As China's unofficial ambassador to the world, the giant panda might well be Sichuan's most famous icon, and as a native of the southwestern province known for its spicy flair, the black-and-white mammal is in good company. A cradle of civilization for thousands of years, Sichuan is the birthplace of a number of noteworthy writers and artists, political and military leaders, and, more recently, a surprisingly high number of female Olympian athletes, including some medalists, as well as Supergirls semi-finalists. Here we profile some of the most noteworthy Sichuan natives. Our list is by no means exhaustive; we made our selections based on the individual's influence on the international, domestic, and regional levels. Individuals are listed according to their occupation and era.
Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 (1904–1997)
Birthplace: Paifang Village, Xiexing Town, Guang'an County广安区协兴镇牌坊村
Perhaps the most important Sichuanese of the 20th century, Deng Xiaoping positioned China to develop into a global superpower. Relatively well-traveled and worldly by a young age, Deng is credited with radically opening China's economy to the world, warming China's relations with other nations, and establishing a precedent for governmental transparency. Deng's target was to achieve Four Modernizations (in the areas of agriculture, industry, technology, and defense), and his proposed method was via pragmatic economic reform—Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Along the way, he led much of the early negotiation for Hong Kong's return to China, establishing the "one country, two systems" scheme and bolstered foreign investment by setting up Special Economic Zones such as Shenzhen and Pudong, Shanghai. His policies propelled his popularity among the public at home and his charisma made him an effective diplomat; Time Magazine named him "Man of the Year" twice, in 1978 and 1986. The most notable outcomes of his efforts were vastly improved standards of living in general (and the much-noted wealth gaps that have accompanied the rapid development), revitalized economic and cultural exchange with other nations, and a general opening of the country economically, socially, and politically.
Li Peng (1928–)
Adopted by Zhou Enlai as a child, Li Peng had a life among China's leaders spread out before him. His decade-long run as Premier of the People's Republic of China between 1988 and 1998 came at a time of widespread economic and social change, during which he wielded much influence. Li Peng also initiated the Three Gorges Dam during his premiership.
Li Bing 李冰 c. 300 B.C.
After his appointment as governor of Shu in the second century B.C., Li Bing went to action to hamper constant flooding from the Min River, which was devastating the surrounding region. His solution was to engineer and implement a dam that would divert water to the Chengdu basin, thereby irrigating the land. That dam was the irrigation system known as the Dujiangyan, which still functions today in part due to an ingenious maintenance scheme he engineered. The system played a pivotal role in averting future crisis and, more importantly, turning Sichuan into a prosperous, resource-rich supply center known as the "Land of Abundance"—a title that it still holds to this day. Li Bing is heralded as a hero of legendary proportion and honored at the site of Dujiangyan with a temple dedicated to him and his son, Er'wang Miao.
Ba Jin 巴金 (1904–2005)
One of the most well-known Chinese authors of the 20th century, Ba Jin's prolific, genre-spanning output captures the rapidly changing social climate of his lifetime. Among his titles, a number have been translated into English, including his best known story, The Family, as well as Cold Nights, Random Thoughts, and How to Build a Society of Genuine Freedom and Equality. Sometimes referred to by his birth name, Li Yaotang, he is said to have been largely influenced by foreign authors, including carrying on a lifelong correspondence with the noted Russian-American-European anarchist activist and writer Emma Goldman. Although it has not been confirmed, Ba Jin was reportedly considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.
Outspoken author of the memorial Wild Swans and biographer of Mao Zedong, Jung Chang is one of the most high-profile China authors writing in English. Chang was the first Chinese national to obtain a doctoral degree from a British university, and although her status as a literary figure and her deftness as a reporter have come under fire, that she writes exclusively in English guarantees that she plays a significant role in portraying her native China to the Western world.
A Lai 阿来 (1959–)
Birthplace: Aba Prefecture
A Lai's depictions of Tibetan culture in his first novel, Red Poppies 《尘埃落定》 was translated into 17 languages, sold over one million copies, and earned him China's highest literary award and critical acclaim abroad. A Lai, a Kham Tibetan, also serves as chairman of the Sichuan branch of the Writers Association, and, at one time, as editor of the Chengdu-based Science Fiction World (科幻世界), which he develop into the world's most widely circulated science-fiction magazine. His more recent six-volume work, Hollow Mountain, has garnered the author further awards at home.
Guo Jingming 郭敬明 (1982–)
One of the most prominent "1980s generation writers" creating the novelistic equivalent of emo-pop, Guo Jingming is, by some counts, currently the best-selling author in China. Author of seven novels and counting, Guo is the subject of much controversy: He was tried for and found guilty of plagiarizing his second novel, Never Flowers in Never Dreams; he's made the Forbes Richest Chinese Celebrities list several times but been voted China's Most Hated Celebrity on the Tianya.cn forums even more times. And while he's received plenty of criticism from literary critics and the older literati of China for the lack of literary facility his novels display, the youth of China, judging by his book sales and blog hits, love him and the image he's built up as a young, irreverent rebel.
Chen Shou 陈寿 (233–297)
Chen Shou is widely regarded as the author of the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the authoritative historical text documenting the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history (189 to 280). Chen's text is said to be the basis for Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.
Li Bai 李白 (701–762)
Birthplace: Central Asia
During the course of his life, Li Bai wrote over 1,000 verses and his groundbreaking use of language left a lasting impact on the development of Tang Dynasty poetry. Today, he is considered one of China's greatest poets, and his work is consistently anthologized among key works of classical Chinese literature. Born to a traveling merchant on the Silk Road, Li Bai moved to present-day Jiangyou as a child, entering the scholarly world and ultimately leaving Sichuan for good in his 20s to travel and write poetry. His precociousness and taste for liquor have been noted alongside his brilliance as a poet. "It is easier to climb to heaven/Than take the Sichuan Road" he remarks in one of his most celebrated poems, "The Sichuan Road"《蜀道难》.
Zhang Daqian 张大千 (1899–1983)
Zhang Daqian is one of the most high-profile Eastern artists of the 20th century, noted for his prolific output, uncanny forging ability, and his continual, lifelong stylistic development. And although he spent relatively little time in Sichuan, having resided in Japan, Shanghai, the Americas, and finally Taipei, the Sichuanese still hold him close to their hearts: At the recently opened Sichuan Museum, Zhang Daqian's paintings and frescoes receive a place of honor in their own permanent gallery.
He Duoling (1948–)
One of the many commercially successful graduates of the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy in Chongqing, He Duoling has exhibited his paintings on the international stage since the early 1980s. His oil paintings, generally characterized as realist, often depict nude females and countryside landscapes and show in cities across Europe, the U.S., and Asia. Chengdu residents can frequently see his pieces featured in the city's many contemporary-art galleries and, it seems, any major exhibit in the country.
stars + sports
Bai Ling 白玲 (1960something–)
When you think of international stars from Sichuan, the only name that might come to mind is Bai Ling. And for that reason alone, although she's made her name largely by revealing far more flesh than is deemed in good taste at international film festivals and Hollywood red-carpet events, she's on our list. After a few years as an artist soldier in the People's Liberation Army, she embarked on a professional theatre and film career, appearing in a handful of Chinese films. She moved to the U.S. in 1991 and lined up a steady stream of film and TV appearances, posing nude for Playboy and picking up a shoplifting charge along the way.
Li Yuchun 李宇春 (1984–)
While a student at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, Li entered the 2005 Supergirls competition. Despite criticism that she couldn't sing, her fans voted her on through each round until she won the final one with 3.5 million text-messaged votes. The democratic process with which she won the competition combined with her trademark androgynous style and notably deep voice has made Li an idol for young girls around the nation and a symbol of rebellion gone mainstream among a generation that's coming of age in a new China.
Jane Zhang 张靓颖 (1984–)
Getting her start singing nights at the Music House at the age of 15, Zhang went on to compete in Supergirls 2005 against fellow Chengdunese Li Yuchun. She came in third. But while Li might have won the show, it's Zhang who's poised to become an international pop star. Backed by her wide vocal range (her "whistle register" notes inspire comparisons to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Christina Aguilera); her penchant for singing in English, Spanish and Cantonese as well as Mandarin; and her covers of well-known foreign pop songs, she's already been invited to perform abroad several times and was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Zheng Jie 郑洁 (1983–)
Although Sichuan is home to a surprisingly high number of Olympian athletes, Zheng Jie is the only one who makes our list. At her peak, she is China's top tennis player. A two-time Asian Games gold medalist, she is also the first Chinese player ever to reach the Wimbledom Grand Slam singles semifinals. A do-gooder, she donated all of her RMB1 million-plus winnings to earthquake-relief efforts. At the 2008 Olympics on home turf, Zheng Jie and Yan Zi (also from Sichuan) nabbed the bronze medal in women's doubles, marking only the second Olympics tennis medal for China.
Liu Brothers (1950s–)
Poster boys for the success of the Open Door Policy, the four Liu brothers' rag-to-riches story starts in 1982, as economic reform was starting to spread to the country's interior. The brothers met under a tree, legend goes, and decided it was time to trade in their government jobs to start their own business. They sold their bicycles and watches to raise 1,000 yuan as capital and bought 2,000 chickens to start up an agriculture firm, the Hope Factory, in Gujia, Sichuan. Building their business through a time of national uncertainty over the economy's path set forth a number of challenges, but for the most part, the market was wide open for a force of ambitious, talented youth. As profits rolled in, the Hope Factory became the Hope Group—now the parent company of the country's largest animal-feed producer, controlled by different brothers in perches in different regions of the country. They didn't stop there: Each brother then invested a share of profits into a new enterprise in industries as diverse as real estate, banking, technology, and insurance.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 25 ("Sichuan"). Illustrations by Chris Knecht.