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Sichuan Province lies in the southwestern part of China, along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River (the Yangtze originates on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the southwestern quadrant of neighboring Qinghai Province, at a point situated roughly on the same longitude as the city of Lhasa, Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region)). Sichuan is bordered to the west by Tibet, to the northwest by Qinghai Province, to the north by Gansu Province, to the northeast by Shaanxi Province, to the east by Chonqing Municipality, to the southeast by Guizhou Province and to the south by Yunnan Province. Sichuan Province lies roughly on the 30th parallel north, which is only 7 degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer. Longitudinally, the province is divided into a western, mountainous part and an eastern, lowland part, corresponding to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Sichuan Basin, respectively (the geological section immediately below explains this curious, two-scheme, highland-lowland division of Sichuan Province). This dramatic division of the province naturally has a determining influence on the province's weather patterns, as will be seen farther below.
Sichuan Province also has a long history that is partly if not mostly influenced by the fact that it frequently served as a "bandlands" refuge where rogue elements who were at war with mainstream China would flee, establishing a rebel base in this historically highly inaccessible province (though, via its rivers, Sichuan provided easy access to provinces farther east), as will be seen farther below, but first, a word or two on the geology of the region, since, as most people are well aware, Sichuan Province is very earthquake prone. The reason for this is obvious when one takes into consideration the powerul forces that created the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau – not to speak of the Himalayas – and the major rivers that drain the plateau, including the Yangtze River, but also the Three Parallel Rivers, as they are called, in neighboring Yunnan Province.
A Brief Geological History of the Region
Geologists, backed up by the work of experts in the science of plate tectonics (i.e., the science of the movement of the jigsaw puzzle of solid plates that cover the earth's molten interior (think of the earth's crust as an orange whose peel has been broken up into relatively neatly-fitting jagged pieces (plates), some large and some quite small, all of which are held together by a gravitational pull emanating from the core of the orange), which is also the story of the never-ending process of plate creation and -destruction), developed a theory which says that the Indian Subcontinent was once a part of Africa, that this large chunk of the earth's crust then migrated across the Indian Ocean and slammed into Asia, pushing up a part of the host continent (think: the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau) as the newly arrived plate rammed into the Asian continent.
But the runway African plate did more than just bunch up a part of the Asian continent in front of it; since it was a very, very large plate, it cracked open the Asian continent (made a trough in it) and pushed itself up into that trough, finally coming to rest when it encountered so much resistance (i.e., bedrock, which it pushed upward, creating the Himalayas and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau) that it was finally halted.
In punching a trough into the Asian continent and wedging itself up inside that trough, the Indian Subcontinent also deformed the surrounding parts of the Asian continent, twisting and warping them (a satellite view of this part of the earth shows clearly the effect of the uplifting of the earth's crust directly in the path of the runway African plate, and it shows how this collossal geological event also deformed (warped) the Asian plate on the eastern side of the trough especially, which is where the Three Parallel Rivers are situated as they race downhill (southward and slightly eastward), following the curvature of this massively deformed section of the Asian continent). The net effect of this violent event, which occured over a period of millions of years, was to store up untold amounts of kinetic energy, energy that is still being released today in the form of earthquakes.
But of course, since there are a few places on the earth's surface where new material is constantly being added to the orange peel, as it were (this is happening on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, creating a long crack, or fissure, where new material (lava) is being fed to the plates on either side of the fissure, meaning that the plates on either side of the fissure are being pushed farther and farther apart, and it is happening on Iceland, which will someday grow from being a smallish island to a huge continent), something has to give somewhere else. Therefore, when two plates collide, one will tend to slide over or under the other, depending on the relative densities of the two plates (the lightest plate will generally end up on top, but the process is not so simple).
Since the overall size of the orange remains the same, the creation of new plate material/ new orange peel requires the destruction of old plate material/ old orange peel (otherwise the orange would get larger, which it can't do, due partly to the magnitude of the orange's inherent gravitational forces and due partly to the finite nature of the matter that makes up planet earth, combined with the relationship between the earth's molten core and its outer crust).
With the constant creation of new plate material, the pieces of the plate tectonic jigsaw puzzle get squeezed tighter and tighter together, until somewhere in the jigsaw puzzle (i.e., at the "weakest link"), something eventually gives, meaning that as one plate is forced upward, another is forced downward into the molten core of the earth, to become molten itself, releasing gasses as it melts. These gasses, being lighter than molten lava, solid soil, or rock, will naturally try to force their way upward, so they follow vertical fissures, eventually poking out huge cones, called volcanoes, in the earth's crust (a plate tectonics expert can predict to within a few kilometers where the string of associated volcanoes will arise given the relative positions of two colliding plates, their respective densities, etc.).
However, before the weakest link eventually gives, lots of pressure is put on all of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, causing earthquakes here and there, most of them interrelated, since when one plate moves a bit too much, it accordingly increases (or releases) the pressure on one or more neighboring plates; it can take a very long time, therefore, for relative harmony to reassert itself after a violent shift of one of the pieces of the orange peel, but of course, with new material constantly being added to some of pieces of the orange peel, the reestablishment of harmony after any violent shift in the relative positions of the orange peel pieces – if ever achieved – is but a short respite before the next disturbance makes itself felt like ripples in the water.
The above presentation is of course "plate tectonics light", because the process is much more complicated, but it gives a general idea of the forces at play in this part of the world, forces which will continue to impact Sichuan Province until all of the latent energy stored up from the collsion between the runaway African plate and the Asian continent have played themselves out and the subcontinental plate becomes, if ever, a peaceful part of the peaceful surrounding terrain.
(If it is any comfort, most of the US consists of old plates that "came together" long ago (the geological violence that created the many US mountain ranges, especially the Rocky Mountains, is left to the reader's imagination!), and most of these plates – with the exception of the Baja California plate that includes most of coastal California in the US, which plate, say the experts, will someday be a suburb of Tokyo! – have reached a mutual accomodation of sorts, though the same experts say that the US states of Montana, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming (think: the Yellowstone Park area) may someday blast apart in a volcanic eruption to end all volcanic eruptions. Quite literally, in fact, since, if it does happen one day, the net effect of this massive volcanic eruption will fill the earth's atmosphere with particles that will take aeons to settle (and as they settle, the oceans will be transformed), and the earth will be plunged into another ice age that will probably spell doom for mankind if not for most plant and animal life on the planet... but the survivors down there in the new-old primordial soup (the silt-laden oceans) may one day produce yet another strain of intelligent life, albeit, one that may not be nearly as handsome – or romantic – as the strain that went before it... )
A Brief History
The area of present-day Sichuan Province/ Chongqing Municipality (note that the latter was formerly a part of the former, and note that all subsequent references to "Sichuan Province" or "Sichuan" in this historical section will refer to the older province that included present-day Chonqing Municipality) has an ancient, pre-Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty history, since the eastern, Sichuan Basin part of the province belonged to the then Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty. Little of historical significance of the Shang Dynasty has survived, except for "oracle bone" writings and except for later references to that ancient, slave-society dynasty.*
During the subsequent Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty, two rival kingdoms emerged in the area of Sichuan Province: the Kingdom of Shu, centered in the area of present-day Chengdu, the province's capital; and the Kingdom of Ba, centered in the area of present-day Chongqing Municipality. Though the existence of the latter kingdom has long been known (the historical record of BCE 703 mentions the Kingdom of Ba, suggesting that Ba aided the State of Chu in a military offensive against another of the many lesser states of the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty), it was not until recently that the existence of the Kingdom of Shu was definitively established.
Archeological excavations in 1986 in the village of Sanxingdui, Guanghan County – some 30 kilometers northeast of the city of Chengdu – have revealed the existence of Shu and its rivalry with Ba. Both Shu and Ba would later be defeated by the State of Qin in BCE 316, as part of Qin's larger, hegemonistic offensive against the few remaining rival states of the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, and against the State of Chu in particular, which lay just east of the Shu/ Ba area (Qin would of course win this hegemonistic game, establishing the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, China's first Imperial dynasty, though the Qin Dynasty itself would be very short-lived).
The Qin and the Han Dynasties actively promoted the development of the former states of Shu and Ba, which, during the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) Dynasty, was known as Yi State, or Yi Zhou (not to be confused with the city of Yizhou in Guangxi Province), the most important political entity in southwestern China at that time. A monument, in the form of a winged lion – erected already during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty in honor of Yi Zhou's most famous governor, Gao Yi – guards the tomb of the former governor in the Sichuan city of Ya'an, located about 150 kilometers southwest of present-day Chengdu.
The Sichuan Basin was an important "bread basket" for ancient China. In BCE 256, the famous Qin State administrator Li Bing – famous for his canals that at the same time lessened the risk of flooding and provided much-need crop irrigation – built the Dujiangyan Irrigation System in Sichuan. This clever system of canals and dams tapped the Min River, a major upper-reaches tributary of the Yangtze River, thus lessening the incidence of flooding and providing irrigation water for the province's highly prized agriculture.
Later, Sichuan would become an important military staging grounds, thanks to the unique combination of the presence of the Yangtze River (and its Sichuan tributary, the Min River) and the incidence of fog in the province, which provided a natural smokescreen, as it were, for amphibious maneuvers along the Yangtze (it was surely this fact that inspired the State of Qin to annex Shu and Ba as part of the larger strategy of attacking the State of Chu). Later still, the province would serve as a refuge for rogue elements that opposed the emperor. The most famous example of this was the Shu Han regime, better known as the Kingdom of Shu (CE 221-263) that was set up in Sichuan Province toward the end of the Han Dynasty, which dynasty was followed by "the warring kingdoms" period, the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period, of which the Kingdom of Shu was one of the three such kingdoms.
The Kingdom of Shu, ruled by the famous warlord, Liu Bei, was eventually defeated by the Kingdom of Wei (CE 220-265), ruled by the equally famous warlord, Cao Cao, which in turn was defeated by the Kingdom of Wu (CE 222-280), aka Eastern Wu, ruled by the no less famous if somewhat reluctant warlord, Sun Quan (all three of these warlords figure prominently in the wildly famous 14th century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, authored by Luo Guanzhong). The Kingdom of Wu was defeated in CE 280 by the Han Chinese Western Jin (CE 265-316) Dynasty.
During the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, Sichuan became a staging ground for expeditions against Tibet, when the Tang emperors decided to retake the area that they had abandoned during the early years of the dynasty. Thereafter Sichuan disappeared from the radar, more or less, until the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, which was one of several "southern" regimes that did battle against the successive incursions of nomadic Turkic tribes from the north (the "northern" regimes), took up the battle first with the Jürchens of the Jin Dynasty – albeit, in a shaky alliance with the largest of the "northern" nomadic Turkic tribes, the Mongols – then with the Mongols themselves.
When the Han Chinese Southern Song forces, after the defeat of the Jin Dynasty, attempted to reoccupy their old capitals to the north, they were fiercely repelled by the Mongols. Thereafter a slow-burn war developed between the Mongols and the Southern Song forces, with the Mongols – under the leadership of Borjigin Kublai, aka Kublai Khan, later to be crowned Emperor Shizu of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty – as the eventual victor in CE 1279.
One of the battlegrounds where the Mongols and the Han Chinese forces of the Southern Song fought it out was Sichuan Province, though the main battleground was in Hubei Province farther north and east, i.e., the famous Battle of Xiangyang, which lasted 6 years and involved the use of gunpowder for the first time in a military capacity (curiously, it was the Mongols who employed cannons in this battle, not the "advanced" Han Chinese). Another curious thing about this long battle, or seige, was that the Mongols also used the trebuchet to devastating effect (a trebuchet is a huge contraption for catapulting anything from buckets of burning tar to boulders to diseased corpses (i.e., as a primitive form of biological warfare)).
When the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty relieved the Yuan Dynasty, the new Han Chinese rulers of the empire re-inherited Sichuan Province. However, the Ming rulers seem to have built more Buddhist temples and other cultural edifices in Sichuan Province than military installations. This might have been a tactical mistake, since, when the Ming Dynasty came under pressure from the encroaching Manchu forces, several opportunistic, rogue elements took advantage of the weakened position of the Ming forces in order to lop off parts of the Ming empire.
One of these rogue leaders was a certain Zhang Xianzhong, aka the Yellow Tiger, a self-serving despot who wrested Sichuan Province from the Ming Dynasty, establishing the Daxi Dynasty with himself as its king. Under Zhang's despotic rule, millions of inhabitants of Sichuan perished, partly through Zhang's paranoic and excessive use of force and partly due to Zhang's sheer incompetence (the nearest comparison is to the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia during the period 1976–1979). However, once the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty had solidified their power over the empire, they invaded Sichuan Province in late 1646 and launched a campaign against Zhang's forces, defeating them and eventually killing Zhang himself early in 1647.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), when the government of the Republic of China was on the retreat from advancing Japanese forces, the ROC temporarily relocated its capital to Sichuan (in present-day Chongqing Municipality). Because of the unique fogginess of Sichuan Province, Japanese bombers could do little pinpoint damage to the ROC installations there, so the province became the refuge of the so-called Nationalist Army, the Kuomintang, under the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.
It was during this same period – which, in Western military terminology, is referred to as the Pacific Theater of the Second World War (1941-45) – that the Americans, under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Stilwell (who, by the way, spoke Chinese), were supplying Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists with so-called Lease-Lend weapons and other military materiel – and trying to convert Chiang's poorly-disciplined Nationalist forces into combat-ready fighting units capable of taking on the highly-disciplined Japanese soldiers – via the Burma Road, whose Chinese terminus was Kunming, in neighboring Yunnan Province (the other terminus of the Burma Road was Rangoon, in Burma, of course). Sichuan Province – and the city of Chengdu in particular – was the last mainland stronghold of Chiang Kai-Shek before the generalissimo fled to Taiwan.
Present-Day Sichuan Province
Sichuan Province is blessed with an abundance of resources, from cultural and tourism resources to agricultural resources to mineral resources to manufacturing resources. Regarding its agricultural resources, Sichuan Province is a veritable horn-of-plenty, being China's prime producer of grain, chief among these being rice and wheat, but the province is also a major producer of citrus fruits and peaches, sugar cane and sweet potatoes, and – and this may come as a surprise – Sichuan Province produces about 21% of all of the wine made in China. In the sphere of animal husbandry, Sichuan Province ranks number 1 in China in terms of swine production, and number 2 in the country in terms of silkworn-cocoon production. As regards its mineral resources, the province is rich in minerals such as coal, cobalt, iron ore, lithium, titanium and vanadium. Not surprisingly, the province also produces iron and steel to be used as inputs in the manufacturing sector.
As a manufacturing base, Sichuan Province is a major producer of textiles, electronics, lumber and other building materials. As well, the province is a production center for industrial machinery of the light-industry type that is in high demand in factories all over the world. Sichuan Province is also a major player in China when it comes to automobile production, with automobile factories located in Chengdu, Luzhou, Mianyang and Nanchong. Sichuan is a major producer of military and aerospace equipment, and is also home to the launch site for China's Long March rockets as well as the launch site for numerous satellites – the Xichang Satellite Launch Center – situated in the city of Xichang.
The greatest boost to Sichuan's development came when the government of the PRC, following in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping (1904-97... note that Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in Sichuan already as early as 1978 in an attempt to alleviate poverty in the province), reorganized Sichuan Province in 1997, separating Chongqing Municipality from the remainder of the province and permitting the new political and administrative entity a large measure of freedom to develop along market-economy lines.
The overriding rationale for this move was to permit Chonging Municipality to serve as a growth engine for the region, which, under any scenario, would be good for the region – including for Sichuan Province –but which would be especially needed if the Three Gorges Dam project farther downstreams the Yangtze River was to be accepted by the Chinese people, since the dam project would require a massive rehousing effort, and rehousing alone, i.e., rehousing without jobs, would be meaningless, therefore Sichuan and Chongqing were envisioned as providers of the necessary combination of housing plus jobs that would be needed to make the Three Gorges Dam project a success, seen in the larger perspective (the dam could easily have been a resounding technical success, irrespective of its consequences on the local inhabitants whose livelihoods would thus have been sacrificed in the name of progress for the rest of the country).
Of course, the Three Gorges Dam project itself would represent a twofold boon to the country: it would provide prodigious amounts of cheap, hydroelectric power; and it would help to control the flooding that had frequently plagued the Sichuan Basin (to those who counter that there is still flooding in the Sichuan Basin, despite the dams (i.e., despite their large reservoirs), one can only reply that, given the recent, dramatic changes in local climates everywhere on the planet as a result of global warming, the flooding of the Sichuan Basin would most likely have been on an unimaginably larger scale without the dams and their reservoirs). Moreover, the dams greatly reduced the hazards of navigating the Yangtze River through these narrow, rocky, and relatively shallow gorges, which unlucky combination traditionally spelled certain death to numerous boatsmen annually, and destroyed untold tonnage of food and supplies that were needed for building the country.
To round out this somber vein – before ending on the happier note of Sichuan's numerous cultural attractions – it is no secret that Sichuan Province is prone to earthquakes. The latest such earthquake was a magnitude 7.9-8.0 quake whose epicenter was barely 80 kilometers northeast of the capital city of Chengdu, and which devastated a large swath of Sichuan towns and villages, killing upwards of 70,000 people and leaving millions homeless.
Sichuan Province enjoys a rich cultural heritage, thanks to its long history and to its ethnic diversity. The Sichuan Basin area, since ancient times, has been populated by Han Chinese people, whereas the western, or mountainous part of the province has traditionally been home to ethnic minorities such as Naxi, Qiang, Tibetans and Yi, but there are also indigenous Yi, Lisu, A-Hmao and Eastern Lipo ethnic groups that reside in the eastern part of the province. There are naturally many inhabitants of the province, especially in the Sichuan Basin part of the province, who are of mixed ethnic origin, and this trend is set to accelerate as the province develops, as more "outsiders" of mixed ethnic origin arrive, and as the indigenous ethnic groups intermarry more among one another.
Some of the tourist highlights of Sichuan Province include: the Sanxingdui Ruins
; the Leshan Giant Buddha
in the city of Leshan, a part of the Mount Emei Scenic Area – which is also a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site; Mount Emei
itself, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains, and naturally also a part of the Mount Emei Scenic Area; Huanglong Valley National Park
, near the city of the same name, and Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, near the city of Jiuzhaigou – both parks being UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites; the UNESCO-recognized Dujiangyan Irrigation System
originally constructed by the famous Warring States Period, Qin State administrator, Li Bing, located near Chengdu; the Li Bai Memorial, located in the city of Jiangyou, some 125 kilometers northeast of Chengdu (Li Bai (CE 701-62), aka Li Po, is the famous Tang Dynasty poet and native of Sichuan (and contemporary of the equally famous poet, Du Fu (CE 712-70), who spent some time in Chengdu), who was a member of the select club of poets, the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup
); the Thatched Cottage of Du Fu
, located near Chengdu; the Former Residence of Deng Xiaoping
in the city of Guangan, located about 250 kilometers east-southeast of Chengdu; and the Giant Panda Sanctuary & Research Centers in Sichuan Province, the most important of which is the the Woolong National Nature Reserve
in Aba Prefecture, also – like all of Sichuan's Giant Panda Sanctuary & Research Centers – a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.
The capital city of Chengdu has numerous other noteworthy attractions (click on the "Tourist Cities" link in the column on the left above). In general, Sichuan Province is characterized by stunning mountains in its western part while the eastern, Sichuan Basin part is characterized by lush, subtropical landscapes that are as unassuming, yet quintessentially Chinese, as the mountainous, western landscapes are attention-grabbing.
Not to be outdone by mountainous areas in the north of China, Sichuan Province's Xiling Snow Mountain Ski Resort
is arguably the largest, best-equipped ski resort in all of China, often referred to as "The Oriental Alps". If you are a skier and find yourself in Sichuan Province during the period mid-December to the end of March, Xiling Snow Mountain Ski Resort is definitely worth a visit.
The weather of Sichuan Province belongs to one of two mutually exclusive paradigms: a mountain paradigm and a valley (Sichuan Basin) paradigm. The weather in the mountainous area is characterized by four sharp seasons, with sunny, frosty winters and sunny, mild summers, while the Sichuan Basin area is characterized by long, hot, foggy – not to say humid – summers, and short, cool but dry – and often overcast if not foggy – winters.
Lastly, Sichuan Province is famous for its cuisine, aka Szechuan Cuisine, which is one of the Eight Great Cuisines of China, but additionally is considered as one of the Four Great Cuisine Traditions of China, and as such is known the world over. Its selling slogan is "one dish, one shape, hundreds of dishes, hundreds of tastes". Szechuan Cuisine is also characterized as "spicy, hot, fragrant and fresh". Szechuan Cuisine has produced two famous recent chefs, Chen Kenmin and his son, Chen Kenichi, who have appeared on the Japanese TV Chef show, Ryori no Tetsujin or "Iron Chef" (literally, "Ironmen of Cooking", as in the Ironman Triathlon). Bon appetit!
* Note that "oracle bone" writings were written records recorded on large, relatively flat pieces of animal bone (eg. the shoulder blades of oxen or turtle shell) that were "cracked", i.e., which were heated during a divination ceremony until they cracked, and on which a record of the divination ceremony was then recorded in a unique script that was a precursor to the Chinese character script as we know it.