The Royal Brides of the Eurasian Steppe

By Megan Snyder

Women’s political role in early Eurasian nomadic cultures is not well documented yet clearly played a vital part in power dynamics between nomadic groups and their sedentary neighbors. The Hsiung-nu and the Turks who inhabited the Eurasian steppe from the 3rd Century BC to the late 1st Century AD repeatedly used political marriages to cement alliances, as a reward for submitting to them, and a benefit for loyal vassals. However, the primary and secondary sources placing importance on this practice do not examine what kind of political power the women involved may or may not be able to exert. These princess brides are described as political pawns without any influence.

            The Hsiung-nu utilized two main political policies commonly referred to as ‘Outer Frontier’ and ‘Inner Frontier.’[1] One of the critical aspects of the Outer Frontier policy was raiding sedentary people and then creating treaties with sedentary people such as the Han dynasty. These treaties were very similar to a bribery scheme. The Han would send silks, grain, wine, and other luxury goods along with princesses of the Han dynasty as brides to the Hsiung-nu. In exchange, the Hsiung-nu would promise not to raid Han settlements. These treaties are called Heqin, referring to the concept of creating peace through kinship and marriage.[2]

            These political kin-ship alliances combined with threats of violence and military superiority proved to be effective ways of exerting power externally for the Hsiung-nu as a part of their outer frontier policy. Later in the origin story of the First Turkic Empire, demanding a princess for a bride is viewed as demanding to be a political equal.[3] The Han dynasty is agreeing to share the “Mandate of Heaven” or “Son of Heaven” with the Hsiung-nu rulers by agreeing to marry their princesses to the Shan-yü.[4] The acceptance of another ruler mandated by heaven cannot be understated. The historian Thomas Barfield frames the practice of the Heqin treaties as purely economical and does not discuss how marrying Han princesses reinforces the theological concept of the Hsiung-nu being ‘co-mandates of heaven.[5]’ The Hsiung-nu successfully intimidated the Han dynasty into sending the tribute and sending royal princesses to marry the Hsiung-nu rulers, thereby establishing themselves as co-rulers to the Han.[6]

            Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s writings help understand the role of women in the Heqin political treaties. However, these women’s names are not included, and we are confronted with the fact that the author is a male in a patriarchal society and not a member of the nomadic group. Ssu-ma did have access to letters written by Han dynasty princesses who married Hsiung-nu men. These letters include complaints about the way the Hsiung-nu live, however, but it doesn’t appear that Ssu-ma discussed these women as having any political power of their own.[7]

            The Hsiung-nu also used royal brides and wives as a way to reward and bribe loyalty. Ssu-ma notes how a Hsiung-nu lesser noble who had gone to the side of the Han was captured and surrendered to the Shan-yü. As a reward for his full surrender, the noble was granted a rank and the Shan-yü’s own sister as a bride. Ssu-ma does not explain the full reasoning behind this reward. However, it seems it may have been a bit of a bribe to convince the noble to reveal all he knew about the Han, as the noble “began to plot with him[the Shan-yü] against the Han.”[8]

            In another instance, a captured Han general was granted the daughter of the Shan-yü as a wife.[9] The political reasoning behind this decision is again not explained; however, Ssu-ma implies this was to bribe the general’s loyalty. This appears to be a common practice by the Hsiung-nu to reward or bribe surrendered or captured enemies with politically advantageous marriages. However, this practice was not always successful in securing loyalty. One such instance involved a Han envoy held hostage by the Hsiung-nu; he ultimately fled with his Hsiung-nu wife and child to another nomadic state.[10]

            The Turkic Empires also utilized political marriages to exert power in a different way than the Hsiung-nu. The First Turkic Empire employed political marriages to secure foreign support, while the Second Turkic empire used political weddings to confirm other nomadic groups’ submission to the empire. Kin-ship ties may also have played a role in internal politics during the Second Turkic Empire’s succession challenges.

            The First Turkic Empire’s origin story involves the founder of the empire, Tumin, demanding a princess for a bride from the Joujan ruler. Tumin was rebutted and called a slave. In response, Tumin sought a marriage alliance with the Northern Wei and attacked the Joujan. Interestingly, this account names the princess, Ch’ang-Ioh of Wei, and tells how she was “…styled … [as] Khatun….”[11] However, nothing else about her is discussed; it is not even clear if she was the only wife of Tumin. Tumin used this external political relationship, cemented by marriage, to further his political goals at home by garnering foreign military support.

            The title of Khatun or Katun and how the word is used in primary sources suggest the title bearer may be more than just the Kagan’s wife. The way the word is used suggests she may function as a queen or queen mother.[12] If this indeed so, what kind of political power does she have, if any at all? Interestingly, the sources examined for this paper did not discuss this title and its political importance as many male titles were examined, such as the title Sir Yabghu Qaghan.[13]

            During the Second Turkic Empire, it was common for the Kagan to give close female relatives in marriage to rival groups that had recently accepted Turkic rule. The Turks employed royal brides in a similar fashion to the Hsiung-nu marrying Han captives to Hsiung-nu women. Bilga Kagan established kinship ties by marrying his son to a Türgis princess, marrying his daughter to the Türgis kagan, and his sister to the Kirgiz kagan. After describing these marriage alliances, Bilgä Kagan states on his stelae inscription, “I made the proud (enemies) bow and the powerful kneel.”[14] This language suggests that these marriage alliances are not to establish external treaties but to solidify the submission of the Kirgiz and Türgis to Turkic rule. As such, they can be considered a part of internal imperial politics.

            Like the Hsiung-nu, not every marriage bought loyalty. A member of the Az people, Bars Beg, was married to the Kagan’s niece. Bars Beg betrayed the A-shih-na dynasty and was killed as punishment.[15] This suggests marrying a member of the dynasty is a great honor and betraying that honor is extremely dangerous. Additionally, being married to a royal family member is not a guarantee against retaliation for betrayal.

            This paradox makes the case of Tonyukuk more interesting. Tonyukuk backed the wrong side of a succession dispute. As a result, all the supporters of the rival successor were killed, save Tonyukuk. Tonyukuk was spared because his daughter was married to Bilgä Kagan.[16] This is interesting because Tonyukuk’s survival is stated in a Chinese source and the writer’s motivations are unclear. However, it is interesting to note that in Tonyukuk’s inscription for a never-used tomb, he does not mention that his daughter is married to the Kagan.[17] The tomb was created in anticipation of his death before regaining the Kagan’s favor.[18] The inscription is an argument that Tonyukuk served his kagans and the Turks well and can be read as an attempt to win back the Kagan’s favor or at least salvage his own memory. It is unclear as to why Tonyukuk did not attempt to leverage his daughter’s marriage to Bilgä Kagan in the inscription.

            In addition, we do not know if Tonyukuk’s daughter asked for mercy on her father’s behalf or for him to be reinstated. It is also unclear if she would have had the political authority to do so. Once again, the sources do not discuss her political role further than being a wife and daughter. Did the Kagan let his father-in-law live as a show of respect for his wife and kinship ties or as an acknowledgment of political ties? Presumably, other Turkic sources detailing these events once existed; however, today, we only have the inscription.

            In conclusion, the Hsiung-nu and Turkic nomadic groups used political marriages in different ways to cement kin-ship ties with enemies and allies externally and as rewards internally for loyal vassals.  The royal brides that solidified the Hsiung-nu and Hans’ Heqin treaties and politically tied subject nomadic tribes to the Turkic empires were essential to internal and external politics. However, sources do not reveal whether these brides held any political power of their own or much about them other than being royal brides sent to secure political alliances.

Megan Snyder is a junior majoring in History. This essay was written for Dr. Daniel Prior’s “Eurasian Nomads and History” class.

[1] Daniel Prior, “Module 7.1” (lecture, Miami University, Oxford, OH, March 11, 2021). Thomas J Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, (Cambridge MA & Oxford UK: Blackwell, 1989), 46.

[2] Peter Golden, Central Asia in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 27-28.

[3] David C. Wright ed., Peoples of the Steppe: Historical sources on the pastoral nomads of Eurasia (Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster, 1998), 79.

[4] Golden, Central Asia in World History, 27-28.

[5] Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 46-49.

[6] Prior, “Module 7.1” lecture.

[7] Golden, Central Asia in World History, 28. Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Records of the Great Historian, trans. Burton Watson. (New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1961).

[8] Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Records of the Great Historian, 180.

[9] Ssu-ma, Records of the Great Historian, 191.

[10] Golden, Central Asia in World History, 29.

[11] Wright, Peoples of the Steppe: Historical sources on the pastoral nomads of Eurasia, 79. Michael R. Drompp, “Imperial State Formation in Inner Asia: The Early Turkic Empires (6th to 9th Centuries),” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hung 58 (2005): 103.

[12] Talât Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1968), 271.

[13] Golden, Central Asia in World History, 38.

[14] Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic, 280.

[15] Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic, 266.

[16] Liu Mau-tsai, Die Chinesischen Nachrichten zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (Tu-küe) ‘The Chinese Reports on the History of the Eastern Türks’ Chinese Historical Writing on the Second Türk Empire, (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), vol. 1, 2.

[17] Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic, 283-290.

[18] Daniel Prior, “Module 10.1” (lecture, Miami University, Oxford, OH, April 6, 2021).

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