Marriage as Political Strategy and Cultural Expression ― originally a PhD dissertation at Toronto University (2001) ― focuses on the marriage strategies of the Mongol élite and their political implications during the Mongol Empire (1206-79) and the Yüan dynasty (1279-1368). It does not only deal with empresses like earlier studies but includes data on the whole Mongolian élite.
Marriage was regarded by Mongol rulers as the most important means to create lasting alliances with tribes which might otherwise become enemies. Chapter One details the marriage transactions, the heritage practices, and the criteria to choose partners among the ruling families of semiautonomous ‘tribes’ or states. Chapter Two discusses the various strategies and the political implication of royal marriages. The first rule of Mongol marriages is exogamy/exo-‘tribal’ marriage, but Zhao highlights that because of constant marriage relations between the same ‘tribes’ after the reign of Qubilai, the apparent exogamic marriages turned into consanguineous marriage, consequently leading to a decrease of longevity (because of chronic illnesses, feeble children, high infant mortality, and infertility) and to a decline of the ‘quality,’ i.e. a degeneracy of the Mongol population after the reign of Emperor Temür. The same process affected the Il-khan Mongol dynasty (Table 15, 16). Apparently Mongols never came to understand that consanguineous marriage could occur if a two-clan preferential marriage system was continued for several generations: The basic rule of Mongolian marriage would therefore have had the reverse effect than intended. Zhao’s bold assertion is sustained by the examples of thirteen emperors whose death could be linked to consanguinity. Another well-known Mongol marriage practice is levirate, a practice that has caused much ink to flow. Although a few examples of levirate marriage are documented during the empire and the Yüan dynasty, Zhao demonstrates that levirate was not systematically enforced under the Yüan dynasty, the chastity of the widow being more frequent.
In Chapter Three, by comparing Mongol nobility marriage strategies with those of non-Chinese (Liao, Jin, Xixia) and Chinese (heqin marriage of the Han, waiqi alliance of the Song) dynasties, Zhao demonstrates that the Yüan model was unique: It was the only one to maintain marriage alliances with other ‘nationalities’ because of exogamy and political choice. The Mongol nobles never married their daughters to trusted generals (like in the Song dynasty); on the contrary they used to give them to chiefs and leaders whose submission was considered unreliable. Marriage strategies were therefore central to the Mongols’ policy; it was one of the four types of alliances (along with ‘companions’ who swore personal allegiance, ‘household retainers,’ and sworn brotherhood — anda). In Chapter Four, the author deals with broader questions from the perspective of political marriages, such as the degree of sinicisation of the Yüan dynasty. Citing previous studies on this subject, Zhao proposes to see the levirate as a reliable indicator of cultural integrity: By stressing the Chinese abhorrence of levirate, he shows that the continued practice of levirate proves that the Mongols resisted sinicisation at the beginning of the period. However, from Qubilai’s reign onwards, the growing Chinese influence started to have some effect on their traditions, especially on marriage with the chastity of widows replacing levirate.
The position of élite women in Mongol society is the object of Chapter Five. Drawing on the works of Herbert Franke, Valentin A. Riasanowsky and others, Zhao recalls the important involvement of women in the economic, military and political affairs, their crucial role in the election of a ruler, and, for some of them, the responsibility of regency and their manipulation of Mongol politics. He shows that the power of empresses and their interference in state affairs rises during the Yüan dynasty. A Mongol princess married into a foreign state could act as a foreign agent, a representative of the Mongol Empire. Although he provides no new information on many empresses’ biographies (such as Sorqaqtani Beki, Töregene Qatun, etc.) which are detailed in the Yuanshi (“History of the Yüan dynasty”), Zhao rehabilitates the role of other empresses occulted by sources (such as Nambui), and his detailed study on the destiny of more ordinary noble women married to foreign ‘tribes’ reveals numerous unhappy, miserable marriages, particularly in Korea. On the subject of foreign women at the Yüan court, the author details the outstanding example of the Korean lady “Qi Wanzhehudu” (p. 81-82) who tried to depose the ruling emperor in order to put her son on the throne.
Chapter Six to Chapter Nine describe the various marriage relationships between the Chinggisid clan and six regular marriage partners: the Onggirad (or Qonggirad, Chapter Six), the Ikires (one of the four sub-groups of Onggirad, Chapter Seven), the Oirad (Chapter Eight), the Önggüd (Chapter Nine), the Uyighur (Chapter Ten), and the Korean royal family (Chapter 11). Zhao has built a database based on the “History of the Yüan dynasty” (Yuanshi) and other sources (Menggu yuanliu, Rashid ad-Din, Menguer shiji, Korean Koryŏsha chronicles, etc.), and presents for each partner tables that recapitulate lists of empresses and concubines. He has identified a total of 84 Mongol princesses married into these six ‘tribes’ or states, and tried to understand why many of them met with an ill-fated destiny (26% died before reaching 35 years of age, p. 84), especially in Korea. The author makes a clear distinction between the one-way marriage relationship ― one side, usually the Mongols, sent young women to marry foreign leaders (with the Önggüd for instance) ―, and the reciprocal marriage relationship (with the Onggirad, the Ikires, the Oirad), and details the political interests behind each type. Repetitive or useless information (genealogy of the ‘tribes,’ the history of Chinggis’ father etc.) could have been shortened to make the argument clearer and focus on key insights, such as: More Mongolian princesses were sent to marriage partners than Yüan princes taking foreign wives. For instance, nineteen Mongolian princesses were married to Onggirad nobles, while thirteen Onggirad princesses were married to Mongols. The Onggirad were the main marriage partner with 67% of consorts selected from this ‘tribe,’ and 25% of Mongol princesses married to the Onggirad. Ögedei and Güyük were the only Mongol emperors who did not marry Onggirad princesses.
The most detailed chapter deals with marriages with the ruling Wang family of the Koryŏ dynasty (Chapter Eleven). This alliance appears as an exception: because of its fierce resistance before the conquest, Koryŏ should not have been eligible to marry Mongol princesses ― the other marriage partners were ‘allies’ who had submitted without resistance. Zhao asks whether the significant political power exercised by the eight Mongol princesses married to Korean kings, and their impact on Mongol-Korean relationships, was a good thing for Korean diplomacy. On the one hand, these princesses took part in decisions, tours of inspection, appointed and removed officers as they wished, and the Koryŏ kings were forced to take their advices. Besides being hated by Koreans who despised Mongol culture, they were described as arrogant, jealous, irritable, and unrestrained in sex. Lack of respect towards a Mongol empress or her suspicious death could provoke a loss of trust from the Yüan court and even the Mongols’ revenge and deposition of the Koryŏ king (who in the case of Wang Wŏn was a half-Mongol!). Besides, the marriage relationship was one-sided: While in Korea, Yüan princesses enjoyed the highest rank, but the Yüan emperors never took a Koryŏ princess as empress or ‘Precious consort’, and many Korean women married to Mongol nobles as wives, concubines or servants. On the other hand, these alliances represented a guarantee of peace and protection for the Koreans who had greatly suffered from the wars, and enhanced the political status of Korea in the empire. Zhao concludes that although the relations were not always harmonious, the effect was globally positive, because these marriages ended a half century of warfare and chaos. On the Mongol side, it was a convenient means to control Korea.
In conclusion, Zhao stresses that the Mongol princesses were not mere exchange tokens but actually influenced local policy (besides transmitting their blood). However, the Mongol marriage policy tended to gradually narrow down the range of marriage partners, finally privileging the Onggirad, which led to consanguineous marriages. He concludes that the combination of the weakness or short life of emperors because of consanguinity, and over-sinicisation led to the rapid decline of the dynasty. Other factors of decline are discussed, such as the emperors’ diet, or the fact that they may not have been sinicised enough to rule China. Four appendices introduce the sources used by the author (Appendix 1), the biographies of empresses and imperial concubines from the “History of the Yüan dynasty” (Appendix 2), reigns of khans and Yüan emperors (Appendix 3) and genealogical tables of the Mongol nobility (Appendix 4). The glossary being deprived of page numbers is not helpful to the reader. Although Zhao has gathered an impressive mass of information, his book contains some inconsistencies. He adopts a Chinese viewpoint, and although he stresses that it is “desirable to have some knowledge of the Mongolian language to study Mongol history” (Appendix 1), shows his ignorance of Mongolian society, and sometimes even evinces some contempt for it (“this tactic proved futile in the case of the stubborn Mongols”, p. 223). It would have been worth devoting a chapter to Mongolian terminology, focusing on the marriage terminology ― for instance the term quda, used for marriage allies (in-laws) or two men whose children have married each other; the title of kürgen, ‘son-in-law’ etc. Rodica Pop in her article “State Custom and Governance, tör yos and tör within Mongol Clans” (in Isabelle Charleux, Roberte Hamayon and Grégory Delaplace, eds, Representing Power in Modern Inner Asia: Conventions, Alternatives and Oppositions, Bellingham: Western Washington University, forthcoming) analyses for instance the term tör, which designates at the same time the wedding ritual and the state, therefore suggesting that exogamous alliance is the basic rule of the society, which explains why the wedding ritual is considered to be a ‘state affair’. It would also have been interesting to look at the post-Yüan period, stressing the role of quda conflicting relations between fifteenth-century Chinggisids and Oirad, and its decline after the reign of Dayan Qan (1480?-1517?); and the importance of levirate in maintaining peaceful relationships between the sixteenth-century Mongols and Chinese.
The author uses a broad range of secondary sources and refutes some of their theories and assertions (in the bibliography, the Western authors are listed by their forenames except for ‘Polo Marco’). The argument of the whole introduction, for instance, is based on a critic of Jennifer Holmgren’s assertions (p. 3-13 about the price of the bride, Yesügei’s personal wealth and social status, etc.). But he mostly bases his demonstrations on Chinese sources and translations (see Appendix 1). He confronts the often conflicting records of Western sources such as Rubrouck, Plano Carpini, with Ilkhanid sources and the “Secret History of the Mongols”, but generally reads them in Chinese translations, and sometimes notices that the Chinese translation differs from an English translation (p. 17 and n. 6 p. 17 about the Jami‘ al-tawarikh by Rashid ad-Din; p. 58 n. 15, D’Ohsson read in a Chinese translation and re-translated into English by the author). For the same reasons, Zhao had great difficulty in restoring Mongolian names, which are given in a mixture of Chinese and Mongolian phonetics with many inconsistencies and violations of vowel harmony, the same word being sometimes written with different transcriptions (p. 10: Ecige, Echige; p. 6 Borte; p. 112 Bortie; p. 6 Dei Sechen, p. 20 Dei Sechan; p. 4 Tiemujin, p. 6 Temujin etc.). The book globally suffers from a lack of editing (p. 16 Qraqin for Qaracin; p. 143 Pirat for Oirad; p. 101 onggiract for Onggirad; p. 97 n. 5 mish instead of mishi; p. 15 tprgüd for törgüd, etc.). Anda Khan is the Chinese name of Altan Qan (p. 144). Other inconsistencies, mistakes or unsupported assertions are scattered through the text. The quriltai is qualified as a ‘democratic military tradition’ (p. 212). The stereotype of Buddhism as a major cause for the fall of the Yüan dynasty is repeated in several instances: The royal family would have sought protection in Buddhism by fear of sudden death and degeneracy (p. 22); Toqon Temür would have turned to “Lamaism” and then become “pleasure-seeking and quickly corrupted” (p. 81, 90); p. 83 ‘Tibetan Lamaism’ is even identified with ‘Bon’. The book also lacks a good map, especially when dealing with Mongolian expeditions and territories of the different ‘tribes’. The use of some visual sources also lead to some mistakes, such as the decree issued by Töregene Qatun reproduced in a reversed way (p. 63). Nevertheless, the mass of information and new theories proposed in this book makes it a useful and valuable monograph on the topic of the marriage strategies of the medieval Mongol élite.