For Fabián.

It is not difficult to get information about Daguan Zhou. A quick Internet search will reveal he was a former Chinese diplomat, who is remembered to this day for his chronicles of travels to the Khmer Empire, located in what is now Cambodia, where he served the Chinese royalty towards the end of the thirteenth century. The available information also points out that there are no official (Chinese) records of this diplomatic mission and that there are very few certainties regarding how he spent his days after the mission.

His chronicles, entitled “Customs of the Khmer Empire”, and nowadays referred to as “Customs of Cambodia”, are forty pages long, only a third of the original (the missing pages are considered lost). There, Daguan Zhou develops, in classical Chinese writing (although with some localisms), the most complete description ever recorded about the daily habits of the inhabitants of Angkor, the capital of the powerful Empire and the largest city in the world before the Industrial Revolution. It is estimated that it reached a population of one million and that its temples alone required more materials than all the Egyptian pyramids together.

Daguan Zhou also describes in detail the magnificent temples of Angkor and focuses on the celebrated temple of Angkor Wat. He points out that “according to the wise instructions of the King Khmer, it faces west, with its back facing the future (sunrise), diametrically opposed to all other temples, their builders (the former kings) and all the ancient fundamental ideas (about God, Death and Time)”. The interpretation is so subtle that, since the original is lost, it manages to go unnoticed, even for modern scholars: King Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, was the first of the Khmer Kings to believe — or know — that time could be arbitrarily traversed, even towards the past. There is no reference, however, to the punishment which anyone who dared to embark on such a deed would face.

Digging in a bit deeper, it is possible to find out that Daguan Zhou was the bearer of other names, such as Zhou Jianguan, Zhou Dake, or Cao Ting Yimin (that is, The Straw Rooftop Prisoner). However, what is not known is that each name corresponds to a different and independent time, place, and group of people (if this is actually possible). And that there were at least as many other identities as the length of time of the apogee of ancient China allows: Mei Ling Zhou, Zhou Akame, Zhou Lin, etc.

I could go on talking about Daugan Zhou just for the sake of entertainment if I did not hold in my hands a document, unknown to most people, entitled “Motul Chronicles: the land and its people”. These records offer a description of the daily customs of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Mutul (one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms), especially the city of Yax Mutul (the great capital, today known as Tikal) and its majestic pyramid temples. About a hundred pages of chronicles.

The writing is Mayan, but of an early Pacific coast variant (that is, they differ from the Isthmian that prevailed in the Kingdom) and the author is Zazil Ha (which means Princess of Water). There is no further information about the author, what motivated these works or any related texts as these chronicles are one of the few documents that survived the massive destruction perpetrated by the Spaniards, along with the Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex, and some isolated pages of the Grolier Codex, the authenticity of which is unfairly disputed.

Just as Daguan Zhou describes the temples of Angkor, Zazil Ha provides a detailed account of the pyramid temples of Tikal. The “twin-pyramid complex” captivated the author: nine twin pyramids built facing each other. Within this group, the Yaxhá Complex is granted full attention: smaller and built outside of the city (about 30 km. away), which — according to the author — “is the only one amongst the nine that has the back facing the future”.

The mere coincidence of metaphors on such a specific topic is not only unlikely. The structure of the chronicles, the narrative style, and the aspects that call the attention of Zazil Ha are damningly similar to those offered by Dahuan Zhou. The most noticeable difference can be found in the dates: the Mutul Chronicles date back to 546 AD whereas the chronicles of the Khmer Empire date back to 1297 AD.

With much less consistency, other characters could be added to the human chain that has its strongest links in Daguan Zhou and Zazil Ha. These characters (if the plural applies), still secondary, are ulterior in time and can be traced in Rome, London, and, more recently, New York.

If history teaches us anything, it is that the same roads lead hopelessly to the same destinations. Little does Daguan Zhou seem to have learned from his predecessors’ tragic, inescapable, and unavoidable endings. He was probably reluctant to accept that his travels were against The Law.

Great journeys are not undertaken with the help of Time but in spite of it. Pretty much in the same way that Christopher Columbus, his contemporary Marco Polo, or the great Chinese traveler Xu Xiake have embarked on theirs. They will differ in something, however, since the end of Daguan Zhou (and this story) will be quite different and much sadder.

To arbitrarily travel through time does not mean to govern it. Daguan Zhou can have a thousand names and live in a thousand places for a thousand times, but it is inevitable that the eternal hand (in the most literal sense of the word) of The Law, my law, will eventually reach him.

Translation by Carolina Quintana, translator and simultaneous interpreter specialized in art and literature
carodetigre[at]hotmail.com
Original version (in spanish)