History of Sichuan
The first evidence of human habitation in what is now Sichuan Province consists of simple tools and a skull cap dating to the Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age. During the Neolithic period (approximately 8,000 – 2,000 BC) people living in Sichuan used axes, pottery jars, bone needles, and crude weapons, but the first major cultures in the province were the Ba and Shu peoples, who lived in what was then called Liangzhou from about 2000 BC. The Shu people lived on the Chengdu Plain while the Ba kingdom was centered in Eastern Sichuan. Many Shu and Ba relics can today be seen at the Sichuan Provincial Museum.
Twenty-three hundred years ago a Shu Emperor named Kaiming IX moved his capital slightly east and named the new town Chengdu (meaning, ‘becoming a city’) in hopes that it would one day be a metropolis. Chengdu has remained Sichuan’s capital ever since.
During the Warring States Period (453-221 BC) a Qin emperor conquered the Shu Kingdom and, in order to take advantage of the fertile plain and secure his hold on Sichuan, he moved thousands of Qin faithful to the former Shu Kingdom. The emperor had thick city walls built around Chengdu in 311 BC and divided the city into two parts–the larger for officials and the army and the smaller for merchants and peasants, who mostly lived outside the walls. A river was diverted to fill a moat around the city, and although the walls no longer remain, the Fu and Nan rivers still mostly ring what was the ancient capital. Southeast of the city the Fu and Nan rivers rejoin to flow south.
The Chengdu Plain’s rich soil and flourishing economy made it an important strategic post, and for 2000 years both warlords and statesmen prized it. Possibly the most famous of Chengdu’s overlords was Liu Bei, a distant relation of the Han imperial family who, claiming the right of his lineage, ruled the Shu Han Kingdom from Chengdu during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-263). The classic Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms immortalized the time, and a visitor to Chengdu can see Liu Bei’s tomb at the Temple of Marquis Wu.
Since 316 BC, Chengdu has been renovated many times and has remained the economic and social center of Sichuan Province. One of the largest expansions happened in 879 AD when Gao Bin, a senior government officer, expanded the city to 120 streets and built 5,008 sentry rooms along the city walls. The sentry rooms and walls no longer remain; they were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and the statue of Chairman Mao that stands in the center of the city was erected were the Viceroy’s Palace had been.
In the 1940s, Chengdu and neighboring Chongqing were first bases for the ‘Flying Tigers,’ a renowned group of American and Chinese fighter pilots who fought against the Japanese during World War II, and the cities were later the final strongholds of the Chinese Nationalist Party. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan after Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, and the Red Army liberated Chengdu in 1950.
Since Deng Xiaoping, a native of Sichuan Province, returned to power in 1977, Sichuan has undergone and often pioneered economic reforms. Among them perhaps the most important was the creation of the ‘responsibility system’ in which communes were broken up and plots of land let out to farmers. The farmers were required to sell a portion of their crops to the government at state prices, but otherwise they were free to market as they wished. Reforms have reached into the industrial sector as well, meaning the end for many bloated state-owned enterprises, and have been responsible for much of the growth of China’s surplus labor force.
Another result of the changes is that Sichuan has gotten richer, and almost all city homes now have color televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators. Shu Kingdom Emperor Kaiming IX’s idea of a metropolis on the Chengdu Plain has been realized beyond his wildest dreams, and Chengdu today is a modern city with plenty of swank shops, cell phones, and fancy cars.