Monday, February 7, 2011

Some Royal Mongol Ladies: Alaqa-beki, *Ergene1-Qatun and Others by Paul D. Buell

Some Royal Mongol Ladies: Alaqa-beki, *Ergene1-Qatun and Others
By Dr.Paul D. Buell

Article from World History Connected

One of the most difficult tasks facing the historian of the Mongol Empire is ferreting out the history behind the history. This is because our largely non-Mongolian sources are little interested in it or intentionally suppress facts to suit non-Mongolian agendas or the prejudices of their majority non-Mongolian readers. This includes the histories of most of the women actors of the time. They are usually mentioned only in passing in our predominately Chinese and Persian sources. Imperial regents such as Döregene-qatun, who effectively ruled the Mongol empire after the death of her husband Ögödei (r. 1229-1241) until 1246, when she secured the election of her son, Güyük (r. 1246-48), as they are seen in them are shown as somewhat depraved, tyrannical and incompetent.

In the Chinese view, in particular, Döregene was a mere weak woman perhaps driven by her sexual desires. But if Juvaynī (1226-1283) and most Chinese commentators saw her in these terms, and as somewhat illegitimate, most of her Mongol contemporaries took another view and no doubt found her regency perfectly normal, although their image of it was later colored by the politics of the 1250s. Then a new branch of the ruling house came to power, after still another female regency, led by Oqol-qaimish (killed circa 1251), the wife of Güyük.2 Imperial women, in fact, if we may base our judgment upon the only Mongolian source to survive, the Secret History, enjoyed a great more respect than the non-Mongolian sources would have us believe.

Chinggis Khan's mother, Hö'elün, for example, clearly held her family together after the poisoning of Chinggis Khan's father at the hands of enemies, and was a dominant force in his life. Likewise, Chinggis Khan's main wife, Börte, is made to give him wise and important advice (about breaking with Jamuqa, his blood brother) on a critical occasion and perhaps, we must assume, on others. Later, under Qubilai, his main wife, Chabui3 (died 1281), was not only was his important advisor and confidant, but, judging from what is written about her in Tibetan sources (e.g., in Dpa'-bo gtsung-lag aphring-ba's' history), was probably instrumental in the conversion of his husband to Lamaism, or at least predisposing him to a strong and favorable relationship with the Tibetan lama Aphags-pa (1235-80) as the official head of religion for the court. This is evidenced by an active correspondence between her, Aphags-pa and other important Tibetans reproduced in Tibetan sources but still unstudied.4

But not all the important women in the Mongolian period were imperial. Many were simply wives of princes and other powerful men, not always Mongolian. The Chinese elite of north China serving the Mongols, for example, were at least half Mongolian after their first generation since their mothers, more often than not, were Mongolian princesses, if we may judge from Chinese genealogical sources.5 A careful marriage policy being, to be sure, was one of the many ways that the Mongols drew locals over to their side, by making them part of the family, as it were. Unfortunately, we know little more than the names of most of the women involved with a few exceptions. One of these exceptions was Alaqa-beki (late 12th to mid-14th century) who played a pivotal role in early Mongol China.


Alaqa, also known as Alaqa bayan, "Alaqa the rich," was a younger daughter of Chinggis Khan and some time before 1206 was given in marriage to an important Mongol ally, Alaqus-digit-quri of the "White" Tatar or Önggüt, a Turkic people situated just to the north and east of the eastern bend of the Yellow River and thus strategically placed for attacking either the Xixia state of west China or the Jin Dynasty (1125-1234) of the north. He is mentioned a number of times in the Secret History and was obviously an important sedentary supporter of Chinggis Khan and his Mongols.

This fact threatened the rulers of Jin Empire (northern China and Manchuria) in particular and in 1207, after a great rebellion of formerly tribal allies of the Jin that essentially turned over what is now Inner Mongolia to the armies of Chinggis Khan, they had him murdered in favor of his young nephew, Bosipo . The Jin considered to be a more controllable ruler. This did not prove to be the case. The times were changing and Bosipo, like his uncle, soon went over to Chinggis Khan. Although Chinggis Khan had no troops available at the time to protect him and his people, he did something better. Alaqa-beki, who had apparently returned to Mongolia after the death of her princely husband, now became the wife of young Bosipo and soon emerged as the effective ruler of the Önggüt after the premature death of her husband. By 1221, when the envoy Zhao Hong , the author of the Mengda beilu , "Record of the Mongols and Tatars," was in the area, Alaqa was not only the de facto ruler of her people, but was considered one of the tribal leaders to be reckoned with in the occupied Chinese north, one of only two females in that position. She even had an army of female warriors that followed her orders and actually went to war, much to the chagrin of Zhao Hong. Such things were alien to China. In addition to her army, Alaqa also participated in the Mongol administration of north China with her own special representative stationed in Zhongdu , the regional administrative capital. She continued to play her key role at least into the 1230s, preserving and expanding the domains of her adopted people who continued to be closely associated and intermarried with the Mongols to the end.6


Playing a similar role to Alaqa, but in the west and within one of the successor ulus emerging out of the united empire of the Mongols, was Ergene-qatun, an Oirat princess married and descendent of Chinggis Khan married into the Chaghadai lineage.7 The Chaghadai ulus, the poorest of all the successor states of the old Mongol Empire after its collapse in 1260, grew out of those domains granted to Chaghadai (1183-1242), the second oldest son of Chinggis Khan after the latter's conquest of western Turkistan, along with most of the imperial Mongol province of Turkistan. It was governed for most of its existence by Mas'ūd Beg (died 1280s) headquartered in Beshbaliq. Also controlling part of the area was another Mongol province, of Khurāsān, long ruled by Arqan-aqa, headquartered in Tūs. Parts of this province too later became part of the Chaghadai ulus, although not a major part.8 It did continue to be fought over, so contemporaries probably thought that the issue was still not settled.

Between the two Mongol components of the area, province and patrimony, the contrast could not have been starker. The one was based upon rich oases cities such as Samarqand, the other comprised of relatively poor steppe lands, much of it desert steppe, where very poor nomads avidly eyed potentially better pickings in the cities, but for the imperial and later ulus officials protecting them. Some of the revenues were shared, but much of this went only to the elite and did little to alleviate the plight of their nomadic followers. And the wealth of the cities was not only eyed by Mongols tribesmen under Chaghadai, but also by the princes and others of the increasingly independent Golden Horde and after the 1250s by the Mongol princes of Iran too, who largely took over the other province, that of Khurāsān.

This was the situation as the Mongol empire began to decline and the threats to the emerging Chaghadai ulus grew. After the death of Chaghadai, his holdings were first ruled by his grandson Qara-Hülegü (r. 1242-1246), until the latter was deposed by qan Güyük (r. 1246-1248), and then by Yesü Möngke, the eldest son of Chaghadai himself, who was killed by Bat-qan of the Golden Horde during the purges that accompanied the rise of the house of Tolui under Möngke (r. 1251-1259). At this point, Qara-Hülegü was reinstated but soon died, leaving Chaghadai domains with no adult ruler. Their very existence now seemed endangered and there might have been no Chaghadai ulus at all after the collapse of unified empire but for the careful actions of Ergene, Qara-Hülegü's widow.

Ergene, about whom relatively little is known, was appointed regent by Möngke in 1251. She was to serve as a figurehead until her young son, Mubārak Shāh (r. 1266) was old enough to take over, and carefully cooperate with imperial governor Mas'ūd Beg. This she did and it was in this capacity, and as the representative of the Chaghadai domains, that she met the armies of prince Hülegü (reigned in Iran 1259-1265) and feasted their leadership as Hülegü marched slowly to subdue Iran at the orders of his imperial brother, Möngke. This was probably in early 1254.9 In any case, she proved a most capable ruler and not only became the woman on the scene in 1259, when the unified Mongol empire collapsed, but was, in practice, the first ruler of an independent Chaghadai ulus.

Ergene's problem was not only that she was suddenly bereft of her imperial sponsor, but that she was expected to take sides in the civil war that developed between two Toluid brothers, Qubilai (r. 1260-1294) in China10 and Ariq-bökö (died 1266), to whom she may have been related through her sister, in Mongolia. To make it worse, her neighbors took definite sides even if she had preferred not to do so. The Mongols in Iran supported Qubilai, while the powerful Golden Horde of Russia backed Ariq-bökö. The latter were the more dangerous rival and their support made it possible for Ariq-bökö to take over control in western Turkistan, at least of the Mongol province there. He also appointed a prince for the area, technically to succeed Ergene. This was Alghu (r. 1260-1265/66), another grandson of Chaghadai. Although Alghu was supposedly Ariq-bökö's man, he soon began to act independently, including seizing territories from the Golden Horde and the old imperial province of Turkistan, leading to open hostilities between him and Ariq-bökö and Ariq-bökö's now allies, Ergene and Mas'ūd Beg, both anxious to build up their own positions and, in the case of Ergene, protect the ulus and the interests of her son.

Alghu came out on top and Ergene and Mas'ūd now, in turn, became his allies, the former his wife, the latter the governor for the old territories of the Mongol province but in the name of Alghu. This arrangement saved the ulus and Ergene's son Mubārak Shāh even reigned briefly as the qan of the ulus after Alghu's death. He did so in the name of Qubilai, before a coup brought Baraq (r. 1266–1271), a great-grandson of Chaghadai and opponent of Qubilai to power. This effectively ended Ergene's influence, after nearly 15 years as the dominant figure in western Turkisan but the kind of governmental compromise worked out under her aegis between Mongol princes and the old imperial province of Turkistan persisted and became characteristic of the area. It was reflected, among other things, in the so-called Talas Covenant of 1269, an agreement between interested princes which carefully distinguished between the revenue-producing cities, to be left alone entirely by the nomads and administered with joint interests in mind, and the nomadic world.

We do not know when Ergene died or so many of the other details that we might like to know about this most capable woman save one fact. She like her son, Mubārak Shāh, was a Muslim and must have been among the earliest converts to that religion in Chaghadai domains, later the last of the Mongol successor states to choose a religion for the domain as a whole.

Alaqa-beki and Ergene-qatun were but two of the remarkable women of the Mongol age who, as much as the men, furthered conquest and helped hold a growing empire together. Both married into situations that they never anticipated, and both rose to the occasion and made their own mark on their times as is confirmed by the following source material from the Mengda beilu that have classroom applications ( gender mixing, status of women, and the place of women in cultural production and in political administration).

On Women

Their custom is that when they send forth an army, they march taking along with them many wives and children. It does not matter whether it is a noble or a common person [in this regard]. They say for themselves that they use them to take charge of such things as baggage, clothing, and monetary business. Their women take charge exclusively of setting up the felt tents. They collect together riding horses, light and heavy carts, litters and other things. They ride really well. What they wear is similar to Chinese clothing. All the various honored wives then have a gugu ["barbarian headdress," i.e., boqta] hat. It is plaited together using iron and silk thread. Its form is like a bamboo manikin. It is three chi [Chinese foot] or so in length. They use red and green floss silk and embroidery or [they use] pearl and gold to decorate it. On the top there is a staff and they use red or green wool to decorate it. There is also a dress with large sleeves like Chinese [gowns]. It is wide and long like crane feathers and drags on the ground. When they move, two female slaves carry the sleeves. Men and women sit mixed together. There is no prohibition. They offer toasts and encourage one another to drink in alternation with one another. Chinese envoys to the north, when they come before the Guowang [Viceroy, i.e., Muquali], after an audience he orders them to share liquor with those wives shamelessly and in an uncivilized manner. Princesses [main wives] and the various concubines [of Muquali] are considered ladies of high rank, eight of them. All sit together [with everyone else]. In all the feasting and drinking there is none who does not share mats [with the men]. Those who are called the various concubines are all brilliantly white in color. Four of them are then of the sort of precious concubines of the Jin slaves. Four of them are Tatars. Among them, four ladies are very beautiful and are extremely favored. They all wear barbarian garments and barbarian hats exclusively.11

On Feast Gatherings, Dancing and Singing (Excerpt)

When the Guowang marches out his army, he also marches along with female music. As a rule, there are 17 or 18 beautiful girls who are extremely clever. They mostly use 14-string and other [instruments] and play pieces such as the "Great Official Music." They clap their hands as a measure that is extremely slow. There dancing is very peculiar. It is the custom of the Tatars.12

On Crown Princes and Various Kings (Excerpt)

The Second Princess is called Alaqa bayan. She is commonly called Lake Beki. She once married to Bosibu [or Bosipo], a lost servant of the Jin Dynasty. He died and left her a widow. She presently administers the dynasty business of the White Tatars. Every day she takes charge and plans. She has several thousand women serving her. Whenever they go campaigning, they behead and kill. Everything comes from her.13

Paul D. Buell is at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin Horst-Görtz-Institut für Theorie, Geschichte, Ethik Chinesischer Lebenswissenschaften


1 Her name is very uncertain. It is variously written as Orghina or Orqïna in the Western sources, although in Middle Mongolian, the spoken Mongolian of her time, it should have an initial "h," e.g., Horghina or Horqïna, but this name is otherwise unknown and is somewhat unlikely in any case. Here, I prefer to read it as having front, not back vowels, e.g., Ergene. Such a reading is, in fact, suggested by one alternative spelling found in the history of Rashīd al-Dīn (1247-1318). See the discussion of the spellings of her name in John Andrew Boyle, translator, The History of the World Conqueror, two volumes, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), 274.

2 Propelling the change of ruling lines was another powerful female, the mother of the new qan, Möngke (r. 1251-59), Sorqoqtani-beki. She, at least, is viewed somewhat more favorably in our sources but this may reflect no more than the ascendency of the House of Tolui in one form or the other at the time that most of them were written.

3 This is the form of her name in Tibetan sources.

4 On the women in Qubilai's family, including Cabui, see Morris Rossabi, "Khubilai Khan and the Women in his Family," in Wolfgang Bauer, ed., Studia Sino-Mongolica: Festschrift für Herbert Franke, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1979, 153-180. See also Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan, His Life and Times (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1988).

5 There is no full study of the genealogies of the great warlord families of north China in early Mongol times in a Western language, although there are some excellent biographies in Chinese. See as an introduction to the topic, with full citation of the literature, the relevant biographies in Igor de Rachewiltz, Chan Hok-lam, Hsiao Ch'i-ch'ing and Peter W. Geier, editors. In the Service of the Khan, Eminent Personalities of the Early Mongol-Yuan Period (1200–1300) (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1993). At the imperial level see now George Qingzhi Zhao, Marriage a Political Strategy and Cultural Expression, Mongolian Royal Marriages from World Empire to Yuan Dynasty ( New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2008).

6 For a background to these events see Paul D. Buell, "The Role of the Sino-Mongolian Frontier Zone in the Rise of Cinggis-qan," in Henry G. Schwarz, editor, Studies on Mongolia, Proceedings of the First North American Conference on Mongolian Studies (Bellingham, Washington, 1979), 63-76.

7 She was the daughter of the Oirat Tōrelci and a granddaughter of Cinggis-qan, Ceceken, and the sister of Buqa-temür of the Oirat and of the wife of imperial pretender Ariq-bökö. A third sister was apparently the Köpek who was the mother of Jumgar Ogul, Hüle'ü's second son. See John Andrew Boyle, translator, The History of the World Conqueror (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), 274, 611. For a short biography see Paul D. Buell, Historical Dictionary of the Mongolian World Empire, Historical Dictionaries of Ancient Civilizations and Historical Eras, No. 8 ( Lanham, Md., and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003),151-52. See also, for the period in general, Michal Biran, Qaidu and the Rise of the Independent Mongol State in Central Asia (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1997).

8 See the summary of the history of this ulus in Buell, 2003, 79-88. For the imperial history (i.e., pre-1260) of the same area see also the relevant sections of Buell, 2003, 17-52.

9 Boyle, translator, 1958, II, 612.

10 On Mongol China see Buell, 2003, 53-70.

11 Wang Guowei, ed., Menggu shiliao si zhong (Taibei: Zhengzhong shuju, 1962), 454.

12 Ibid, 455.

13 Ibid, 437-8.