Dreams of Angkor

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Guoyao Edited by Roberta Raine

Chenla fengtu ji ( The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia) by Zhou Daguan is the only sur­viv­ing book on Angkor’s his­tory in its hey­day, wit­ness­ing friendly ex­changes be­tween the peo­ples of China and Cam­bo­dia.

The “Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive” is China’s na­tional strat­egy. The his­toric Silk Road is not only an an­cient com­mer­cial trade route con­nect­ing Asia, Africa and Europe, but also a road be­tween the East and West for eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural ex­changes. Many Chi­nese en­voys once stepped on this road dur­ing the past 2,000 years or more, writ­ing le­gends in world diplo­matic his­tory, still com­mem­o­rated by later gen­er­a­tions along the Silk Road.

In June 1295, the gov­ern­ment of the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271–1368) dis­patched a diplo­matic corps to Chenla (present- day Cam­bo­dia). In fact, be­fore this diplo­matic mis­sion, numer­ous diplo­matic en­voys had gone to the coun­try and many Chi­nese peo­ple lived in Angkor, its capital.

The pur­pose of the diplo­matic corps was to make prepa­ra­tions for Em­peror Cheng­zong (reign: 1295–1308) to send troops to con­quer the coun­try. Zhou Daguan (c. 1266–1346)

was one of the mem­bers of the corps sent to Chenla. But in the end, the in­tended war didn't break out.

Zhou lived in Angkor for a year. Af­ter re­turn­ing to his home­land, he wrote what he had seen and heard in the city of Angkor in a book ti­tled Chenla fengtu ji ( The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia), the only sur­viv­ing book about the his­tory of the Angkor pe­riod in its prime.

Boast­ing a his­tory of over 2,000 years, Angkor is sit­u­ated in a vast prim­i­tive for­est with tow­er­ing trees and a peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment.

As an ar­chi­tec­tural com­plex in the hey­day of the an­cient Kh­mer Em­pire, the city's an­cient build­ings cover an area of 24 kilo­me­tres long and eight kilo­me­tres wide. Af­ter the down­fall of the em­pire, the build­ings fell into obliv­ion un­til the 19th cen­tury, when a French ex­plorer dis­cov­ered it by fol­low­ing The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia.

Go­ing to Chenla

In the late 13th cen­tury, the Yuan gov­ern­ment rose to promi­nence in China's Cen­tral Plains. Af­ter con­sol­i­dat­ing its power, the ruler of the Yuan Dy­nasty adopted a pol­icy of ex­pan­sion­ism, which caused un­ease in Chenla. In 1281, the Yuan gov­ern­ment sent two of­fi­cials to Chenla. Nom­i­nally, it was ex­tend­ing greet­ings to the coun­try, but in fact, it in­tended to per­suade Chenla into pay­ing al­le­giance to the Yuan gov­ern­ment. How­ever, the re­sult was not what Em­peror Shizu (Kublai Khan, reign: 1260–1295) had ex­pected.

At that time, the King­dom of Chenla was pow­er­ful. In­stead of en­ter­tain­ing the en­voys from the Yuan Dy­nasty in a state cer­e­mony, King Jayavar­man VIII de­tained them all. How­ever, Khublai Khan was not an­gered by this pre­sump­tu­ous be­hav­iour. In­stead, he hoped to settle the hostage in­ci­dent peace­fully. See­ing that there was no of­fen­sive move on the part of the Yuan gov­ern­ment, the king of Chenla be­gan to con­sider mak­ing a con­ces­sion. In the fol­low­ing year, the king dis­patched en­voys to China to es­tab­lish friendly re­la­tions. Nev­er­the­less, the en­voys to China only ex­tended the king's greet­ings to the Yuan gov­ern­ment and there was no im­prove­ment as far as the hostage in­ci­dent was con­cerned. Be­fore long, the king passed away. In­dravar­man III, his suc­ces­sor, adopted a warmer at­ti­tude to­ward the Yuan. On the is­sue of sur­ren­der, he was in­clined to take ac­tive mea­sures.

In 1295, Em­peror Cheng­zong planned to dis­patch en­voys to Chenla to ad­dress the hostage in­ci­dent. At that time, Chi­nese who went to South­east Asia would set off from Jiangsu or Zhe­jiang be­fore go­ing south along China's south­east coast. Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Guang­dong, they would con­tinue trav­el­ling south­ward un­til they reached their des­ti­na­tion. The Yuan gov­ern­ment re­cruited staff in Jiangsu and Zhe­jiang to un­der­take this long voy­age.

The Song (AD 960–1279) and Yuan dy­nas­ties saw un­prece­dented and pros­per­ous trade ac­tiv­i­ties on the Mar­itime Silk Road; in par­tic­u­lar, the Yuan Dy­nasty at­tached great im­por­tance to over­seas trade. As a re­sult, the Yuan gov­ern­ment set up bu­reaus for for­eign ship­ping in places such as Quanzhou and Wen­zhou. It was in this way that Zhou Daguan—who had learnt a lit­tle Cam­bo­dian by as­so­ci­at­ing with sailors and merchants in Wen­zhou—was re­cruited. At that time, he was a mere scholar with the Yuan gov­ern­ment.

Zhou Daguan was fond of read­ing as a child; in par­tic­u­lar, he loved a book ti­tled Zhu fan zhi ( Records of For­eign Peo­ple) by a Song Dy­nasty scholar. Zhou was most in­ter­ested in the de­scrip­tions of Angkor. Af­ter 802, when King Jayavar­man II es­tab­lished the capital in Angkor, all the kings that fol­lowed took Angkor as their capital. Angkor there­fore played an ac­tive role in the his­tory of Cam­bo­dia for over 600 years, and all the em­pires whose capital city was Angkor were col­lec­tively known as the Kh­mer Em­pire.

Pow­er­ful and pros­per­ous, the Kh­mer Em­pire ruled over the vast land. It was dur­ing this pe­riod that the Cam­bo­dian peo­ple cre­ated the Angkor civil­i­sa­tion, the most in­flu­en­tial in the his­tory of Cam­bo­dia. Tem­ples and pago­das still ex­ist­ing to­day, such as Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and Ban­teay Srei, were in­flu­enced by the ar­chi­tec­tural styles of Hin­duism and Bud­dhism and are all part of Angkor civil­i­sa­tion.

In 1296, Zhou Daguan and his party departed from Wen­zhou to Hainan Is­land. It took them more than three months to reach Angkor. Zhou was lucky enough to wit­ness the Angkor civil­i­sa­tion that he had been long­ing for.

Zhou’s Ex­otic Ex­pe­ri­ence

Shortly af­ter ar­riv­ing in Chenla, and fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the diplo­matic corps from the Yuan gov­ern­ment, Zhou had an au­di­ence with the king of Chenla, In­dravar­man III, who sat at a golden win­dow in his palace and looked at Zhou and his party. Zhou waited for the king to come out and greet him, but al­most half a day passed and the king was still sit­ting at the golden win­dow. Zhou found that there were square col­umns on both sides of the golden win­dow, and on the sides of the col­umns that faced the win­dow were 40 or 50 mir­rors. Like sa­cred mir­rors,

these mir­rors not only pro­tected the king but also su­per­vised him. The king in­vited them to look around the palace.

Zhou was very im­pressed by King In­dravar­man III. How­ever, the king's mild man­ner made him some­what con­fused. Dur­ing his stay in Chenla, Zhou saw the king five times in to­tal. The king re­ceived peo­ple twice a day to deal with af­fairs of state but with­out a fixed agenda. The of­fi­cials and com­mon peo­ple who wanted to meet the king would sit in the square to wait for him to ap­pear.

In Chenla, Zhou had an op­por­tu­nity to see the grand spec­ta­cle of the king when he went for an out­ing. Zhou once told his fam­ily of the scene: “When the king left his palace, the pro­ces­sion was headed by sol­diers; then came the colour guard and hon­our guard. Girls of the palace, three or five hun­dred in num­ber, gaily dressed, with flow­ers in their hair and can­dles in their hands, massed to­gether in a sep­a­rate col­umn. Then came other girls from the palace wear­ing gold and sil­ver or­na­ments. Then came still more girls—the bodyguards of the king—who were hold­ing shields and lances. Fol­low­ing them came gilded char­i­ots drawn by goats and horses. Min­is­ters and princes, rid­ing on ele­phants, were pre­ceded eded by bear­ers of in­nu­mer­able scar­let para­sols. Close be­hind came the royal wives and con­cu­bines. Fi­nally the sov­er­eign king ap­peared, stand­ing erect on an ele­phant and hold­ing in his hand the sa­cred sword. The tusks of the ele­phant were sheathed in gold.”

Af­ter pay­ing his re­spects to the king, Zhou went alone to the out­skirts of the city. Within a 12-kilo­me­tre ra­dius around the city wall of Angkor Thom, there were no build­ings. The ram­parts, which were over seven me­tres high, were made of stone. Angkor Thom had five gates, with two gates in the east and the re­main­ing three in the other di­rec­tions. Zhou no­ticed that the ram­parts had been made us­ing ad­vanced meth­ods, were very solid, and had been pol­ished un­til they were smooth. Later, Zhou went to Angkor Thom. In the mid­dle of the city was the fa­mous Bayon Tem­ple, a shin­ing gold pagoda with over 20 stone pago­das around it. There were more than 100 stone cot­tages as well, to the east of which was a golden bridge with golden lions at both ends. Zhou also saw that there were eight golden Bud­dha stat­ues just be­low the stone cot­tages. Pass­ing the tem­ple, Zhou caught sight of the royal palace to the north of the tem­ple, near the north gate of the city. Zhou found the glazed tiles on the roof of the royal palace, which had been made by lo­cal crafts­men us­ing com­plex tech­no­log­i­cal pro­ce­dures, amaz­ing. In front of the royal palace were high col­umns carved with Bud­dhist images. To Zhou's sur­prise, as he looked at the back of the palace, he was able to catch sight of In­dravar­man's golden win­dow and the square col­umns. Zhou ad­mired the tech­nol­ogy of the ar­ti­sans of Chenla very much. It was their de­sign that made both the in­side and out­side of the im­pe­rial palace look like an in­te­gral whole.

Zhou made abun­dant and de­tailed records of Angkor, record­ing scenes of the daily lives of Cam­bo­di­ans, such as bathing, shop­ping and march­ing in pro­ces­sion.

Dur­ing his stay in Chenla, Zhou lived with lo­cals. He was able to see the real ev­ery­day lives of or­di­nary Chenla peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, he wit­nessed the Chenla ju­di­ciary as it car­ried out tri­als. In the Chenla King­dom, facts and ev­i­dence were not em­pha­sised. The Chenla peo­ple be­lieved in the law of cause and ef­fect, or karma. When a judge could not give a fi­nal ver­dict on a case, he would re­sort to a prac­tice known as “heav­enly prison,” in which both par­ties in a case were sep­a­rately put into small stone pago­das, where they had to sit in med­i­ta­tion for one or two days. If one of the two peo­ple coughed or had a fever, this would in­di­cate that his case lacked ev­i­dence and he was there­fore in the wrong.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhou's ob­ser­va­tion, the stone pago­das were closed with­out any ven­ti­la­tion, and were so hot that one could get boils on the skin. The in­sides of these tall pago­das saw no sun­light in a year, and any­one stay­ing there could eas­ily get ill and die. There­fore, Zhou con­sid­ered the way that Chenla judges tried cases to be un­rea­son­able.

In terms of bileteral trade, at that time, many Chi­nese peo­ple lived in Chenla to do busi­ness. In the mar­kets there, Zhou found not only many Chi­nese merchants but also Chi­nese com­modi­ties, including gold and sil­ver ware, bronze ware, silk, pa­per and spices, which sold well.

An En­dur­ing Book on An­cient Cam­bo­dia

In 1297, Zhou re­turned to his home­land. Shortly af­ter re­turn­ing from abroad, Zhou be­gan work­ing hard on his book and soon com­pleted writ­ing The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia, be­cause he wanted Chi­nese peo­ple to have pro­found and ob­jec­tive knowl­edge about Chenla.

Di­vided into 40 sec­tions and with a to­tal of some 8,500 Chi­nese char­ac­ters, The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia is the world's only and ear­li­est mono­graph to in­tro­duce var­i­ous as­pects of the Kh­mer Em­pire, including its pol­i­tics, econ­omy, re­li­gion, cul­ture, so­ci­ety and cus­toms. The book's com­plete and ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tions of what the author had seen and heard caused it to be very pop­u­lar, both at home and abroad. In ad­di­tion, the book gave a de­tailed record of the sit­u­a­tion of over­seas Chi­nese who lived in Chenla and re­flected on their mar­riage cus­toms, trade, and re­li­gious be­liefs as well as the con­tri­bu­tions they made to the lo­cal­ity, thus be­com­ing an his­tor­i­cal wit­ness of the friend­li­ness be­tween peo­ples of China and Cam­bo­dia.

Dur­ing the Yuan Dy­nasty, only hand­writ­ten copies of The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia ex­isted, and it only ap­peared in block- printed book form in the Ming Dy­nasty ( 1368– 1644). How­ever, the ma­jor­ity of these books were in­cor­po­rated into other books rather than printed as in­de­pen­dent vol­umes.

Af­ter Zhou Daguan's jour­ney, many Chi­nese peo­ple went south to Cam­bo­dia ev­ery year. Of course, many Cam­bo­di­ans came to China as well and com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween them be­came more fre­quent. Not only did Zhou sow the seeds of friend­ship, but more im­por­tantly, his book The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia has be­come a valu­able source of in­for­ma­tion for peo­ple to deepen their knowl­edge of Angkor civil­i­sa­tion more than 400 years ago. It was Zhou Daguan and The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia that helped to un­veil the mys­ter­ies of this an­cient civil­i­sa­tion.

The Chenla kings stayed in power for sev­eral hun­dred years be­fore be­ing con­quered by the more pow­er­ful Siam peo­ple in 1431, mark­ing the down­fall of the Kh­mer Em­pire. Af­ter that, for more than 400 years, Angkor was de­serted and left to fall to ruins. In 1819, a French­man called Jean-pierre Abel-Ré­musat found the book writ­ten by Zhou and trans­lated it into French. In 1860, with the help of this book, Henri Mouhot, a French bi­ol­o­gist, dis­cov­ered the Kh­mer Em­pire that had been buried for 400 years in the jun­gles of South­east Asia.

In 1902, Paul Pel­liot, a French Si­nol­o­gist, re­trans­lated The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia based on a bet­ter ver­sion. He made many de­tailed sup­ple­men­tary an­no­ta­tions, us­ing both the book and site sur­vey ma­te­ri­als for ver­i­fi­ca­tion. The new ver­sion of The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia pro­vided Euro­pean so­ci­ety with com­pre­hen­sive in­for­ma­tion about the cul­ture of Angkor Wat, and was very in­flu­en­tial. In 1931, Chi­nese scholar Feng Chengjun (1887–1946) trans­lated this book into Chi­nese, caus­ing a sen­sa­tion in Chi­nese-lan­guage lit­er­ary cir­cles.

Af­ter Cam­bo­dia was given in­de­pen­dence from France in 1953, she found she had no his­tor­i­cal records of her own. As a re­sult, The Cus­toms of Cam­bo­dia be­came an im­por­tant win­dow for Cam­bo­di­ans to un­der­stand the his­tory of their coun­try. Be­fore long, this book was trans­lated from Chi­nese into Kh­mer. Later, af­ter the civil war in Cam­bo­dia, vis­i­tors from all over the world swarmed into the world-class his­tor­i­cal spot, each of them hold­ing Zhou Daguan's book.

Zhou Daguan was the first en­voy in Chi­nese his­tory to visit Angkor. He was also the first author to give an of­fi­cial in­tro­duc­tion to Angkor, fill­ing in the gap in his­tor­i­cal records of the Yuan Dy­nasty and of Cam­bo­dia. It is also be­cause of this that Zhou is still re­spected and loved by the peo­ple of China and Cam­bo­dia. It is said that be­fore Zhou re­turned home, the king of Angkor gave him an ele­phant and a lion as gifts. He went back to the port of Wen­zhou and moored the ship, with the ele­phant and the lion on­board, at an islet in the mid­dle of the river, pre­par­ing to trans­fer them to the capital in Bei­jing. Un­ex­pect­edly, a storm hap­pened that night, cap­siz­ing the ship. Con­se­quently, the ele­phant and the lion sank to the bot­tom of the river. Later, two rocks there were named in hon­our of the ele­phant and the lion, re­flect­ing the Wen­zhou peo­ple's re­spect for Zhou.

To­day, at a place 30 kilo­me­tres north­east of Angkor Wat is the “Ly­chee Hill of China” (Ph­nom Kulen), which is said to be where ly­chee seeds that Zhou gave as a gift to Chenla were planted and prop­a­gated. In hon­our of the friend­ship be­tween China and Cam­bo­dia, a statue of Zhou was also erected in Angkor and still stands.

Angkor Wat in Cam­bo­dia

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.