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Angkor Memories: Chou Ta Kuan's excellent adventure

Angkor Memories: Chou Ta Kuan's excellent adventure

IN the last years of the 13th century, China's Manchu Dynasty had grown impatient

with the perceived lese-majeste of Angkorian civilization.

Rather than the expected pledges of homage and gifts of tribute, a Manchu diplomatic

mission dispatched to Angkor in 1281 was summarily imprisoned upon arrival in Cambodia,

never to be heard from again.

Four years later, a second Chinese mission, consisting of a Chinese ambassador and

a court official named Chou Ta Kuan, was sent to re-establish ties with Angkor.

While the success or failure of Chou's mission has been lost to history, his stay

in Cambodia produced "Customs of Cambodia", the only first-hand written

description Angkorian civilization "at the height of its splendor".

Between 1296-1297, Chou traveled extensively throughout Angkorian Cambodia, documenting

a fairy tale-like kingdom of golden towers and mass slave labor ruled by King Indravarman

III.

While Chou's "Customs of Cambodia" provides a brief but comprehensive forty

section treatise on aspects of Angkorian society ranging from "Aborigines"

to "Writing", the work has long been criticized by historians for its "middle

kingdom prejudices".

Descriptions of Angkorian traditions are peppered with commentary such as "absurd"

and "utterly ridiculous", while Cambodians themselves are unflatteringly

referred to as possessing "neither discipline nor strategy".

Chou's salacious descriptions of "easily persuaded...highly sexed" Cambodian

women whose "sexual impulses are very strong" suggest that his investigations

were far from strictly scholarly in nature.

Chou took pains to describe not only what sexual activities were available to travelers,

but where and how they could be procured, as Chou's report on the custom of nude

female group bathing attests.

"On days of leisure the Chinese treat themselves to the spectacle...I have heard

it said that many of them enter the water to take advantage of what opportunity offers."

While praising some aspects of Chou's work, historian David Chandler bemoans Chou's

emphasis on "exotic revelations of 'barbarian' life."

In "History of Cambodia", Chandler describes Chou's "Customs of Cambodia"

as a tantalizing missed opportunity of historical scholarship.

"Although (Chou) provided a newsreel - or perhaps a home movie - of his stay

in Angkor, our appetites are whetted for the feature film he might have produced

had he known (or cared) about the gaps that have persisted ever since in the historical

record."

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