The Daughter of Turan

Khaidu was a ghostly apparition – a figure at the periphery of Khubilai Khan’s world that never left him alone. He would pick and poke at Khubilai’s defences for the rest of Khubilai’s life, occasionally seizing territory outside his fiefdom, occasionally retreating into the steppes. He darted towards Karakorum itself, as if hoping to convene a rebel kurultai. He meddled in Tibetan affairs in an attempt to foster anti-Mongol feeling in the monasteries; he put out feelers to disaffected princelings on the other side of China, in the hope that together they might rise up against the sons of Tolui. Khaidu would even outlive Khubilai by a few years, but never quite got enough support to mount a true challenge. Had Khubilai and Khaidu been duelling over nothing more than Mongolia, perhaps Khaidu would have had the upper hand. Ironically, the very Mongol-based feud that Khaidu perpetrated served to drive Khubilai further towards a Chinese perspective. Without China, Khubilai might not have had the support he needed to shrug Khaidu off.

Marco Polo found the whole thing baffling, but far more interested in stories circulating about Khaidu’s daughter, a towering Amazon whose name he recorded as Aiyaruk (‘Bright Moon’).

Her father often desired to give her in marriage, but she would none of it. She vowed she would never marry till she found a man who could vanquish her in every trial; him she would wed and none else. And when her father saw how resolute she was, he gave a formal consent . . . that she should marry whom she wanted and when she wanted. The lady was so tall and muscular, so stout and shapely withal, that she was almost like a giantess.

Khaidu had set himself up as the protector of old-time Mongol values, in opposition to Khubilai the Sinophile. It was hence only to be expected that Khaidu’s daughter was set up in local legend as some sort of woman warrior, who boasted that she would only marry a man who could beat her at wrestling, and that anyone who failed in this would have to pay her 100 horses.

Aiyaruk supposedly successfully fought off 1,000 challengers over the course of the 1270s. Perhaps a little worried that his daughter might be getting long in the tooth, Khaidu is even reported as suggesting that she should try to let the next one win, but she refused, and won another hundred horses for the family herd. With a tacit admission that nobody was going to be good enough for her, she gave up on men entirely and accompanied Khaidu on his endless war against Khubilai’s warriors.

And ye must know that after this her father never went on a campaign but she went with him. And gladly he took her, for not a knight in all his train played such feats of arms as she did. 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.

Remarkably, most scholars suspect that there is an element of truth in the story of Aiyaruk, not least because while Polo in China is hearing of her exploits, his contemporary Rashid al-Din in Persia is writing down the same story, with the same names. Rashid, however, injects a disapproving note, that ‘people suspected there was some kind of relationship between [Khaidu] and his daughter.’

The story would grow with the telling, particularly in Persia, where legends arose about a king of ‘Turan’ (Persian: Central Asia), whose beautiful daughter insisted that any suitor should overcome a series of trials in order to win her hand in marriage. The story flourished in several variants as The Daughter of Turan, in Persian: ‘Turan-dokht’.

It is perhaps most familiar to the Western reader in a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, first performed in 1926, shortly after the death of the composer of the accompanying music, Giacomo Puccini:

This is the law: Turandot the Pure
Will be the bride of the man of royal blood
Who shall solve the riddles which she shall set.
But if he fail in this test
He must submit his proud head to the sword!

indexPuccini’s Turandot is a world away from Khaidu’s real-life resistance in western China. It retains garbled concepts of China and Tartary, and mixes elements of Mongol and Chinese culture. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see a strand of true history informing a strand of modern life. Khaidu would eventually die in 1301, from wounds received in a failed strike at Karakorum itself – but his daughter, or a phantom of her, would spring to life on the opera stage in Milan six centuries later.

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements.

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A Brief History of Khubilai Khan

kkNow finally available on the Kindle (US/UK):

His grandfather was the bloodthirsty Mongol leader Genghis Khan, his mother a Christian princess. Groomed from childhood for a position of authority, Khubilai snatched the position of Great Khan, becoming the overlord of a Mongol federation that stretched from the Balkans to the Korean coastline. His armies conquered the Asian kingdom of Dali and brought down the last defenders of imperial China.

Khubilai Khan presided over an Asian renaissance, attracting emissaries from all across the continent, and opening his civil service to administrators from the far west. His life and times encompassed the legends of Prester John, the pinnacle of the samurai (and, indeed, the Mongols), and the travels of Marco Polo.

Jonathan Clements examines the life and times of this semi-legendary ruler, detailing the religious scandals and cultural clashes within his supposedly inclusive realm, and the long-running resistance to his reign in Japan and Vietnam. His short-lived “Yuan” dynasty barely lasted a century, but transformed China and the world for ever more.

“The Half of What I Saw…”

Marco-Polo-NetflixNot even Marco Polo was able to edit his own life into an all-encompassing narrative. On his deathbed, surrounded by his weeping daughters and his long-serving manservant Suleiman, he was entreated by Venetian priests to admit he had made up many of the tall-sounding tales of his travel. The holy fathers were worried that “Marco of the million lies” would go to hell if he did not finally confess that he had made up his stories of a black rock that would burn, of oil that came out of the ground, of giant sea creatures and Chinese gods. His last words were a fitting epitaph: “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Dozens of writers have grappled with the way to best tell his story. Luckily for me, I only had to write a biography, which begins with his birth and ends with his death. For the writer of fiction, there are myriad temptations. I’ve toyed with a one-act play, in which Marco and his collaborator Rustichello pace the floor of their opulent but confining house arrest, arguing over the best way to set his knowledge down on paper. Marco is all about facts and descriptions, a tedious village-by-village account of the way east; Rustichello, a former troubadour and Crusader, wants stories of derring-do and fortean curiosities, and in one sense, it’s Rustichello’s Marco that survived through the ages.

You could plump for Italo Calvino’s method, concentrating on the relationship between Marco and his patron, Khubilai Khan, as the aging monarch demands stories of Marco’s adventures. But what of the roads less travelled? What of Marco on his homeward route, escorting the mysterious Princess Kokachin to her doomed wedding, and plunged into local conflict in Persia and befriending his Muslim counterpart, Rashid al-Din? What of Marco the official in China under the Mongols, dealing with intrigues, crimes and murders in a nation under military occupation? And what temptations there are to the historical screenwriter to edge gently out of evidence and into reasonable speculation – what if we ignored the evidence that Marco never saw Japan for himself, and inserted him into the Mongol fleet that suffered the consequences of the first Kamikaze.

cc030914j021f15.jpg_1328648940The new Netflix series tries and largely succeeds to have it all, opening with a prolonged throne-room scene in which Marco shows off his knowledge of Uyghur and Mongol, and in which the Polo family’s failure to keep their promises to the Khan lead to the effective handing over of Marco as collateral to save their trading contracts. But there are nods and foreshadowings, even in those opening few minutes, of the direction that John Fusco intends to take. Khubilai’s beloved wife Chabi, a Christian, stands at his side in her distinctive head-dress. An official called Ahmad is pointedly referenced, ahead of the downfall known to all readers of Marco Polo’s Travels. A lissom figure on the sidelines appears to be Princess Kokachin, thought by some to have been the woman who stole Marco’s heart, even as he was forced to convey her to her new husband. And then the credits begin, awash with impressionistic Chinese inks that create simulacra of his tallest tales – figures and creatures that may, or may not, only exist on paper or in his mind, even as the music soars and hints at Game-of-Thrones-y intrigues and Marco’s endless, infectious sense of wonder at the sights of the Far East.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Marco Polo (US/UK) and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan (US/UK). Marco Polo, the TV series, begins on Netflix on 12th December.

The Mongol Armada

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and in the US.

The attempted invasion of Japan was, with hindsight, the moment when the Mongols’ legendary invincibility was called into question for the first time – a sign that the tide of barbarian invasion had finally begun to ebb. The Mongols had experienced setbacks in the past, but had always, eventually, returned home with, at very least, the nominal submission of their enemies.

Logistically, the Japanese invasion project was no smaller than the Mongol enterprises to take the empires of the Tangut, Jurchen or the Southern Song. However, historically, it became literally world famous. It is in Marco Polo’s awestruck account of the plan to invade Japan that the island kingdom first enters European consciousness. When, 200 years later, Christopher Columbus waded ashore on a remote Caribbean island in search of ‘Cipangu’, he was merely the latest inheritor of Khubilai’s propaganda, convinced that Japan was an island of untold wealth, there for the taking.

Many Japanese accounts leap straight to the arrival of the first great Mongol fleet off the coast, and the heroic efforts by the samurai to hold them back. However, Chinese and Korean annals present a very different story, and show the size of the Mongol threat steadily growing throughout the 1260s. The first approaches to Japan were little more than honeyed words and oblique threats, escalating in severity as years passed without a direct Japanese submission to Khubilai.

The first signs of the Mongol invasion are rumours and tall tales from mainland visitors, the mere ghosts of direct contact, as careful Korean obfuscations kept the Mongols and the Japanese from making actual contact. Although history largely remembers the two great, apocalyptic battles in Hakata Bay and their almost supernatural ending, lesser accounts record a number of skirmishes long before the infamous days of reckoning. There were kidnappings and secret deals in the Korea Strait years before the Mongol armada officially set sail, and there was even a pre-emptive Japanese strike on the Korean coast, which saw part of the intended invasion fleet burned where it stood in the shipyards. Small parties of emissaries travelling aboard the ships of others, gradually transformed through the 1260s into an ambassador with his own honour guard and his own military escort: two ships, then a dozen, then hundreds.

If we piece together the scattered references to ‘Dwarf Pirates’ or the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ in mainland chronicles, we become witness to the inexorable gathering of a terrible storm. The question that remains for the modern historian to ponder is whether the Japanese or Mongols ever appreciated the terrible odds they both faced.

Jonathan Clements is also the author of Marco Polo, available now in paperback and on the Kindle (US/UK).