May Holdsworth’s Odyssey Illustrated Guide to Sichuan :
“In the half-forgotten local history a Chinese writer once set down these lines in praise of the richness of his homeland that is Sichuan:
Both rain and drought follow the will of the people, Famine in unknown. Time has never seen a lean year ; Everyone knows it as Heaven on Earth.”
Sichuan, in Chinese, means “Four Rivers”. This enormous province is located in southwestern China, on the upper reaches of China’s longest river, the Yangtze, known to the Chinese as Changjiang - meaning “Long River”. The Changjiang originates as a glacier stream in the high plateau of Qinghai Province and Tibet, and flows southwards towards the highlands of Yunnan as Jinshajiang, or the Golden Sands River. And somewhere near the northern tip of Yunnan, the river suddenly swings northwards where it meets other great rivers - Minjiang, Tuojiang, Fujiang and Jialingjiang to form the Sichuan Basin - one of the most fertile alluvial plains of China.
This flat, fertile basin, nourished by the great rivers, attracted wandering tribes such as the Shu and the Ba. These peoples developed one of the oldest civilizations of China. Today, archaeologists continue to find the fierce, demonic-looking masks of the Shu people in the plains of Chengdu, and eerie and mysterious coffins of the Ba hanging on the cliffs along the Changjiang. Two hundred years before Christ, the rising semi-barbarian kingdom of Qin conquered the Shu and Ba peoples, and set up the province of Shu. The Qin kingdom, under the soon-to-be Emperor Qin Shi Wang, then went on to conquer all of China. This ushered a new age for Sichuan - the settled and more sophisticated peoples of the Yellow River valley migrated to the Sichuan Basin, intermarried with the local Shu and Ba, to form what is today the largest regional sub-group of China’s Han people - the Sichuanese.
The Sichuanese : Proud people of “Heaven on Earth”
The Sichuan Basin is a land of “milk and honey”, or as the Chinese puts it, land of “fish and rice”. Its fertile plains as well as the surrounding dense forests with abundant wildlife provide much to its inhabitants. And due to the isolated geographical location - surrounded by inaccessible mountains, it was sheltered from much of the chaos and foreign invasions suffered by other parts of China. As such, it was able to devote much effort to economic development as well as artistic creation. The Sichuanese, proud of the traditional abundance of their province, call it “tian fu zhi guo”, or “Heaven on Earth”. And this is a phrase I heard very often in Sichuan, and the richness of its culture and cuisine testify to this.
Sichuan is also the land of birth or adopted homeland of many famous people in Chinese history. Liu Bei, a general of the Eastern Han Dynasty, set up the Kingdom of Shu Han here after the fall of Han. Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), perhaps the greatest poet in Chinese history, made Chengdu his adopted home. Su Shi (or Su Dong Po), another great poet, of the Sung Dynasty, was born here, at the county of Meishan. And in more recent history, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic reform, was born in Sichuan in 1904.
The Sichuanese have always been a lively and easily excitable people ( - perhaps the result of their love for chilli and spicy food). Despite being an inland province, Sichuan has always been open to new ideas and have outdone the others in displaying their enthusiasm for them. In the early part of the 20th century when communism was perceived as the most progressive ideology, it was here in Sichuan that the communist Long Marchers faced their greatest natural obstacles - snow-capped mountains, mosquito-infested swamps & minority head-hunting tribes - but overcome them because of their unbending faith as well as the support given to them by the peasants. In 1966, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards of Chengdu fought each other not only with guns, but also with artillery, armoured carriers and tanks. In 1989, when the students of Beijing demonstrated in Tiananmen Square, the other place in China where the situation went beyond control was Chengdu, where the People’s Market (Renmin Shangchang) was burned down, along with the city’s entire network of trams ( - the People’s Market has been rebuilt but not the tram network. The latter has been replaced by a larger network of public buses and an amazing fleet of taxi). In more recent memory, when the first lottery was held in 1995, traffic in the entire city of Chengdu was forced to a halt for a half day, as just about everybody was rushing towards the sports stadium at the city centre to get the tickets. And I have been told that the hottest thing in town now is soccer. The Sichuanese may not be the best players but they are certainly China’s most enthusiastic. Sichuanese fans travel afar to see their favourite team “Chuan Xing” play. This fervour is best illustrated by a recent incident in which a child fell and injured himself while watching the team played, and received visits from the soccer stars at the hospital. This led to comments by other kids that perhaps they should injure themselves too so as to meet their heroes.
The Sichuanese, numbering 110 million, speak a variation of the Mandarin, the northern Chinese dialect, which forms the basis of the putonghua, the standard official Chinese. If the Sichuanese speak slowly, outsiders have no problems identifying words and phases. However, difficulties set in when they speak quickly, or use local proverbs and terms - many of which have no parallels outside the province. What complicates the situation further is the abundance of even finer local sub-dialects within Sichuan - every county here has their own dialect ! The locals I met classify the dialects into 2 general categories - that of West Sichuan (“Chuan Xi”) or Chengdu, and that of East Sichuan (“Chuan Dong”) or Chongqing. They say, the dialect of Chengdu, or Chengduhua, is that of “ni-wa-er”, or “baby girls”, because of its soft and tender tones. The dialect of Chongqing (Chonqinghua) is that of the “nan-wa-er”, or “baby boys”, because their speakers are distinguished by their rowdy nature and loudness of their speech. In fact, I was first introduced to this characteristic in a Chengdu restaurant, where a group of people were almost swearing at each other, thereupon my hosts assured me that they were merely a group of Chongqingese having a polite conversation, nothing to be alarmed about. And I further testify to this in Chongqing itself, where many appeared to speak at the top of their voice. But as a Chongqing girl puts it, we may be loud but we are certainly a candid people, with none of the cunniness of Chengduese. So much for regional rivalries.