I celebrate International Women’s Day with this transcript from an English-language newspaper in China from the year 1935. A Mongolian princess warns the world’s feminists that the Mongol experience (been there, done that – for 600 years) isn’t so crash-hot. I find her view of the matter both intriguing and funny.
Mongol Princess Declares Independence of Mongolian Women Has Its Drawbacks
Laws Framed By Genghis Khan 600 Years Ago Provide Single Standard In Sex, Work And Play; “Woman Is Less Fitted For Life Struggle,” She Says
By LaSELLE GILMAN (CHINA PRESS special correspondent)
PEIPING, Sept. 10. – The independence of Mongolian women, as compared with the dependence of Chinese women, is not as desirable as it might be supposed. Mongolian women do not gain by their equality with men. The strain of such equality is too intense. Primitive peoples try the single standard, but eventually they abandon it, as the Chinese have long since done.
That is the opinion of Princess Nirigidma de Torhout. She is a Torgut Mongol princess in her own right, but was educated in France and has lived much abroad. She considers Peiping her home, however, and she knows whereof she speaks when she discusses the condition of Mongolian women, for she was born on the vast, barren steppes of the Gobi borderlands.
Genghis Khan framed the Mongolian laws as they exist today some 600 years ago, and by those laws Mongol women are completely equal with men. So much so, in fact, that the word “woman” does not exist in the language now, the same word “kun” applying to either sex.
The Mongolian woman is as free as the man; she saddles her horse and goes to visit her relatives and friends; she receives her guests and calls on whom she will; her sexual morals are the same as the morals of her roaming brother. She is equal to him before the law, is completely responsible for herself. Adultery is punishable by death, in the case of both men and women. She has the right of inheritance, of owning property and bringing up children, of seeking marriage or divorce, of serving in the army.
Princess Is Sceptical
But the Princess Nirigidma, considering the state of her sex in her own country, is not certain that it is an enviable one. Equality of men and women is only natural, she feels, because in primitive society each sex was adapted to one form of work and they thus shared the tasks. Woman’s only inferiority was in maternity which unfitted her for any activity for a year. This weakness of her sex brought her privileges eventually and she became dependent on the man.
Today, everywhere, the women are shaking off the yoke of this dependence and demanding equality – which will compel them to renounce their privileges. This, the princess believes, is a serious matter in view of the condition of Mongol women.
“I do not know whether the Great Khan was honoring the woman or simply putting her in her rightful place at the man’s side,” says the princess. “To decide that I should have to know what the position of woman was before him, and that I do not know. I have been told that a matriachate prevailed in the old times, but its memory is lost, for it is never spoken of in Mongolia.”
The Mongol woman’s equality may appear all very nice, the princess points out, but there is another side to the story.
“Because she is the comrade of the man, the Mongolian woman is an object of no particular regard. She shares all the man’s hardest tasks, watches the flocks in rain and snow, loads the beasts, cuts wood. She enjoys no kind of precedence; she rises when a man older than herself comes in and gives him up her place at the fireside or the softest cushions. Man and woman share equally the expenses of life. Flatteries, deferences, everything that in the West is called chivalry – are non-existent. The orphan is protected but not the woman. Having the same rights, she also has the same duties and responsibilities.”
Less Fitted For Struggle
By her constitution, general sentiments and habit of mind, woman is less fitted than man for the struggle of life, in the princess’ opinion. And if women in their struggle for equality do succeed, she does not believe they will gain by it.
“Look at the Chinese woman who until recently was of all women the type most dependent on the goodwill of the man,” the princess declares. “She had no rights in public life. She had no existence, but she was and still is the absolute mistress in her family and almost sovereign in that public life in which she never shared herself. In China a woman is infinitely respected. A man never contradicts her, agrees with her even when she talks nonsense, carries out her whims!
“Compare these two women and ask which is the more enviable lot. Is it not better to have fewer legal rights and preserve the privilege of exerting influence, of being respected, flattered, spoiled, of being free from all responsibility? Or should one prefer the Spartan life of the Mongol woman? Is the emancipated Mongolian woman really happy?”
The princess is willing to concede, however, that all women in the search for equality are perhaps unconsciously groping for something beside happiness. If feminists claim their right to restore to women a happiness and a freedom of which they consider they have been cheated, she argues, then they are taking the wrong road. But if their aim is to open new horizons, aiming at a more spacious and a more worthy life, if with their new rights they are ready to accept all the consequences, then she agrees that that is courageous and admirable – if not particularly wise.
I’d better say at once that I am not educated in early 20th century Mongolia and can’t comment on conditions then. What interests me is that in 1935, she ascribes the social and legal status of women to the Great Khan.
When Ed Bazalgette did his rather fine doco-drama for the BBC  my sister sent me a TV guide feature from the UK with a headline that still makes me laugh: next to a nobly inspired shot of the actor, Genghis Khan: Early Feminist. That’s their British way of gently teasing because Bazalgette gives an unexpectedly likeable Genghis; I don’t remember that feminism looms large in the documentary. How much of a feminist was Genghis, himself? Princess Nirigidma hasn’t the evidence to say whether he improved the status of women or whether he merely legislated along the lines that his society already ran: “To decide that I should have to know what the position of woman was before him, and that I do not know.” It’s still tough to distinguish, since the Mongols weren’t paid much attention pre-Chinggis and the Secret History is our earliest internal source. The princess herself, with her views on the advancement of societies, seems to suggest that he needn’t get the glory – civilization in general has been bad for women, if more comfortable.
1. imdb entry
‘Rather fine’ in that it follows faithfully the Secret History – until the Secret History tails off, with the conquests, and he has to switch over to non-Mongol sources: we then devolve into sensationalist drivel. This problem plagues Mongol studies – not just documentaries.