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The area of Sichuan Province was one of the centers of civilization of China and East Asia.
Chengdu has long been a capital city of regional empires or a provincial capital of the big empires. Chengdu (成都) literally means "become a capital."
For over 2,200 years, Sichuan has been an important administrative and economic center. The government aims to continue the Sichuan/Chongqing area's transformation into an industrially advanced manufacturing area.
Sichuan is an area of lowlands bordered by the Tibetan highlands to the west. The geographical features are quite varied with high mountain chains sloping down to a lowland basin on the Yangtze River. Rivers cross it, and by using the water resources for irrigation, there was much agricultural development in the region. The Tibetans, with a much different culture, have inhabited the mountains of Sichuan north and west of Chengdu.
Through irrigation, the plains became a "food basket," and the Han population grew huge.
So now the Sichuan and adjacent Chongqing regions have become one of China's biggest population centers. The region is as densely populated as densely-populated areas of eastern and northern China, and it is one of the biggest industrial regions in China.
Because the area was somewhat isolated, the local culture has always been distinctive. The traditional food and theater entertainment such as Sichuan Opera, for example, was different than that of the rest of China.
Very little is known about the people or culture in the area before the year 2,000 BC. However, about 10 settlements have been found around Baodun near the Min River in Sichuan. Archaeologists have uncovered walls covered with pebbles. The settlements date to between 2700 and 1700 BC.
Chengdu has two 3,000 to 4,000 year old archaeological sites, the Jinsha and Sanxingdui sites. These sites showed that a culture or cultures with advanced and innovative bronze casting technology inhabited the region of Chengdu during what is called the Shang Dynasty era (1600–1046 BC).
Some artifacts found at the Sanxingdui site date back as far as 3000 BC, but these could have been remains from an older different culture. Around 1600 BC, however, a distinctive culture built walls and started casting exquisite and large bronze objects unlike any others found in the world. Among the treasures were very big masks and the world's oldest life-size standing human statue that is 260 centimeters long and weighs 180 kilograms.
Near the Sanxingdui site, another site called Jinsha has been found that is younger. It dates to about 1000 BC. Similarities of artwork suggest that these settlements were built by the same culture.
Little is known about the Shu state that existed in the area of Chengdu after the Sanxingdui and Jinsha era. It may be that the Sanxingdui culture continued to develop to become the Shu people of the Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BC), or it might be that the Shu were another people.
Contemporaneous with the Shu people were the Ba people who lived around the Chongqing area. Legends and histories describe that the area of the Yangtze Basin west of Wuhan once had many clans and tribes, but no main ruler. So there was a competition about who could be the chief of the clans that involved some tests of skill. A certain man named Lin won, and he created his capital area in Enshi near Yicheng.
It is written that during the Zhou Dynasty era, sometimes the Ba and Shu fought, and sometimes, they were allies. The Ba territory grew, and to the north of the Ba, the aggressive Qin State grew.
The Qin rulers wanted to expand their territory eastwards, but they decided that they would first conquer the tribes to the south of them to gain territory, resources, slaves, and additional manpower for their eastward invasion. So in 316, the Ba allied with the Qin to attack the Shu, and once the Qin conquered the territory of Sichuan, they turned on the Ba and subjugated them. In this way, the Qin gained possession of the territory of Sichuan and Chongqing.
One of the first things that the Qin rulers wanted to do was to turn the Chengdu area into an agricultural plantation with forced labor. They wanted to grow food, so they diverted the flow of a river by building a huge irrigation project called the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project about the year 256 BC.
Li Bing was the Qin official who oversaw the building of it. This project changed world history. It was very successful to stop annual flooding in the Sichuan lowlands and turn Sichuan into an agricultural powerhouse for the Qin Empire and later empires. His project was so successful, it inspired the emperors of later eras to attempt even more massive construction projects.
Dujiangyan is still functional for irrigation in the area. It is a sight that people can go to visit during a trip to Chengdu. It is still being used after more than 2,200 years.
Though the Qin conquered and exploited the resources and labor of the Shu people, they didn't meddle with the affairs of the Ba people much since they feared stirring the Ba up against them. The Qin continued their invasion eastwards, and they conquered the other states of the region in 221 BC.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) followed the Qin Empire. Wen Weng was a Han Dynasty governor who established Shishi School between 143-142 BC. It may have been the first public school in the world.
More than 400 years after Li Bing, Zhuge Liang (181–243 AD) rose to power as the prime minister and general of the Shu Han State that arose when the Han Empire fell. During this time, there was warfare between three big states. The Sichuan people were in a natural stronghold behind mountains. It was difficult to attack them. Their kingdom only was conquered because they tried to invade the big northern state several times instead of simply defending their borders.
During the Tang Dynasty (618–907) era, Sichuan had incursions of invading Tibetans, but they also profited much from trade with the Tibetans. Tea was a favored drink of the Tibetans, and it also became a popular beverage of the people in the Tang Empire. Ya'an is a major tea growing area adjacent to Chengdu, so the area became important for tea production and regional trade between the empires of the Tang, the Tibetans, and the Nanzhao.
The trade route from Ya'an was an important part of the trading network of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. The Sichuan branch of the Tea Horse Road started from Ya'an, and it went up through Luding, Kangding, and Batang on its way west to Lhasa. Here are the 10 Top Places to Explore on the Tea Horse Road.
Chengdu also became a cultural center and a place of residence for Tang Dynasty rulers and officials. The Dufu Thatched Cottage is a museum and park area to memorialize an official and poet named Dufu. You can learn about Chengdu’s poetry and history about 1,300 years ago there.
Ya'an became the most import tea growing area for the Tea Horse trade during and after the Song Empire (960–1279) era. The Song rulers needed horses for their armies who fought first the Jin and then the Mongols. Those two peoples were expert at cavalry warfare, so the Song imported horses in exchange for tea and other products. The Song rulers emphasized tea production in Sichuan.
Then, Mongol armies captured Chengdu in 1279, and it is thought that a million people were killed and tens of thousands were deported from Sichuan. It is said that 80,000 inhabitants of just one Sichuan town were forced to march to Mongolia.
The Yuan Empire (1279–1368) rulers made Chengdu and Chongqing part of their Sichuan Province. They promoted trade in the region with the Tibetans who they formally ruled.
At the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) era, Zhang Xianzhong invaded Sichuan with an army of about 100,000 men, and he called his kingdom the Daxi Kingdom (“Great Western Kingdom"). He began to kill off the rulers and scholars who opposed him, and it is said that Chengdu became like "a ghost town." Either through his purge or through the population fleeing away, Sichuan was depopulated again. Bandits, famine, and diseases caused further devastation around this time.
Under the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), a large populous were brought in from the provinces of Hubei and Hunan. The Manchu rulers also promoted trade on the Tea Horse Road, and in 1696, the Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty approved the 'tea-for-horse' trade in Kangding that is in the mountains to the east of Chengdu. So Kangding became a major commercial center between the inland areas and Tibet.
Being isolated far inland and away from the port centers that were along the coast and along the Yangtze River, modernization came late to the Sichuan area. What spurred Sichuan's modernization was the arrival of foreigners who built schools, universities, and hospitals and who used steamships to conduct trade in Chongqing.
In the late 1890s, many missionaries began to arrive in Chengdu. They wanted to help its people by service in the fields of medicine and education. Among other accomplishments, they set up the Red Cross Hospital in 1892 that is now the Chengdu Second People’s Hospital; the West China University of Medical Sciences in 1914 that trained both men and women doctors; and the West China Union University in 1914 that later became a part of Sichuan University. These facilities and many others along with numerous primary schools helped to modernize Sichuan and prepare them for the events of the 20th century.
Trade and foreign technology were what brought modernization to Chongqing. Unlike Chengdu, the city of Chongqing was relatively unimportant until the late 1800s when Europeans established trading concessions in the city. The Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River was difficult to navigate. This limited the usefulness of the city as a port of the far inland region. Before the arrival of steamships, Chinese junks were pulled slowly up the river by dozens of men with ropes. In 1900, the first foreign merchant steamer reached Chongqing, and then Chongqing's economy grew rapidly after that.
The Japanese started bombing Chongqing in February of 1938. The start of WWII swelled Chongqing's population 4 fold to a million people as people fled inland and as the Nationalist government moved industries and skilled workers to the area. The Nationalists realized that the Chengdu/Chongqing region is a naturally defensible bastion and a key agricultural region, and they decided to relocate military industries to Chongqing and Chengdu. Suddenly, Chongqing became an important city and the wartime capital of the Republic of China.
The Japanese army was never able to penetrate the region, but the area became the staging area for air offensives to Japan. American heavy bombers used an American airport near Chengdu as a staging base to attack Japan, and American fighter planes defended the region and provided escort protection for the bombers. Supplied by the British over the old Tea Horse Road, the National army gained strength and started a counterattack. A military liaison headquarters was in Chongqing. See the General Stillwell Museum.
Rapid industrialization and modernization, aided by the electrical power and much easier river navigation afforded by the Three Gorges Dam, turned Chongqing into the second biggest industrial area of the Sichuan region. Now, Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province and the sixth largest city in China. It is also a leader in finance, culture, communications, and transportation.
From only about 250,000 before WWII, Chongqing grew to be China's 8th biggest city today. In 1997, the Chongqing region was chosen by China's government to be a separate "municipality", officially separating it from Sichuan Province. Though 90% of Chongqing Municipality is rural, Chongqing City acts as an economic magnet for the surrounding population. Economically, Chongqing is growing faster than Chengdu at the present time and is becoming a financial center.
Sichuan has become known around the world for pandas. Sichuan is home to 80 percent of China’s wild pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is in the northern suburbs of Chengdu. The giant panda is a Chinese national treasure and one of the rarest animals in the world. These pandas are Chengdu's No. 1 single tourist industry. In the last few decades, Chengdu has also become world-famous for its spicy cuisine. See Sichuan Food.
For tourists who wish to continue learning about the history of the Sichuan region, there are many good museums where they can go to that instruct about everything from prehistoric history to modern urban development.
Some older areas of historical interest remain preserved in Chongqing such as the streets and alleys of Ciqikou where you can shop and dine while you see historical sights.
For quick, modern instruction about Chengdu and Sichuan history, we suggest the new Chengdu Museum New Building that has modern high-tech displays. You can learn about the biggest dam in the world, Chongqing history and WWII history at the Three Gorges Museum near People's Square in Chongqing.
Our guides can also take you to see the exhibits at the Sanxingdui and Jinsha archaeological museums in and near Chengdu and help explain the history of those ancient times. Chengdu has several other good museums in and near it.
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