In 1295, the same year that Marco Polo arrived back in Venice after his travels in China, a young Chinese — Zhou Daguan (circa 1270-1350) — set out on a shorter but no less interesting voyage to territories only somewhat less unknown.
He was headed for Champa (present-day southern Vietnam) and what is now Cambodia, and was part of an official delegation sent there by Kublai Khan’s grandson, Temur, who had ascended to the imperial Chinese throne on the death of his grandfather.
Zhou’s duty was to deliver an imperial edict securing recognition of Mongol suzerainty and its aim was to secure Cambodian tribute. Whether this aim was successful or not, the major result of the mission was this earliest record of life in the then newly reconstructed city of Yasodharapura — that great citadel we now know as Angkor.
It would not last all that long; 135 years after Zhou’s visit, Yasodharapura, the first capital of the Khmer empire, was razed by the Siamese and reduced to the beautifully melancholy state we now find it in. This small account is then all that remains of the life that must once have filled it.
As Peter Harris tells us: “When you look at the plain stone edifice and worn stone lions of the Bayou, you will be reminded that this was once a gold tower, flanked by lions covered in gold. As you walk through the local markets, you will picture the women of Angkor selling their wares — many of these wares from China, much as they are now. And when you stroll around Phimeanakas and the grounds of the royal palace, you can picture it milling with guards, retainers, and the women of the palace.”
Zhou modeled his report on what was expected. It is thus sometimes formulaic (lists of animals, fruits, birds), and follows its genre model, offering the template expected. At the same time, however, he was apparently so much impressed by what he saw that the surprise and the wonder reach us even now.
He found a mighty ecclesiastic capital (Angkor Thom) in the center of what was a great gold tower (Bayon), and further off an even taller bronze tower (Bapuon). There was one marvel after another, leading the writer to meditate: “I suppose all this explains why from the start there have been merchant seamen who speak glowingly about ‘rich, noble Cambodia.’ “
There was much to marvel at. In the middle of the Baray tower was a reclining Buddha with water constantly flowing from its navel. The population was (unlike the Chinese in China) much given to bathing. “Even the women from the great houses join in, without the slightest embarrassment. You get to see everything, from head to toe.” Also “since none of the locals has a surname or given name, they don’t keep a record of their birthdays. Many of them call themselves by the name of the day they were born on.”
Nonetheless, there is no social irregularity. “From the king down, the men and women all wear their hair wound up in a knot, and go naked to the waist, wrapped only in a cloth.” Trials are primitive, punishment is draconian (cutting off the toes is a favorite reprimand), and the economy is slave-based.
The slaves were “savages” who are “purchased to work as servants.” Most Angkor families had a hundred or so and only the very poorest have none at all. The “savages” were what we would now call hill-tribe peoples, subjected to the hardships still common in countries such as Myanmar. If a slave becomes pregnant “the master won’t try and find out where it is from, since the mother has no status and he will profit from the child, who can eventually become his slave.”
Though Zhou’s narrative has apparently lost a number of pages since the manuscript was first written some 700 years ago, it remains our only view of a civilization otherwise known only for its ruins. And this truncated account continues to have an influence. It is utilized in Cambodian schools, it informs tourists, and (less beneficially) it was used in the late 1970s by the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime that is said to have pushed for four harvests of rice annually because that was the number, according to Zhou, that the ancient Cambodia farmers brought in.
There have also been a number of translations, though only a few from the original Chinese. Paul Pelliot’s 1902 French translation has served as basis for the several English translations that have later appeared.
Peter Harris has returned to the original and translated directly from the Chinese. In addition he has availed himself of recent scholarship and offers a number of appendixes (notes, other Chinese accounts, dynastic tables, a full bibliography) as well as this lively, valuable, new translation.