Zhou Daguan describes ancient Angkor at its peak

YouTube player


In a story by Edgar Rice Burroughs an explorer chops his way with a machete through the Cambodian jungle to a lost world – a remnant of ancient Angkor still thriving. The tale of “The Land of Hidden Men” may be an entertaining yarn, but Angkor Wat – one of the greatest cultures of the medieval world- was swallowed by the jungle, and then rediscovered in the nineteenth century. The ancient kingdom boasted 102 public hospitals. Only one first-hand account of its capital exists, from the pen of Zhou Daguan, a contemporary Chinese diplomat who later published a book entitled “The Customs of Cambodia”. Zhou Daguan was born Zhou Dake, in a small town in a coastal region of China. For some reason, he changed his name after he returned from Cambodia. Some speculate that the Chinese emperor planned to attack Cambodia, and that that might be the reasons for the many details in Daguan’s book. His text only caught the attention of the world after it was translated into French by Paul Pelliot in 1902. The following are excerpts:


Paul Pelliot (1878 –1945) was a French Sinologist and Orientalist who explored Central Asia and discovered several ancient manuscripts.

“This Tche-la is also called Tchan-la. The native name is Kan-po-tche. The current dynasty, based on Tibetan religious books, calls this country Kan-p’ou-tche, phonetically close to Kan-potche.

The royal palace, as well as official buildings and noble residences, all face east. The royal palace lies north of the Golden Tower and the Golden Bridge. Where the sovereign conducts his affairs, there is a golden window; to the right and left of the frame, on square pillars, there are mirrors, about forty to fifty, arranged on the sides of the window. The sill of the sovereign’s window is shaped like an elephant.

Everyone, starting with the sovereign, both men and women, wear their hair in a bun and have bare shoulders. They simply wrap a piece of cloth around their waist. There are many rules regarding the fabrics based on each person’s rank. Only the prince can wear continuous patterned fabrics. He wears a golden diadem, similar to those on the heads of vajradharas. Sometimes, he does not wear a diadem and simply wraps a garland of fragrant flowers reminiscent of jasmine in his bun.

Among common people, only women can dye the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands; men would not dare to. High officials and princes can wear fabrics with widely spaced patterns. Only officials may wear fabrics with two groups of patterns. Among common people, only women are allowed to wear such special types of cloth. But even if a newly arrived Chinese wears a fabric with two groups of patterns, it is not considered a crime because he is “ngan-ting-pa-cha”, a person who does not know the rules.

When officials go out, their emblems and their entourage are arranged according to their rank. The highest dignitaries use a golden palanquin and four parasols with golden handles; the following have a golden palanquin and two parasols with golden handles, then a golden palanquin and one parasol with a golden handle, and finally a simple parasol with a silver handle.”

Modern illustration of Zhou Daguan. Zhou Daguan was born Zhou Dake in Yongjia, Wenzhou. For some reason, he changed his name after he returned from Cambodia. Some speculate that the Chinese emperor planned to attack Cambodia, and that that might be the reasons for the many details in Daguan’s book.

“Both regular writings and official documents are always written on deer or deer skin and similar materials, dyed black. Each person cuts the skins to their liking, depending on their dimensions in length and width. People use a kind of powder that resembles Chinese chalk and shape it into sticks, which they call “so.” Holding this stick in hand, they write characters on pieces of skin, these do not fade. When they finish, they place the stick behind their ear. They can also recognize a writer by his characters. The characters will fade, however, if you rub them with something wet. All documents are written from left to right, not from top to bottom.

These people always make the tenth Chinese lunar month the first month of their year. In front of the royal palace, a large platform is assembled that can accommodate more than a thousand people, and it is entirely adorned with lanterns and flowers. In front, at a distance of twenty paces, using pieces of wood placed end to end, a high platform is assembled, similar in shape to scaffolding for the construction of the Buddhist mounds we now call “stupas”. Each night, three, four, five, or six of these platforms are constructed. Fireworks and firecrackers are placed at the top. These expenses are borne by the provinces and noble houses. When night falls, the sovereign is invited to witness the spectacle. Rockets are launched, and firecrackers are lit. The rockets can be seen from over a hundred miles away, and the firecrackers are as large as boulders, and their explosion shakes the entire city. Mandarins and nobles contribute with candles and areca nuts.

The sovereign also invites foreign ambassadors to the spectacle. This continues for fifteen days, and then everything stops. Every month, there is a festival. In the fourth month, they play ball. In the ninth, they enumerate. Enumerating means gathering the population from all over the kingdom and reviewing them in front of the royal palace. In the fifth month, they fetch water for the Buddhas. They gather the Buddhas from all over the kingdom, bring water, and, in the company of the sovereign, wash them. In the sixth month, they navigate boats on dry land. The prince climbs a belvedere to watch the festival. In the seventh month, they burn rice. At this time, the new rice is ripe, and they fetch it outside the South Gate and burn it as an offering to the Buddha. Countless women go to this ceremony by cart or on elephants, but the sovereign stays at home. In the eighth month, there is dancing. The term “ngai-lan” means “to dance.” They designate actors and musicians who come to the royal palace every day to perform “ngai-lan.” There are also pig and elephant fights. The sovereign also invites foreign ambassadors to attend.

The sovereign holds court twice a day for government affairs. There is no schedule. Officials or people who wish an audience wait on the ground outside. After a while, distant music is heard in the palace. Then the sound of conch shells outside announces his arrival. I have heard that the sovereign travels in a golden palanquin to these meetings; he does not come from far away. A moment later, two palace maidens raise the curtain with their delicate fingers, and the sovereign, holding a sword, appears standing at the golden window. Ministers and people fold their hands and touch their foreheads to the ground. When the sound of the conch shells ceases, they can raise their heads. It is at this moment that the sovereign takes his seat, and on such occasions, he is always seated on his lion’s skin, a royal heirloom. As soon as the matters to be handled are completed, the prince turns around, the palace maidens lower the curtain, and everyone stands up.”


The excerpts come from Paul Pelliot’s French translation, first published in 1902 (then revised before his death and published in 1951). Below is Monash University’s youtube reconstruction of medieval Angkor, from 2017.

YouTube player



Please follow and like us: