Passing Notes

Zhou Daguan, part of a group of diplomats from China that lived in Angkor from 1296 to 1297, recorded his thoughts on the area

From 1296 to 1297, a group of diplomats from China lived in Angkor, which by then was in decline but still strong. Zhou Daguan, one of the group's members, jotted down what he saw, and his diary, The Customs of Cambodia, is the only written record of Khmer daily life (besides the inscriptions on the temple walls) that has survived. His account was translated into French by Paul Pelliot in 1902, and later into English by Michael Smithies. Below are some of Zhou Daguan's observations:

On Khmer homes:

"The dwellings of the princes and principal officials have a completely different layout and dimensions from those of the people. All the outlying buildings are covered with thatch; only the family temple and the principal apartment can be covered in tiles. The official rank of each person determines the size of the houses."

On the king's wardrobe:

"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."

On Khmer women:

"The women age very quickly, no doubt because they marry and give birth when too young. When they are twenty or thirty years old, they look like Chinese women who are forty or fifty."

On Khmer language:

"This country has its own language. Although the sounds are similar to theirs, the people of Champa and Siam do not understand it."

On Khmer justice:

"In addition, 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 twelve 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 the wrong; this is what they call ‘celestial judgment'. Such is the supernatural power of the god of this country."

On sickness:

"Some eight to nine out of ten here die from dysentery. As with us, medicines are sold in the markets, but they are very different from those in China, and I do not know any of them. There are also some sorts of sorcerers who practice their arts on people. This is completely ridiculous."

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