule of this game of strength and skill? Touch the ground with anything other than your feet and you lose. And now out of four feet that had to this point treaded carefully around one another…two have gone heels up.
The fighter left standing on their own two feet? A towering woman, looking down at the man she’s just brought down with a hefty blend of strength and technique, the shadow of her muscular frame cutting across her opponent’s defeated form as he looks up in time to see the resolve across her face dissolve into satisfaction. As the crowd erupts in cheering, the victor calmly steps forward to accept her reward like she has done dozens, if not hundreds of times before. And that reward comes in the form of a rumble of cantering hooves. A myriad of fine horses – additions to her ever-growing stable. The prize she claimed from any man she defeated. Yet if she were ever to lose, they would get something far more valuable. Her hand in marriage.
This is a woman who refused to play a game she didn’t have a chance of winning. A wrestler in control of her destiny. And the inspiration for an Opera that ended up taking more than a few liberties with her legacy.
Yet which, in many ways, crossed paths with that of a few other iconic women – on screen and on the ring. This…is Khutulun. The noblewoman wrestler of medieval Mongolia.

Now, it’s not always easy to relate with a 13th century figure’s experience. Unless you are also a champion lady wrestler in which case…I’m honoured you’re listening. But I’m sure that the people who grew up with brothers in the audience can relate with our protagonist to some extent. So let’s start there. Because kid Khutulun, before becoming a towering terror, was a kid running along with her pack of brothers. All fourteen of them. Which can maybe kind of connect the gaps here to what led her to become someone who literally beats her potential husbands into the ground…So maybe we imagine a girl who naturally leant more towards so-called masculine activities.

But let’s actually check our cultural assumptions here. Because in 13th century Mongolia, if you’re a kid old enough to ride a horse…who cares about your gender? You’re picking up a bow and arrow, and you’re helping hunt for supper. And women were responsible for setting up and packing up camp in line with the nomadic lifestyle of the clans they were part of. Along with a range of other social responsabilities outside of the home.

Including, as it turns out, war.

So Khutulun was a rider and hunter at a young age – like other girls at the time. And she also had a will to fight. Nurtured by her father Kaidu, who, as she grew up and built up her skills, was gaining power through conquest. By the time she was in her twenties – he was one of the most powerful men in Central Asia, his reign extending across parts of Mongolia, modern day Afghanistan, Siberia and India. And he didn’t do this alone. Because he didn’t just nurture Khutulun’s fighting skills – he was like. Okay then. Get on the horse daughter – we’re warring. Yes that is exactly what he said. Fight me. Wrestle me. Don’t wrestle me. I don’t know how to wrestle. Sword? No problem. Wrestling…never done it, might be great at it, who knows.

Khutulun would don her battle clothing, her quiver of arrows, and maybe, yes, grasp the hilt of her sword and give it a few test swings. An ild – a sleek, slightly curved blade meant to be held in one hand. Unlikely to have been used with her feet firmly on the ground but instead having her other hand gripping her horse’s reins, using its sweeping cutting motion to slash her way through the horde of enemies that she fought alongside her father. Swift, brutal and deadly. And as she came of age, her sword’s lethal swish through the air announcing the arrival of a buff giantess of a woman nobody would want to cross – on and off the battlefield.

And, now, sipping my tea, learning about all this bloodshed, I couldn’t help but wonder…was being a ruthless warrior part of Khutulun’s family tree? Not that you have to have an illustrious geneaology to be a juggernaut of pure brutality of course. Pursue your buff, warrior princess dreams regardless! But it is worth asking in Khutulun’s case, because she and her father have a legacy to uphold, shaped in steel, blood and battle cries.

And that’s because the very name of Khutulun’s great-great grandfather is still associated with ruthless conquest to this very day.

It’s the one and only…Genghis Khan.

The first to hold the title of Khan, or Emperor of the Mongol Empire. The guy who united the nomadic tribes and made the Mongols a force to be reckoned with. That guy.

Let’s talk about the massive war elephant in the room. Some may have seen him as a liberator through conquest…most saw him as a destructor. Regardless, he left a massive Mongol Empire and enabled quite a lot of new ideas, technologies and cultural growth to disseminate. Which, if you’re conquering most of Central Asia and China, granted, is probably bound to happen as a side effect. So when Genghis kicked whatever the equivalent was for a bucket for the medieval-era Mongol Empire…he left a massive territory and just as massive shoes to fill. But plot twist. After Genghis’ death these words are credited to him: “Let us reward our female offspring.”

So hey, maybe Genghis could drink his respect women juice from the skull of his enemies. But add a big pinch of salt to that cup. Empowerment for women then and now is always a question of asking which women are included in that – and which ones are left behind. The women he rewarded in his life would have been his wives, concubines or daughters – or other family relatives. high ranking figures he rewarded accordingly when needed. Some of his daughters’ involvement in conquest would have involved marrying the right people to provide political leverage and strengthen alliances. But women under Genghis Khan also fought. And women were expected to know how to ride and shoot arrows on the same level as men.

After his death though, things regressed – with the violent repression of women relatives by Genghis’s son Ögedei and the murder of his sister Altalun to gain control of her territory. Once Ögedei died, more queens or khatuns were able to rule across the Mongol Empire. Including a woman regent – Töregene Khatun. A lot of this would be snuffed out by even more succession wars. If you think that Genghis’s impressive amount of descendants and THEIR descendants spent an obscene amount of time fighting one another for territory…well, yeah, pretty much. This is a podcast about women with swords, not about the complex legacies of tyrants. Which, by the way, I would totally call Tyrants & Tiaras. But this all made Khutulun the great-great granddaughter of a man who by all accounts saw no reason not to place women in positions of power and the great-granddaughter of a man who did everything he could to take it away from them.

And we don’t quite know about whether all women could fight under Kaidu. This being said, in those battles and many others, women were already key even if they didn’t fight. While the cavalry raced ahead, using the speed of their horses as a tactical advantage, women would lead the supplies and extra horses.

But at least we know – Khutulun was there. And she wasn’t just swanning around as a figurehead, coasting off her glorious legacy and keeping her weapons clean. If Khutulun was handed a bow and arrow and a sword – she was going to use them. As well as her sharp strategic mind. Because more than a soldier, she was a commander. Riding and directing her own regiment of heavy cavalry. Armoured, armed…and deadly. But for all her weapon skills – Khutulun showed in battle what many future wrestling opponents would also feel the full force of – her strategy and the strength of her bare hands.

Imagine a battle scene on the steppes, ranks shifting and reforming. A shimmering sea of riders, a storm of arrows and a chaotic clash of arms. And swift as a shadow, a rider, piercing into the enemy ranks like a knife through butter, with ruthless precision and purpose. She zeroes in on her prey and captures the enemy officer effortlessly, in an iron grip of a chokehold. Not to kill him, no. Not straight away. Instead, she rides off with him trapped in her unforgiving grasp. His cries of help lose themselves in the panic and chaos of the melée as she drags him back to her father, like a trophy of war.

It’s a sight that many would have witnessed but that one person immortalised it on paper. In fact, quite uniquely…describing the motion as being as easy as a hawk…snatching a chicken.

[chicken squawk]

Winning the prize for either the best or the worst analogy of all time.

And who graced us with this absolute banger of a line you may ask? A merchant, an explorer, a writer and first and foremost an Italian guy who, we commend him, HAD to commit the metal battle moves of Khutulun to paper.

This is…wait…hang on…

Marco?

Polo!

Marco?

Polo!

Oh yeah. It’s Marco Polo.

Now again, this is neither the ruthless conquerors podcast nor the one on Venetian merchants who go on a gap year hike throughout Asia and then make a big book out of the experience that captures the intricacies of Asian politics along the Silk Road for a European audience. To be fair…that would be an incredibly niche podcast. Almost as niche as a podcast about women with swords throughout history with a specifically queer lens. But that’s our historical Italian little guy in a nutshell.

The way he suddenly is Here to witness unconventional battle moves, in this story is because he was appointed as the foreign emissary of the leader of the Yuan Dynasty Kaidu and Khutulun were fighting against. Which was only slightly awkward because it happened to be…Kaidu’s own cousin, Kublai Khan. Though given the messed up stuff this family already did to one another, I think family reunions were already awkward before that.

Now to his credit, Marco Polo wasn’t exactly a news anchor for battlefield events so we’ll give him a pass on the hawk snatching chicken situation. A for effort, or maybe a B or a C for chicken…When it comes to Khutulun, he found it in his heart to be slightly more eloquent when it came to describing what she looked like, recalling that “the lady was so tall and muscular, so stout and shapely withal, that she was almost like a giantess.”

Which hey, look. Admiring buff, tall women? Perfect, no notes. B for buff.

He then kind of doubles down on how awesome Khutulun is with this observation: “This damsel was very beautiful, but also so strong and brave that in all her father’s realm there was no man who could outdo her in feats of strength. In all trials she showed greater strength than any one of them.” So at this point we can gather that either Marco here just can’t get over the novel concept of a strong woman or he may just have a bit of a crush.

Which is somehow ironic given that the adaptation of his journey into a series on Netflix, Marco Polo, does feature Khutulun…as his lover. Did Marco Polo rise from the dead and write the screenplay? I mean I hope not because it got cancelled after a few seasons. It does still nevertheless portray her as the warrior woman she was…which can’t be said of all later adaptations of her story. Spoiler alert.

Regardless – thanks to Marco Polo and his inability to chill when it came to talking about Khutulun, alongside the Persian statesman Rashid al-Din, we have accounts of a buff giant woman who didn’t just fight on par with men but also actively beat them with their own weapons, and their own games. As a rider, as an archer…and as a wrestler.
So now we head to the wrestling ring. Where, when Khutulun is not making men into pincushions or sword target practices or snatching them away from enemy ranks like you snatch the last chicken finger from your plate, she’s beating them up. But you know – as a hobby. And not just a little niche side hobby. Mongolian wrestling or Bökh was, and still is, part of the lifeblood of Mongolian culture. How old is wrestling in Mongolia? Oh, I’ll tell you how old. Cave paintings of naked men wrestling old. I mean, at least we think they were wrestling. Don’t get me started on the homoerotic implications of two naked wrestlers. Or do. I literally curated it into an exhibition! It was the wrestlers by Henri Gaudier-Breszka and he knew exactly what he was doing.

But wrestling didn’t just provide a great excuse to get way too close to your best bud but like, in a no homo way. It was also a way to train military troops – a three-in-one way to ensure your warriors had enough strength, stamina and skills. Genghis Khan was so hyped about wrestling that he had it celebrated as a sport meant to produce great warriors. And his descendants agreed, because wrestling became a core part of the Naadam – a great Summer festival tellingly also called “eriin gurvan naadam”, or…the three games of man. Alongside archery and horse racing, if you could achieve all three – wham bam you’re now a true man.

Congratulations. Please accept your goody bag. With complimentary existential 2am thoughts about what being a “real man” truly means. You’re welcome!

And…no, we don’t really know about many historical Mongolian women wrestlers aside from our headstrong and just…strong-strong lady here. But what we do know is that out of all the attire Mongolian wrestlers wear – one of them is the zodog. A tight-fitting short-sleeved jacket that is usually red or blue. It has a knotted string at the back and a daring open front, giving a full view of the wrestler’s chest. This isn’t just a darling Jean-Paul Gaultier-esque fashion moment though. It is tied to the legend of a wrestler who was unstoppable and beat all the other men, one after the other. Only to then rip open the jacket to uncover – a pair of breasts.

So allegedly from that point on the traditional jacket had to reveal the chest – to make it clear the wrestler is a man. And the presence of this moment of revelation comes from a design choice that essentially prohibits women from taking part – despite the very anecdote that shows that they not only did but excelled at it. And yet, it is also a moment associated with victory. As the winner of the wrestling match traditionally performs, just as they did a dance to initiate the fight – a victory dance displaying the chest proudly with a turn and a wave of the arms. Lending tribute to Khtulun herself.

So was the jacket-ripping wrestling woman Khutulun? She clearly didn’t hide her gender while wrestling. But maybe it was part of the flex – like “hey everyone – let me remind you that I’m a woman just to rub it in!” You’d be surprised by how often I come across that. I call it the flex and flash. Very scientific academic terms on this podcast. But either way, Khutulun didn’t let something like that get in her way. In fact – she’d use that skill to get things her way.

Because soon, maybe on her way back from battle or from wrestling – Khutulun is reminded of the more so-called traditionally feminine role she is being asked to fulfill, as her parents are like…so…hey…all that warring is good…and don’t get us wrong we LOVE the wrestling, but…when are you going to bring us back a husband? If you can feel that low rumble, I think that’s the sound of a thousand eyes rolling in a thousand sockets of successful career women who can maybe relate. I mean, barring the bloodthirsty fighting part specifically. But hey. Who knows. I don’t know your life.
But our warrior noblewoman is not one to back down from a challenge. Maybe she did want to marry. But it’s kind of like when you’re asked to do something you were going to do but NOW you feel petty about doing it. So, she announces that she’ll make a public declaration about her marriage. And her parents at this point, knowing their headstrong daughter who feeds men knuckle sandwiches on the regular are either like, hopefully, “oh wow! I’m sure nothing surprising will come out of this” or more likely “oh wow! I’m sure nothing surprising will come out of this”.
As Khutulun steps in front of the crowd assembled at Kaidu’s palace, it’s not hard to imagine a glint of humour in her demeanour, sizing up the hopeful suitors, some of which probably couldn’t reach her shoulders and some of which she could no doubt benchpress. As she declares…“Sure I’ll marry. Whoever…can beat me at wrestling.”
Probably the moment 50% of the men present gave up and 50% of the remaining men found an unrelenting source of completely unfounded confidence. But that’s not all. There has to be a price for entry. A wager, if you will. At which point Khutulun presumably did the maths and decided her hand in marriage could be counted in a specific currency – horse currency. And in Khutulun maths fashion, one hand in marriage equals a BUTTLOAD of horses any loser would have to hand over to her care. Now it’s not entirely certain HOW many horses.
Some sources rock up with confident swagger, remove their sunglasses and slam their boots down on the counter, announcing…it’s one hundred horses. Others, more shy and rational, cough politely and say, umm…it’s probably…more likely…10? So let’s say 10 to 100 fine horses. And look. Don’t point that “narrative vagueness” arrow at me. Okay maybe we said 100 in the intro as clickbait. As horse…bait? But all I’m going to say…if I have to go through with marrying any man who beats me at wrestling…I’m asking for a high wager price.
Also, who knows…maybe Khutulun was also a horse girl. No offense to horse girls – I used to be a horse girl. I mean, I wasn’t allowed to ride the horses, but I played Barbie Riding Club on my PC which is almost the same vibe. But horses – again? Very important in Mongolian culture.
(By the way – 5 horses? That’s maybe not a lot for Khutulun and rightly so? But – five stars on a review if you liked this episode? Now…that would mean a lot to me).

So if this was a montage in a film, it would be set to that one part in Patti Smith’s song that goes “Horses! Horses! Horses! Horse” with clip art of horses flying everywere as one by one, suitors turn up to wrestle and one by one, hit the floor. This cinematic vision will, thankfully (for cinema) remain a vivid visual audio landscape I narrate to you instead. But you get the idea. Khutulun’s beating all the guys and making major gains – equine gains. She’s already ripped, after all…though I’m sure a steady stream of men challenging her to wrestle was a key part of her workout routine.

And this all culminates to the moment a new challenger approaches. And I don’t know his name. So I’ll naturally have to call him 1k Horse Guy. You’ll never guess why or where this is going. We do know that this guy is a Prince. He’s handsome, he’s tall and he’s presumably strong and skilled enough to try his hand at wrestling Khutulun.

But most importantly, he steps up and is like – ha – 10 to 100 fine horses? That’s chump change. Chump horse change. Get this – I will wager…a thousand horses.

Oh wow, who would have seen this coming.

Khutulun eyes him up and down and is like “yeah, sure – I’ll take that action.” He seems confident. This could be interesting. So imagine our wrestling champion’s surprise when that very night, 1K Horse Guy finds her and has something to declare. And…it’s not flirting. It’s not intimidation.

It’s straight up BEGGING. He goes “please, please, oh PLEASE can you throw this fight? I’m not going to win and I just really want to marry you. Like just do me a solid and I’ll be the best husband ever. Pleeeease?” At which point Khutulun probably stared straight into the camera and sighs. Before her damning response. “I’ll never allow myself to be beaten if I can help it. But hey, good luck.” Before walking away, maybe leaving 1k Horse Guy with some hope that just maybe, this wrestling noblewoman might find it in her heart to make an exception to her track record.

So we’re now in the Great Hall of Kaidu’s Palace. And everyone has come to watch this fight. I mean come on, the guy’s pledged a thousand horses. As the match starts, he makes a few moves. Maybe she lets him gain a bit of confidence, a bit of momentum. A bit of hope she’s really going to let him win. And then, in an instant, she grabs him and knocks the wind out of him. And effortlessly throws him on the hard pavement of the palace. But even more painfully humiliating is the noble lady standing over him, enjoying her victory. And soon – her horses.

Exactly how many horses did she end up accumulating? Obviously there may be some exaggerating here. But given most historical sources don’t go with a BUTTLOAD of horses as a descriptor, they go with the next best thing big numbers wise…ten thousand horses.

But if there’s one thing most of these stories have in common…is that the gender non conforming, rule-breaking woman does most of the time eventually marry. No, Khutulun doesn’t run off in the sunset with her 10k horses as incredible as that vision is.

Awkwardly, the more she grows older without a husband, her father’s enemies are like “well that must mean you’re in an incestuous relationship with him” – which…ah yes. What a reasonable, logical conclusion. Whether it’s for that reason, trying to ensure her own lineage or maybe, hey – even just love – Khutulun does marry in the end. Some say he’s a ruler. Others say that he’s a dashing assassin that was originally sent to murder her dad then was imprisoned and gaining the favour of his once-enemies. Which feels like a controversial, offbeat choice Khutulun would go for.

To his credit, her father doesn’t just want her to marry and fall back in line – he actively wants her to become his successor to the khanate. And for her to be khatun. But there’s…several versions there. Either all his male relatives go…yeah, no. Or…Khutulun says…actually…yeah…no. I’d rather be fighting as a commander.

Either way, this leads to her being a commander in her ruling brother’s army after her father dies…before following him in death only five years later. Not sure exactly how she died – whether by politically motivated assassination or on the battlefield. Or one disguised as the other. But like her – it’s swift and brutal. But never fear – because Khutulun’s legacy lives on. Okay…maybe do fear a little bit. Because this isn’t the case of a biopic taking a few artistic liberties. It’s a stage adaptation that seems to fly in the very face of what its original inspiration would have wanted.

Because now we cut from warring, wrestling and horses to…the opera. Where, instead high dramatics wrestle with high notes. A richly adorned woman makes her way onto stage – cold, haughty and dangerous. Any suitor hoping to marry her has to solve three riddles. Fail them? Then perish. Literally.
The Prince passes his “marry-the-princess” entrance exam but she fails him anyway as she’s like…nah. So he offers her the option of guessing his name before dawn and if she does, he’ll die. And then it’s all taken up a notch because plot twist, if the name is not discovered by morning – everyone in Peking gets it. Murder, that is. They all get murdered.
Shenanigans ensue including negociation, a stabbing, and high drama worthy of peak reality TV, just with more singing and less confession booths. In the end the prince kisses the princess and she’s like “dang, making out isn’t that bad. Who knew?!” He gives her his name and she decides to spare him, declaring that the whole time his name was…love. That’s right everyone, love is in the destination of the journey of the friends and deadly riddles you make along the way. I…don’t know either.
But this is the opera Turandot by Pucchini.
And believe it or not – Khutulun’s story was the inspiration.

How did we go from a Mongolian wrestler, daughter of a Khan, who wrestled her suitors to see if they were worth marrying to a Chinese princess won over by love whose only weapon is a set of riddles? Look no further than Europeans just straight up making things up and making these things racist and sexist for no reason. In the early 18th century, François Pétris de La Croix chooses to annoy me off personally by writing a book that just merges various things from different Asian literary motifs. In which he calls calls Khutulun Turandot…which means “Turkish daughter.”A reference to the fact Kaidu and Khutulun’s branch of the family, the House of Ögedei, is linked to the Turkic tribe branch of Genghis Khan’s descendants. But also if historians looked at my name then went ah yes…instead of Claire Mead I will call you “daughter of a French mother and a British father.” I would be kind of have an issue with that.
And La Croix is like…oh no not wrestling, that’s too unladylike. Let’s go with riddles. And apparently he doesn’t like horse girls either because now you lose – you die! By this point, it too late for any kind of historical accuracy to come through as later European playwrights and writers didn’t only go with the notion of a prideful, cold and cruel princess who killed unworthy suitors via riddles and finally in the end succumbed to love. They ran with it. And Puccini’s opera was a full part of that. Also…making her Chinese now? Because hey – it’s not like Asia is a continent with a complex set of different countries, territories and cultures. Cultural specificity? These guys don’t know her. Or know how to write Asian woman regardless of nationality without being racist.

Because this isn’t just an isolated incident of bumbling men taking a few liberties in their biopic adaptation. It’s the start of a whole wave of racism that doesn’t only mix up distinct cultures, but attributes lasting stereotypes to Asian women. Like the “Dragon Lady” trope. A stereotype of Asian women, specifically often East Asian but also Southeast Asian and South Asian women as being sexualised, “deceitful” and “dangerous”. A pendant to the just as sexualised “Butterfly” stereotype of the Asian woman as submissive. Again, specifically often targeted at East Asian women but South Asian women are also often included in this stereotype. Incidentally? The term “Dragon Lady” comes from a comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, which ran from the 30s to the 70s, about a villainous woman who was actually inspired by a historical Chinese pirate woman, Lai Choi San.

This trope made its way onto the movie screen and both limited and dictated the roles Asian actresses could take on – pigeonholed into shallow, cookie-cutter archetypes that focused on exotifying them rather than showing them as complex human beings. Leading us back to Turandot – not her Opera version, but a stage adaptation of the play Turandot by 19th century Count Carlo Gozzi. A commedia dell’arte – more playful than the austere opera. There’s quite a lot of comedy and is the origin of what we know as panto. But still portraying Turandot as this cold, dangerous figure who finally submits to love. In 1937 this stage adaptation at the Westport Country Playhouse has her portrayed by an actress who knew all about pigeonholing, casting discrimination and the challenge of pushing past an archetype. A complex woman, playing the interpretation of another, across different performances and reimaginings of her story in which truth and identity beyond stereotype struggles to wrestle its way to the surface. This was Wong Liu-tsong or as she was known under her actress name, Anna May Wong.

The Chinese-American actress, by this point, had suffered a devastating blow a few years before. When she got refused the leading role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film the Good Earth. It went to a white actress donning yellowface instead. One theory is that this was due to the anti-miscegenation laws meaning a white actor’s on-screen lover would have to be white. But either way – racism was fully a part of that decision. She was offered a supporting role – Lotus, a seductress. And she said, thanks but no thanks.

This blow had come after Daughter of Shanghai – a film in which she had finally been able to embrace and shape a lead role beyond the either “submissive and self-sacrificing” or “deceitful and dangerous” archetypes she was usually give, in a supportive role. Which must have made losing the role in The Good Earth all the more painful.

A few years before that in, Shanghai Express, despite her supporting role, her charisma duels with an equally magnetic presence of Marlene Dietrich. With something of a vibe about her elegant and smooth exchanges with the openly bisexual actress as they both play strong-willed courtesans aboard a train in the midst of a Chinese civil war. But Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily character gets a happy ending – Wong’s, the character of Hui Fei, stabs a man to help the white lead get the happy ending.

Wong herself would die decades later just before her comeback cinema role, after a string of television appearances and B movies that provided far better Chinese and Chinese-American representation than the Hollywood ones she had been cast in before. And after failing, with great personal sadness, to connect with China’s culture as an American – nevertheless making a film out of her experience. Yet in her embodiment of these earlier roles and her presence nevertheless on screen to give a complex performance within the confines of what she was given, Anna May Wong’s acting legacy remains alive and well. And with it, her iconic status within the LGBTQIA community. And not just for her queer vibes on and off screen…as someone who had a few extra close gal pals in her life aside from Dietrich…and also never married.

But for her outsider status – neither fully fitting into one world or another. And wielding a double-edged sword of expressing her authentic self outside the spotlight and enacting wider Hollywood representation through archetypes that survive to this very day.

But now, we bring it back to the thing that started off this entire episode. Wrestling. Which brings us to 2014. As she approaches the mat, Sükheegiin Tserenchimed – Chimdee as her nickname – is representing Mongolia as a woman wrestler.

Barely a decade after the Olympic Games opened the sport to women. Wrestling in Mongolia had remained a man’s game for centuries. But Chimdee, like our protagonist, had lineage to back up her tough as nails attitude. Her father had been a champion wrestler before his death while she was still a child. Which led her to the steps of the local wrestler club – with more than a gender imbalance to prove. Moreso a material chance at using the sport to improve her livelihood. And that of other women across Mongolia.

The match is a flurry of lunges, pulls and powerful slamming into her opponent. Six minutes of grappling to gain the upper hand. Before the final score emerges and she rises victorious. Bringing back gold. And making her Mongolia’s second woman champion – welcomed back home with cheers and praise.

In some ways continuing the legacy of Khutulun – misremembered and watered down on the European stage, yet her memory still vibrant and alive in Mongolian culture as who she was. As a warrior, a champion wrestler and a woman who didn’t let anything get in her way she couldn’t defeat.

And, if all that failed, who could always resort to trampling you…with her ten thousand horses.

Thank you so much for listening! I hope you enjoyed this episode. It was a wild…ride. Hehe. Seriously though. I learnt a lot about Mongolian culture and history and I’m really hoping

You can access the images referred to, show notes and transcript for this episode via the link in the description. And I also want to hear…your stories. And your questions! If you have a story about a swordlady, real or fictional, or maybe a bit of both that you’d like to tell me about…or ask questions about…write in at bustlesandbroadswords@gmail.com!

In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire.

Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!

Show Notes

 

This episode was truly unchartered territory for me, and allowed me to explore aspects of Mongolian history or culture I had not before. A lot could not be included, and I hope to revisit and refine my knowledge in a future episode.

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Jack Weatherford, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire (2010)

On the Naadam: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/naadam-mongolian-traditional-festival-00395

On women in the Mongol Empire: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1466/women-in-the-mongol-empire/

On Chimdee: https://www.espn.com/espnw/news-commentary/story/_/id/12437877/the-best-story-mongolian-women-wrestling-ever-read

More on Anna May Wong and her possible relationship with Dietrich, with a few extra details that were cut for time: https://oh-sewing-circle.tumblr.com/post/190405259898/anna-may-wong-stayed-most-of-the-autumn-of-1928

Filmography & Imagery

The film Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich star in, Shanghai Express, is available to watch on archive.org

There are not many pictures of Khutulun but I found this miniature half-heartedly trying to convey wrestling quite funny. Khutulun daughter of Qaidu, medieval miniatures, 1410–1412


Khutulun in the Netflix series Marco Polo played by Claudia Kim. I should also slip in a tiny erratum, because some recaps did make Marco Polo and Khutulun’s relationship more ambiguous than others. Maybe they just flirted, maybe they wrestled or maybe you know, “wrestled”. I mean, I admit I should have investigated but I also find it kind of funny given that kind of ambiguity is usually reserved for queer couples in Netflix shows. Also speaking of ambiguous wrestling…
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wrestlers relief, 1913 (posthumous cast, 1965). The one I was involved in the co-curation of is at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, this copy is from Kettle’s Yard. None of the copies have, repeat after me, any heterosexual explanation. I mean just read what the artist says about wrestlers: “Last night I went to see the wrestlers – God! I have seldom seen anything so lovely – two athletic types, large shoulders, taut, big necks like bulls, small in the build with firm thighs and slender ankles, feet sensitive as hands, and not tall.” Anywaayy. Source
Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot”, on 25 April 1926. 
Anna May Wong as Turandot, by Carl Van Vechten, 1937
Bökh with traditional zodog
This is a typical “aghh why did I come across this image after recording” moment but yes, behold. Anna May Wong in a top hat and suit. Showing that her would-be possible lover Marlene Dietrich was not the only one to don men’s clothing and look iconic as heck.

By Claire Mead

Independant curator and art historian. I did my BA Art History at Oxford University and my MA in Curating at the Courtauld. Now based in Paris, I write about art, undertake independant research and curate contemporary art exhibitions and projects.

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