Zhenla 真臘, in the West usually transcribed as Chenla, also called Zhenlie 真獵, Zhanla 占臘, Zhanla 占蠟, was the Chinese designation for Cambodia between the 6th and the 8the centuries. The country was also known with the names Jimie 吉蔑 or Gemie 閣蔑 (from the ethnonym Khmer). While some of the later Chinese transcriptions, dating from the Song period 宋 (960-1279) or later (Ganbozhi 甘孛智 or Ganpuzhi 澉浦只, Ganbujie 干不昔, Ganbucha 甘不察 or Ganpozhe 甘破蔗), are derived from the word Kamboja, but the origin and meaning of the designation Zhenla is still being disputed. The modern Chinese name for Cambodia, Jianpuzhai 柬埔寨, was first used in late-16th century sources.
The history of Zhenla can be reconstructed from Chinese sources and original stele inscriptions of the region. Both types of sources are not fully reliable, and many aspects of the history of Zhenla therefore remain in the dark.
Zhenla was a successor state of Funan 扶南 (of one may speak of states at all), or a polity located at the middle course of the Mekong River, in the southern parts of present-day Laos. The capital was first located in what is today Vat Phou (Wa Fu 瓦富) close to Champasak (southern Laos), and was later shifted to Isanapura (Yi-xin 邑心, Yi-shang-na-bu-luo 伊賞那補羅, Yi-she-na-bu-luo 伊奢那捕羅 (close to today's Kampong Thum), and finally to Angkor (Chinese transcription Wuge 吳哥, in the book Zhufanzhi 諸蕃志 called Luwu 祿兀).
In the mid-6th century, the power of the central state of Funan declined, and the lord of Zhenla, Bhavavarman (Chinese transcription Bo-po-ba-mo 撥婆跋摩, r. 550-590) and his brother and successor Mahendravarman (Mo-he-tuo-luo-ba-mo 摩訶陀羅跋摩), also known as (Citrasena, Zhi-duo-si-reng 質多斯仍, r. 590-611) and attacked Funan. King Isanavarman (Yi-she-na-ba-mo 伊奢那跋摩, r. 616-637) destroyed the remnants of Funan and created a royal seat, Isanapura, at the banks of River Stung Sen in the northern part of present-day Cambodia.
King Jayavarman I (Du-ye-ba-mo 闍耶跋摩, r. 657-681) had no heir. The kingdom was first reigned by Queen Jayadevi (Du-ye-de-wei 闍耶德維, r. 681-713), but the country fell soon apart. From the many lesser principalities, two larger states emerged, namely "Land Champa" (Lu Zhenla 陸真臘, also called Wendan 文單 or Polou 婆鏤) and "Riverine" or "Watery Champa" (Shui Zhenla 水真臘). Yet these might also have been collective designations for several principalities. The latter's capital was Po-luo-ti-ba 婆羅提拔. The king of Land Champa bore the title "duqu 笪屈".
The court of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) received envoys from Zhenla between 623 and 813. Princes and a vice king from Land Champa came to the Tang capital Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) to present tributes, among others, an elephant. The Prince was therefore granted the honorific title of "Resolute Commander" (guoyi duwei 果毅都尉).
Riverine Champa disintegrated in the 8th century, and also suffered an invasion from Java, which obliged the lords of Zhenla to deliver tributes.
In the late 8th century, a Khmer prince, living as a hostage in Java, returned and expelled the Javanese occupants. Residing in Indrapura (Yin-de-la-pu-la 英德拉普拉), he reunited the country and in 802 moved the royal seat to the northern banks of Lake Tonle Sap (today's Pnom Kulen). He adopted the title of Jayavarman II (825-875).
The "universal ruler" (deva raja) of the Khmer kingdom adopted not only the Pallava script from southern India, but also the Brahmanist branch of Hinduism, in which the king was an incarnation of a deity, in his case of God Śiva (in Chinese Shipo Tianshen 濕婆天神). He was accordingly residing in a palace which was constructed on a so-called linga mound symbolizing the centre of the world. Jayavarman II. was also buried in this mound.
In the second half of the 12th century, the capital city, then called "Grand Angkor" (Da Wuge 大吳哥), was protected by a 12-km long wall with escarpments.
After the death of Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-1243), the power of the kingdom vanished, and neighbouring countries like Sukothai, liberated themselves from the yoke of the Cambodians. In 1431, the Khmer kingdom was for the first time sacked by the Thai.
From all Chinese sources on Chenla, the report of the 1295 mission of Zhou Daguan 周達觀 (c. 1266-1346), Zhenla fengtu ji 真臘風土記, is most famous. Interestingly enough, Zhou used the name Zhenla even if the kingdom of this name was already history for quite some time. Moreover, when he visited the Khmer capital, it must have been just a shadow of previous glory. The oldest book on Zhenla was Zhenla guoshi 真臘國事, written during the Tang period, but unfortunately lost.