The Magazine

Khan Woman

Katherine Mangu-Ward, Mongol princess.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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A MAN HAS BEEN in the news lately, accused of dishonorable behavior in war, and Iam here today to defend him. Blood, after all, is thicker than water.

In that famous testimony in 1971, John Kerry likened U.S. conduct in Vietnam to that of Genghis Khan. Now, I won't quibble with the idea that the Great Khan was ruthless. But I insist there was good in him--if nothing else, that he spawned me.

I first learned of my own secret history in fifth grade. I was working industriously on a diorama depicting the myth of the Minotaur. As I was leafing through the "M" index of the family 1988 Britannica, an entry caught my eye--"Mangu (Mongol ruler): see Möngke." Flipping eagerly ahead I learned that Mangu was the grandson of Genghis Khan, and ruler of the Mongolian Empire from 1251 to 1258.

A quick glance at a map suggests that it is not too wildly improbable that the khan or his sons made a sweep through Transylvania, the region from which my family hails, and left a few offspring in his wake. Which can only mean that I, Katherine Mangu-Ward, am a Mongol princess.

After intermittently putting on royal airs for years, I recently decided it was time to find out a bit more about my great-great-etc.-grandfather and his ilk. And the more I read, the more I realized that the Great Khan and I have a lot in common. Consider:

* Mangu (or Möngke) Khan was the last ruler to expand the boundaries of Genghis Khan's empire. He held widely diverse peoples together in a single army and commanded them with an iron will. I am also bossy.

* During his reign, Mangu hosted the first interfaith symposium. The rules were similar to those of a traditional Mongol wrestling match, with gulps of large quantities of fermented mare's milk between rounds. The debate ended with the Christian singing, the Muslim chanting, the Buddhist meditating, and everyone staggering out completely wasted. I, too, have been driven to drink by dull, pointless theological discussion.

* When asked "What is best in life?" contemporaneous sources report that Genghis Khan gave the answer, roughly translated, "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women." His response was later immortalized on film by Conan the Barbarian, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold is a Republican. I vote Republican.

* Mangu conquered Baghdad, a feat most recently repeated in 2003. No wonder I was such a fervent supporter of the war in Iraq--it's in my blood.

* My habit of throwing highlighter pens at irritating coworkers is surely a manifestation of my roots on the steppes among archers and spear-throwers.

* As the trusty Britannica says, "His contemporaries judged him to be a benevolent ruler." As mine do me.

* And the Mongols refer to their queens as "Khatun," which, I can't help but notice, has some echoes in the otherwise distinctly European name Katherine. Coincidence? I think not.

The late, great Douglas Adams touched on what it's like to have Genghis's blood in one's veins in his classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A character in this book, a midlevel bureaucrat named Mr. L. Prosser, was a "direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan," but the "only vestiges left in Mr. L. Prosser of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the tum and a predilection for little fur hats." When Prosser was put upon, "his mind seemed to be full of noise, horses, smoke, and the stench of blood. . . . In a high dimension of which we know nothing the mighty Khan bellowed with rage, but Mr. Prosser only trembled slightly and whimpered." My bloodline is clearly more robust.

Perhaps some readers are still skeptical of my genealogical claims. I have two things to say to those doubters: First, you are nitpicky spoilsports; and second, the odds are actually pretty good that I am a Genghis descendant. A recent study found that approximately 8 percent of Asian men alive today share a Y chromosome traceable to Mongolia about a thousand years ago. That's right, it probably started with Genghis Khan. As one article notes, the population of the world in Genghis's time was about one twentieth of what it is today. Therefore, on average, any contemporary of Genghis Khan has 20 descendants alive today. The Y chromosome mega-ancestor has an estimated 16 million descendants, making him 800,000 times more successful than the average man. And that's just the Ys!

As a fifth-grader, I saw life as a princess primarily as a matter of pointy hats and towers from which to be rescued by a dragon-slaying knight. I didn't imagine living in a yurt, drinking fermented milk, and wearing leather pants. But the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of being Khatun Mangu(-Ward).

--Katherine Mangu-Ward