My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Traveling to an archaeological site as grand as Angkor, it’s natural to wonder what the city must have been like in its heyday. Angkor’s population was estimated to be as much as 1 million people, making it one of the world’s biggest urban centers in its day. One can get a feel for how vast and impressive Angkor was by way of the restorations, its artwork, and even the lay of its rubble fields. However, today’s Angkor is in large part a testament to the power of Mother Nature to swallow once proud temples and palaces with strangler figs and to shatter stout walls with white silk cotton trees. It’s hard to fathom what it was like when it was occupied by kings and concubines, slaves and shamans.
A Record of Cambodia offers a rare glimpse into life at Angkor at the tail end of the 13th century—near the city’s peak. It was written by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat sent by Yuan China [Mongolian era] as part of a delegation. Zhou spent almost a year at Angkor during 1296-1297. His report was translated into French during the 19th century, and all the English translations in existence had been based on the French not the original Chinese (i.e. twice translated.) This 2007 edition, however, was translated directly from Classical Chinese by Peter Harris.
The thin volume weighs in at only about 150 pages, but fewer than 40 pages are Zhou Daguan’s report. The other 110 pages include front matter, graphics, appendices, and notes. The Introduction, at 30 pages, is almost as long as Zhou’s document. However, this should not be taken as criticism. There’s a lot of useful expansion upon, and explication of, the information in Zhou’s report in both the Introduction and the end-notes. While it’s written by the translator, Peter Harris, it’s probably best to think of the Introduction as an Editor’s Introduction rather than a Translator’s Introduction–the latter creating an impression of a discussion of the minutiae of ancient grammars. (There is a little of that in a separate “Notes on the Translation.”) Harris’s introduction sets the background, elaborates on certain mistakes that Zhou seems to have made, and contrasts Zhou’s report with the accounts of other famous travelers such as Marco Polo, Ibn Buttata, and Xuanzang
Zhou’s report is divided into 40 chapters; though the word “chapter” seems more fitting for some than others, as many are no more than a single short paragraph. Each chapter is themed by some element of Khmeri life during the era. They include coverage of how people dressed, the nature of slavery at Angkor, what the buildings looked like in their glory days, sexual practices, agriculture, trade, local flora and fauna, and eating practices.
While short, Zhou’s book gives us a great deal of information that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I learned a number of intriguing facts such as that fireworks displays were a regular event, runaway slaves had their faces tattooed blue, and the only ones not all allowed in Angkor Thom were those who were missing a toe(s) (removal of digits was a punishment back in the day.) Zhou has a great curiosity with the sexuality of the Khmeris, which was a great deal more liberal than that of China. Even the practice of toplessness among both men and women of all classes drew Zhou’s attention.
As when one reads the accounts of European explorers and adventurers, there’s a certain bigotry and conceit that comes across in Zhou’s writing—though it doesn’t come across as jarringly as in the works of, say, Francis Galton. Zhou does report on matters where the Khmeris looked down on Chinese practices as uncivilized (e.g. using human waste as fertilizer or using toilet paper / not reserving their right hand for sanitary endeavors.) On some cultural differences, Zhou comes across as mocking the Khmeri ways (e.g. communal bathing practices), and he goes as far as to refer to them as “Barbarians.”
If you’ve been to (or plan on going to) Angkor, I’d highly recommend giving this thin volume a read. It won’t take much time, and it’ll allow you to see the ruins in a new light.