Puccini’s final opera, Turandot (1926), is based on Carlo Gozzi’s play of the same name (1762). Gozzi, however, was himself inspired by a story found in François Pétis de la Croix’s collection of writings from 1712.
Pétis de la Croix was a French traveller who made his way across the Middle East, learning Arabic and translating important cultural works into French. While writing a biography of the great Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, Pétis de la Croix stumbled upon the exciting history of a warrior princess named Khutulun.
Khutulun was a Mongol princess born in 1260. Her father, Kaidu Khan, was the Mongol conqueror of China and the great-grandson of Genghis Khan. Khutulun often joined Kaidu on the battlefield, becoming known for her courage and strength. Her greatest claim to fame, however, was her skill as a wrestler — Khutulun was the undefeated wrestling champion of the Mongol Empire.
Khutlun’s achievements are well documented, including by the Italian explorer Marco Polo. He wrote of Khutulun’s resolve to abstain from marriage, vowing that she would only marry if the suitor could defeat her in a wrestling match. Not only that, Khutulun asked each suitor to wager 100 horses before stepping into the ring. If he lost, she would keep the horses. And she did.
Khutulun’s beauty attracted suitors from far and wide, but she kept winning and ultimately ended up with some 10,000 horses! (That number is likely a slight exaggeration). One particularly arrogant suitor even wagered 1000 horses instead of the usual hundred, but despite putting up a good fight, he lost to Khutulun.
Eventually, Khutulun did marry, but not just for love. Since she had refrained from marriage for so long, rumours started swirling that Khutulun had an uncomfortably close relationship with her father Kaidu. To suppress this gossip and to uphold the kingdom’s reputation, Khutulun chose a man she liked and married him.
When Pétis de la Croix learned of Khutulun’s legendary status, he was inspired to write a story about her. For dramatic effect and to make Khutulun’s tale more fantastical, he significantly altered a lot of details. Firstly, he changed her name to ‘Turandot’, a combination of Persian words meaning daughter (dot) from Central Asia (Turan). Turandot also had nothing to do with wrestling or sport; instead of challenging suitors in the ring, she now threw impossibly difficult riddles at them.
Although Pétis de la Croix created a new character that was very distinct from Khutulun, his story did maintain her portrayal as resolute and strong-willed. In all subsequent adaptations, including Puccini’s opera, Turandot is a figure of authority that cannot be underestimated.
While the story of Khutulun has evolved, passing through centuries of Western orientalist fantasy, her heroism is still the stuff of legend in cultures that trace their roots to the Mongol Empire.
Even in contemporary popular culture, Khutulun has made a comeback — Netflix’s internationally produced $90 million series Marco Polo features Khutulun prominently.
So what makes Khutulun’s story endure? Perhaps it is the sheer defiance with which she lived; an attitude that Marco Polo notes: Khutulun would never let herself be vanquished, if she could help it.
Carnincic, H., A. Penjak, and M. Cavala. "Pink-blue Gender Labelling: An Overview of the Origins of Inequality in Women's Wrestling." Anthropologist 24.3 (2016): 844-52.