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A 13th Century Chinese Visitor to Angkor

A 13th Century Chinese Visitor to Angkor

An extraordinary and unique record of Angkor, at the height of its greatness, exists from the years 1296-7.

It was written by a Chinese envoy, Zhou Daguan, who was dispatched from the court of the Yuan Dynasty's new emperor, Chengzong, also known as Temur Khan (grandson of Kublai Khan), to the Khmer capital during the reign of Indravarman III (1296-1308). The Chinese envoy left a 40-page manuscript describing his experiences.

Forty pages may not sound like much—but set against the outstanding epigraphic evidence, much of which is limited to lists of slaves, the valorous and wise actions of kings, and the payment of taxes, Zhou's record is like a window on 13th century Angkorian life.Moreover, his writing is unconstrained by the Indic tradition of excluding common people from literature—thus we learn much of the lives of the average citizen, be he or she a farmer, market vendor, cook, soldier or slave.

It is Zhou Daguan, or Chou Ta-kuan in Wade-Giles Romanisation, who tells us that the contemporary Chinese name for the Khmer Empire was ‘Chen La', and that is was known to its inhabitants as ‘Kan-po-chih'—a clear forerunner of the names ‘Kampuchea' and ‘Cambodia'.

At that time, the whole of the southern Mekong region belonged to Cambodia, which began at Cap St. Jacques or present-day Vung Tau, which is on the coast southeast of Saigon. Zhou records that the walled city of Angkor was some five miles in circumference. It had five gates, with five portals. Outside the wall stretched a great moat across which massive causeways gave access to the city.

‘The Royal Palace, as well as the official buildings and homes of the nobles, all face east,' wrote Zhou. ‘The Royal Palace stands to the north of the Golden Tower and the Bridge of Gold; starting from the gate its circumference is nearly one and a half miles. The tiles of the central dwelling are of lead; other parts of the palace are covered with pottery tiles, yellow in colour …

I have heard it said that within the palace are many marvellous sights, but these are so strictly guarded that I had no chance to see them. Out of the palace rises a golden tower, to the top of which the ruler ascends nightly to sleep'. By contrast, the houses of the ordinary folk were thatched with straw, for ‘no one would venture to vie with the nobility'.

In fact, as Zhou makes clear, in the late 13th century, Cambodia was a rigidly class-stratified society. At the base of the pyramid were slaves, many of whom were reportedly captured ‘mountain tribes', though this definition must be treated with caution, as there would have been relatively few hilltribes in the vicinity of Angkor, at least in the sense of upland minorities such as the Jarai and the Brao. Rather, Zhou is probably referring to peoples outside the Angkorian heartland—people perhaps perceived as ‘outer barbarians' in a traditional Chinese sense.

Slaves were set apart from free peoples by various prohibitions. They could not sleep in houses, though they could lie beneath them. On entering a house, they had to prostrate themselves before beginning work. Slaves had no civil rights, their marriages were not recognised by the state, and they were obliged to call their owners ‘father' and ‘mother' (an interesting if disturbing reminiscence of the position of ‘New People' under the reign of the Khmer Rouge some seven centuries later). Slaves often tried to run away, and when caught would be tattooed, mutilated and shackled.

Elite families may have had around 100 slaves while even working-class families had up to 20. Only the poorest Angkorians fended entirely for themselves. Above the slaves were several intermediate classes who were free, but not part of the nobility. These included private slave-owners, landholders, resident and visiting traders (for example, Chinese merchants), and, most probably, market traders, who were mainly women. In the words of Zhou Daguan:

'In this country, it is the women who are concerned with commerce … Every day a market takes place which begins at six in the morning and ends at noon. There is no market made up of shops where people live. Instead people use a piece of matting, which they spread out on the earth. Each of them has her own position, and I believe that fees are charged for these locations'. The position of other 'free' peoples outside the elite is rather a matter for speculation, as Zhou is less than specific on this point. Soldiers, for example, were servants of the state, but they were certainly not slaves. And what of the position of the numerous religious functionaries serving the many great temple complexes?

Zhou recognised three religious traditions established at Angkor: Brahmanism, Buddhism and Shaivism. He found the Brahmans something of an enigma. They attained high status, but he complains: ‘I do not know what models they follow, and they have nothing which one could call a school or a place of teaching. It is difficult to know, also, which books they read'.

More familiar, both to Zhou and to the present-day visitor, were the Buddhists—who, interestingly, were Theravadan, despite Jayavarman VII's devotion to the Mahayana a century earlier. Known as chao ku, a Tai-language designation, Zhou observed: ‘They shave their heads and wear yellow robes, leaving the right shoulder bare. For the lower part of the body they wear a yellow skirt. They go barefoot'. As further evidence of the dominance of the Theravada school, Zhou noted, the Buddhist temples ‘contain no bells, cymbals, flags or platforms', housing only an image of the Buddha, which was generally gilded.

The Shaivites, by contrast, are less familiar, and were certainly already a declining—though by no means disappearing—influence at the time of Zhou's visit. He found their temples poorer than those of the Buddhists, ‘housing a block of stone similar to the stone found in shrines to the god of the soil in China'. Clearly, Zhou is here referring to the Shiva lingam.

Above all these classes stood the king, his family and his immediate entourage, the high elite. Zhou was both fascinated by the king and perplexed by his relative accessibility—so unlike the Emperor of China. Zhou himself saw the king five times during his stay: ‘Every day the king holds two audiences to deal with government affairs. There is no fixed agenda. Functionaries or common people who want to see him sit on the ground and wait for him to appear'.

In fact, this rather relaxed approach to the matter of royal audience seems closer to the near-contemporary system of Siam's King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai than to the Chinese (or Viet) system, as do the inscriptions from around the time of Zhou's visit boasting that under Indravarman III (1296-1308) the Cambodian state was ‘protected by many umbrellas'. Zhou may not have been aware, but by the end of the 13th century Cambodia, influenced both by the rising power of its Thai neighbours and by the growing strength of Theravada Buddhism, was in the course of definitively reaffirming its Indic identity, even as it paid tribute to the ‘Middle Kingdom' of China.

We can best leave Zhou's uniquely important narrative—there would be none to match it for centuries to come—with his description of Indravarman III riding in state at the head of his court, an Angkorian god-king at the height of his power and splendour:

‘When the king goes out, troops are at the head of the escort; then come flags, banners and music. Palace women, numbering from three to five hundred, wearing flowered cloth, with flowers in their hair, hold candles in their hands and form a troupe. Even in broad daylight, the candles are lighted. Then come other palace women, bearing royal paraphernalia made of gold and silver … Then come the palace women carrying lances and shields, with the king's private guards … Carts drawn by goats and horses, all in gold, come next. Ministers and princes are mounted on elephants, and in front of them one can see, from afar, their innumerable red umbrellas.

After them come the wives and concubines of the king, in palanquins, carriages, on horseback, and on elephants. Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant's tusks are encased in gold'.


The size of a house in Angkor related directly to the owner's official rank. Houses were made of wood and bamboo; only the temples were constructed of precious sandstone. Wealthier citizens covered their roofs with ceramic tiles while ordinary folks used thatched straw. Most common folk lived in stilt houses with wooden staircases leading to a single story. Beneath the house, women weaved and domestic animals sheltered. Human waste was commonly deposited through holes in the floorboards to the gratitude of the household's pigs and dogs below.

Ordinary Angkorians had no tables or chairs in their homes, nor bowls or buckets. They boiled rice and prepared soup in earthen pots using ladles and spoons made from coconut shells. Food was served into small bowls made from woven leaves, which were effectively waterproof.

Dress and Appearance

According to Zhou Daguan: ‘Only the ruler can dress in cloth with an all-over floral design … Around his neck he wears about three pounds of big pearls. At his wrists, ankles and fingers he has gold bracelets and rings all set with cat's eyes … when he goes out, he holds a golden sword [of state] in his hand'. Ordinary Angkorian men and women wore only loincloths wrapped around their waists; both sexes left their chests exposed. They walked outdoors and hunted barefoot. All wore their hair in a knot above the shoulders. Zhou reported that common women wore no hair ornaments, though some wore gold rings and bracelets. Court women frequently wore fragrant flowers such as jasmine in their hair.

Zhou noted that beautiful women were chosen and sent to court to serve the king or his family. The Chinese emissary was, however, disparaging about Khmer women's beauty: ‘The women age very quickly, no doubt because they marry and give birth when too young. When they are 20 or 30 years old, they look like Chinese women who are 40 or 50'.

Markets and Trade

Remarkably, all internal trade and barter was conducted by the womenfolk of Angkor. Daily markets ran from dawn to noon with vendors paying rent to officials for their allotted space where they laid out their wares on large mats on the ground. Vendors would have carried their goods to market on ox carts. Popular goods for sale included fruit, vegetables, rice, fish, betelnut, honey, syrup, ginger, oil, candles, incense, domestic animals, jewellery, cotton cloth, and tools such as sickles and machetes.


Herbal medicines were plentiful, though Zhou was unable to identify the plants. He noted that 'some eight to nine out of 10 here die from dysentery', an exaggeration no doubt, but nevertheless an indication that flooding and the stagnant waters of Angkor's pools may have contributed to rampant disease and death. Malaria must also have been a massive killer, but Zhou did not record it separately from the cases of dysentery. Zhou also remarked on the number of sorcerers practicing in the city, an art-form he refers to as ‘completely ridiculous'.


Chinese sailors frequently deserted and took up residence in Angkor, attracted invariably by the women who were open to relationships with foreigners, and who ran their households and managed the purse-strings with enviable skill. Most immigrants, Chinese and otherwise, became merchants.


Ceremonies and rituals to appease spirits and to ask blessings for rice harvests were common. New Year celebrations, as today, took place in April with a water festival to mark the end of the dry season. Zhou describes:

‘In front of the royal palace a great platform is erected, sufficient to hold more than a thousand persons, and decorated from end to end with lanterns and flowers. Opposite this … rises a lofty scaffold, put together of light pieces of wood, shaped like the scaffolds used in building stupas, and towering to a height of 120 feet. Every night, from three to six of these structures rise, then rockets and firecrackers are placed on top—all this at great expense to the provinces and the noble families.

‘As night comes on, the king is besought to take part in the spectacle. The rockets are fired, the crackers touched off. The rockets can be seen at a distance of thirteen kilometres: the firecrackers, large as swivel-guns, shake the whole city with their explosions. Mandarins and nobles are put to considerable expense to provide torches and areca nuts [used in chewing betel]. Foreign ambassadors are also invited by the king to enjoy the spectacle, which comes to an end after a fortnight'.

Another Angkorian festival that is still celebrated today across Southeast Asia is a ritual to mark the end of rainy season, usually in November, when devotees build small boats from banana leaves, decorate them with flowers, candles and incense, and let them float downstream on a river.


Zhou remarks quizzically: ‘Take the case where two men are in dispute, and no one knows who is right or who is wrong. In front of the royal palace, there are 12 small stone towers. Each of these two men is made to sit inside a tower, and the two men are watched over by their family members.

‘They stay one or two days, or even three or four. When they come out, the person who is in the wrong is certain to have caught some sickness; either he has ulcers, or catarrh, or a malignant fever. The innocent person has nothing wrong with him. Thus they decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong; this is what they call ‘celestial judgment'. Such is the supernatural power of the god of this country.'



Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley – © CPA Media