Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta-kuan; French: Tcheou Ta-Kouan; 1266–1346) was a Chinese diplomat under the Temür Khan, Emperor Chengzong of Yuan. He is most well known for his accounts of the customs of Cambodia and the Angkor temple complexes during his visit there. He arrived at Angkor in August 1296, and remained at the court of King Indravarman III until July 1297. He was neither the first nor the last Chinese representative to visit the Khmer Empire. However, his stay is notable because he later wrote a detailed report on life in Angkor, The Customs of Cambodia (Chinese: 真臘風土記) . His portrayal is today one of the most important sources of understanding of historical Angkor and the Khmer Empire. Alongside descriptions of several great temples, such as the Bayon, the Baphuon, Angkor Wat, and others, the text also offers valuable information on the everyday life and the habits of the inhabitants of Angkor.
Diplomatic journey to Cambodia
On 20 February 1296, Zhou Daguan set sail from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, on a compass guided ship, passing the ports of Fuzhou, Guangzhou, Quanzhou (Zaitong), the Island of Hainan, the Seven-Islands Sea (Qizhou yang), the sea off Central Vietnam coast (Jiaozhi Sea), and stopped over in Zhancheng or Champa (today's Qui Nhon). The ship resumed its trip passed the province of Zhenpu (Baria in present day South Vietnam), through Poulo Condor Sea, then heading north on the Mekong River into Tonle Sap River reaching the town of Kampong Chhnang of Cambodia; from there he boarded a small boat, sailing for a dozen days, through Tonle Sap Lake arriving at Angkor Thom, the capital of Cambodia in August.
Description of Angkor Thom
Zhou wrote that the city had five gates with multiple doorways, one in each compass direction, but in the east two. The city was surrounded by a wide moat crossed by bridges with sculptures of 54 figures pulling a nine-head nāga. On top of the city gate there were five Buddha heads, four of them facing four directions, the one at the centre was covered with gold. "The city is square in shas at each corner; the city gates are guarded, open during the day but closed at night. Dogs and convicts are barred from entering the city".
Description of the palace
Zhou wrote that the Palace was at the north of the golden bridge and the golden tower, and the Palace faced east. The main hall of the Palace was covered with lead tiles, the rest had clay tiles.
Description of the Khmer people
Zhou wrote that both men and women had their chests exposed, walked barefoot and wore only a piece of cloth wrapped around their waists. He reported that the common women had no hair ornaments, though some wore golden rings or bracelets. Beautiful women were apparently sent to court to serve the king or his royal family at his whim. Interestingly, he stated that all trades were carried out by women. In the market place, there were no buildings, but rather the female vendors sold their wares on large mats spread on the ground. The space in the market also apparently required a rent to be paid to the officials. He stated that the Khmer people had no tables or chairs in their homes, and not even what the Chinese considered to be bowls or buckets. They reportedly cooked their food in earthen pots used for boiling rice and for preparing soup. Their ladle sticks were made from coconut shells and soup was then served into a tiny bowl made from woven leaves, which were apparently waterproof.
He recorded a royal procession of Indravarman III who carried a sacred sword in his hand:
|“||When the king goes out, troops lead the escort; then come flags, banners and music. Palace women, numbering from three to five hundred, wearing clothes decorated with flowers, with flowers in their hair, hold candles in their hands, and form a troupe. Even in broad daylight, the candles are lit. Then come other palace women, carrying lances and shields; then the king's private guards; then carts drawn by goats and horses, all in gold. After that ministers and princes 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. They have more than one hundred parasols, flecked with gold. Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant's tusks are encased in gold.||”|
In 2007, the Chinese linguist Peter Harris, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies New Zealand, completed the first direct translation from Chinese to modern English, correcting many errors in previous versions. Harris worked in Cambodia for many years and included modern photographs and maps directly relating to Zhou's original account. This book also includes more than 100 bibliographic references, two appendices and a detailed index, in English and Chinese.
Harris also draws a series of parallels between the voyage of Zhou and the travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo was Zhou's contemporary, however, according to Harris, Polo's travels contain a number of unusual omissions that have yet to be fully explained.
Another book on Zhou's record on Cambodia was published in 2010. It is a direct translation from an ancient Chinese text into English by a native Chinese (Mrs. Beling Uk) and a native Cambodian (Solang Uk), both with post-graduate degrees from U.S. universities. The authors give new insights and explanations on places, agricultural resources, and local customs that have long been misinterpreted or indecipherable to foreign scholars. Animal and plant names mentioned by Zhou Daguan are clearly described with international scientific names and some are illustrated with color photographs. A Cambodian version of the translation by the same authors was published in Phnom-Penh in 2011.
Zhou's account is very useful for determining that the 1st month of the Khmer calendar was "kia-to", called Karttika. None of the Khmer inscriptions uses month numbering, but of the three systems used later in Thailand, Karttika was called month 1 in parts of Lanna and was also sometimes so numbered in Laos. The astronomical new year, on the other hand, began in what would have been numbered month 6 (Caitra). This equation is confirmed when Zhou Daguan says he does not understand why they intercalate only in (their) month 9. On the scale being used here the 9th month is Ashadha, the only intercalary month in Thailand and Laos. (Ashadha is better known as 'month 8' since that is its Southern (Bangkok) equivalence.)
The use in Cambodia of Ashadha as the only intercalary month is not otherwise securely attested until the 1620s AD when a year (Saka 1539; IMA no. 9) is said to have a 2nd Ashadha when the old system did not have an extra month in that year. The inscription record between 1296 AD and 1617 AD is very patchy, but such records as survive from the first part of this interval appear to favour the older system of reckoning, suggesting that Zhou Daguan's informants were at the time of his visit in the minority.
- Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat: Description du royaume de Cambodge par un voyageur chinois qui a visité cette contrée à la fin du XIII siècle, précédée d'une notice chronologique sur ce même pays, extraite des annales de la Chine, Imprimerie de J. Smith, 1819
- Paul Pelliot: Mémoires sur les coutumes du Cambodge de Tcheou Ta-Kouan
- Chou Ta-Kuan, The Customs of Cambodia, transl. by John Gilman d'Arcy Paul, Bangkok: Social Science Association Press, 1967.
- Chou Ta-Kuan, The Customs of Cambodia, transl. by John Gilman d'Arcy Paul, Bangkok: The Siam Society 1993.
- Zhou Daguan, The Customs of Cambodia, transl. by Michael Smithies, Bangkok: The Siam Society, 2001.
- Zhou Daguan, The Customs of Cambodia, transl. by John Gilman d'Arcy Paul, Phnom Penh: Indochina Books, 2nd edition, 2010.
- Zhou Daguan, Sitten in Kambodscha. Leben und Alltag in Angkor im 13. Jahrhundert, Phnom Penh: Indochina Books, 6th edition 2010.
- Chou Ta-Kuan: Sitten in Kambodscha. Über das Leben in Angkor im 13. Jahrhundert. Keller und Yamada, Frankfurt: Angkor Verlag, 2nd edition 2006. ISBN 3-936018-42.
- Zhou Daguan, A Record of Cambodia, transl. by Peter Harris, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2007. ISBN 978-974-9511-24-4
- Zhou Daguan, A Record of Cambodia's Land and Customs, transl. by Solang and Beling Uk, Sandy (Beds., England): Authors OnLine, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7552-1306-1