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A long friendship: A look into the history of Sino-Cambodian relations

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
Portrait of Emperor Temur Khan who ruled China from 1294–1307 when Zhou Daguan wrote his “Record of Cambodia.” Wikipedia

Cambodia and China have built very strong bilateral ties, but this binding relationship is not the result of just a few years of engagement. Despite no common border between them, the two nations have had centuries of historic, cultural and commercial relationships. In 2006, a group of Vietnamese fisherman discovered the wreckage of a 15th century Chinese trading ship laden with ancient pottery and other artefacts near Koh Sdach, off the coast of Koh Kong province. The discovery is just one example of countless of artefacts found in Cambodia, the evidence of commercial relations between the Khmer Empire and China. Dr Michel Tranet, a prominent Cambodian historian, says this is not surprising, given the Kingdom’s status as a former hub of trading activities in the area.

“Many ships from all over the world, especially China, had been to the land of ‘The Khmer Empire’ to trade,” he says. “These are proven by the discoveries of other civilisations’ currencies and artefacts in today’s Cambodia.”

“Meanwhile, China, as a great civilisation in the past, was building trade with many other civilisations and Cambodia was not an exception.”

In the meantime, in Nanjing City in China, a museum showcasing the artistic works of the Ming Dynasty displays a strong Cambodian connection. Some artefacts in this museum have been seen as new evidence of a long diplomatic relationship between China and the Angkor kingdom dating back 700 years.

Also a massive replica of a painting made by a Chinese official under the orders of the Ming Dynasty emperor, contains historical text in ancient Chinese characters describing the diplomatic and trade relationships between China and Angkor in the 14th century. Similarly, a bas relief at Angkor Wat also displays economic activities between Cambodian and Chinese people during the Khmer Empire.

The earliest record on Cambodia by the Chinese goes back to the late 13th century when Yuan emissary Zhou Daguan visited Cambodia in 1296 and authored his detailed and comprehensive Record of Cambodia in which he mentions the presence of Chinese residents at Angkor.

However, historians speculate that contact between Cambodia and China has continued more or less uninterrupted since the first century of this era – and perhaps longer. Unlike early Indian contact, which produced distinctly Indian forms in the indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia, contact with China appears to have left them relatively unmarked.

Then just after the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, Mac Cuu and Duong Ngan Dich encouraged large numbers of refugees from Fujian and Guangdong provinces to settle in Indochina. The majority of the immigrants were men who eventually married local Khmer women, resulting in a number of people of Chinese descent in Cambodia today. Their descendants usually assimilated smoothly into the local communities through the economic and social process and they personally identify as Cambodians. However, customs were imported, such as the use of the Chinese topknot that was practiced until the 18th century

“The current close ties between Cambodia and China is a result of centuries of great relationships, as well as mutual understanding among people,” says Sambo Manara, a Cambodian historian.

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