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How do you use Zhou Daguan?
The ruins of Angkor speak for themselves. Or do they? On the walls of the great temple complex are detailed carvings of military conquests, and royal inscriptions describe the majesty of the kingdom. But what was everyday life like in the Khmer empire? With so much Cambodian writing centered on royal deeds, or on religious texts, we must turn to Chinese accounts to really understand Cambodia of the 13th century, at (or just past) the peak of the Khmer Empire.
Luckily, Zhou Daguan, often compared (favorably) to Marco Polo, has left us an account. He spent a year at the court of Indravarman III, in Angkor, and wrote descriptions not just of the majesty of the empire, but also surprisingly detailed and sensitive accounts of the everyday lives of the Cambodian people. Unlike many explorers – including Marco Polo – Zhou does not speculate about places that he hasn’t been, nor report hearsay as fact (though he does report on the details of the Khmer Emperor’s nightly activities with a naga queen).
Zhou wrote in a way that was meant to advise others like himself – interested merchants and diplomats. While he does write about the gold-encrusted royal processions, Zhou also wrote about mundane affairs. He noticed a division in the religious lives of Cambodians: Buddhism, Hinduism (“Brahmanism”), and animism co-existed in the metropolis, although Zhou misinterprets these religious figures along Chinese lines. Notably, Zhou remarks upon the advanced status of women in Cambodia at the time – merchants and markets were often female-managed.
Zhou came from Yuan Dynasty China, a dynasty begun by Kublai Khan. His mission likely wasn’t of great diplomatic importance to China or to Cambodia – the two empires, separated as they were by the Southeast Asian massif (those mountains in Laos, Burma and Vietnam) had less interaction than present-day Cambodia and China. But the importance of his account to Khmer history is central.