Dreams of Angkor
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