China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - Dragon Motif Transfer in the 12th century Khmer Empire

Saturday, July 7
10:20 AM - 11:50 AM
Location: Jacaranda I, First Floor

Khmer sculptors, like India’s, sought to represent the Indian mythological story of Viṣṇu Anantaśāyin since the 7th century. During the reign of Sūryavarman II (r. 1113-1150), the representation of Viṣṇu Anantaśāyin was profoundly changed in a way unknown in India and other Southeast Asian countries— Viṣṇu was depicted lying on a mythical creature, a ‘Khmer dragon’.


Sūryavarman II is known for not only building the superb Angkor Wat, but also re-establishing diplomatic relations with China. The Chinese influence on Cambodia, however, has seldom been studied. Would this Khmer dragon be a product of Sino-Khmer cross-cultural interaction, resulting from the new diplomatic relationship with China?


This paper will first provide a comparative visual survey of this Khmer dragon and the contemporaneous Chinese dragon motif by examining similar design characteristics and their symbolic significance. Subsequently, the historical tribute and trade activities between 12th century Cambodia and China will be mapped, and then the possible dragon motif transfer as a consequence of material culture exchange will be analyzed based on the evidence found in Chinese historical records, Khmer epigraphic inscriptions and relevant material remains. Finally, the evidence from the material culture will be discussed together with the contemporaneous political-economic background, which reflects the relationship between the Khmer Empire, Song-dynastic China and other neighbouring countries during the reign of Sūryavarman II, and further clarifies his motive behind the creation of the new representation of Viṣṇu Anantaśāyin with the Khmer dragon. 

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