While Sichuan has seen the rise and decline of civilizations it has remained an integral part of Chinese culture known for a remarkable preservation of its individuality. Signs of civilization—stone tools and artifacts—dating as far back as 25,000 years ago have been unearthed at Liyu Bridge in Ziyang County and the Fulin Cultural Site in the Hanyuan County Fulin Township. Today, much of the province's history can be explored in local museums—Sanxingdui, Jinsha, Han Dynasty Graves in Xinjin and Le Shan, the Sichuan Museum, the Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Da Yi, and the Sichuan University Museum. Popular temples and tourist attractions also reveal much about the essential history of the Shu Kingdom.
From about 1899 until his death near Kangding in 1936, New Zealander J. Houston Edgar traveled extensively throughout western Sichuan, unearthing Paleolithic and Neolithic tools. The German archeologist Arnold Heim and Swedish geologist J. Andersson traveled to these areas in the 1930s, confirming Edgar's finds. American missionary and anthropologist D.C. Graham discovered the now-famous Sanxingdui site and as curator of the Sichuan University Museum from 1932 to 1948 made an impact on the academics of early Chinese archeology. Certainly, though, it was the Chinese archeologists from the 1930s to present day who have made the greatest developments and discoveries in the history of the Sichuan puzzle.
c. 2500–1750 B.C. Baodun Culture: Evidence of the first known advanced civilization in the region, likely a precursor to the culture whose ruins were found at Sanxingdui, has been found along the Min River at six different sites in Sichuan province. Some of the world's earliest known silk and production is recorded.
c. 1300–800 B.C. The vivid bronze and jade work unearthed at Jinsha and Sanxingdui are evidence of a complex economic and social structure already in place during the late Neolithic Era. Large samples of uncut jade have been discovered, proving that raw materials were transported to Sanxingdui via barges, most likely from the Longmen Mountains. Sanxingdui, an important religious, trade, and production center, demonstrates the independent origin of the ancient Ba and Shu cultures. Motifs and patterns present on the artifacts are distinct from those of the Han Chinese indicating that the Shu were not ancestors of Han but perhaps of minority groups present in Sichuan today, such as the Qiang.
c. 300–221 B.C. The first stop the Qin emperor makes in his conquest and unification of China is the Sichuan basin due to its strategic importance to provide food and resources for his army. The construction of Dujiangyan (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), starting in 256 B.C., is perhaps the most important milestone in the development of the basin, diverting excess river waters to the Chengdu basin and earning Sichuan its many reputations as a land of abundance, a place free of natural disaster (i.e., flood), whose residents enjoy a carefree lifestyle. The ingenious construction and management of a team said to be in the tens of thousands earned Li Bing the status of an immortal in the hearts of the Sichuanese.
c. 221 B.C.–618 Han, Three Kingdoms, and Sui Dynasties. The first Buddhist temple of China is built on E'mei Shan. Large tombs later discovered date back to the Han Dynasty and reflect the flourishing of the Sichuan basin's economy and culture during this time as a direct result of the Dujiangyan irrigation system. These tombs often house ornate stone coffins buried in caves or under mounds and have been discovered in multiple areas throughout Sichuan, some as far away from the stability of the basin as Yibin, Ya'an, and Maoxian.
618–907 Tang Dynasty, Sichuan rises to prominence again. First Tang emperor Li Shiming set up his power base in the Sichuan basin, reuniting and expanding the Chinese empire beyond the borders of those of the Han Dynasty. Sichuan culture begins to flourish: porcelain, jade, gold, pottery as well as poetry from native Sichuanese Li Bai and Du Fu, who settled in Sichuan in his later years. Le Shan giant Buddha is carved.
960–1279 The Song Dynasty is recognized as a period of general economic development throughout China. In many ways, Sichuan was at the center of this development, supplying resources and food to the rest of the country and issuing the first paper money in 1024. Arts also flourished; the region was a major producer of porcelain, and Song Dynasty Sichuan porcelain has been discovered all over China and as far away as East Africa. This period also sees the life of one of Sichuan's most prominent poets and scholars, Su Shi (Su Dongpo).
1271–1368 Mongols invade China, marking the rise of the Yuan Empire. Mounted Mongol warriors are stationed as garrisons against the local mountain tribes which are never fully subdued, and even today, Mongol villages can still be found throughout the province.
1368–1644 The Ming Dynasty is marked by the construction of temples and shrines in Sichuan, including many at E'mei Shan and Qingcheng Shan. Near the end of the dynasty, rebel emperor Zhang Xianzhong orders a massacre after scholars and officials deny his claim to the throne, directly or indirectly eliminating up to 90 percent of the Sichuan basin's population.
1644–1912 Rise and fall of the Qing Dynasty. To repopulate the province, residents of Hunnan, Jiangxi, and Guangdong are part of a forced migration to Sichuan. This influx of diverse groups of people impacts the local dialect, cuisine, and culture. In the late Qing Dynasty, foreign missionaries and explorers travel to Sichuan, finding people far less affected by the colonizing powers at work in east-coast cities of Shanghai, Qingdao, and so forth. West China Union University (now Huaxi Campus of Sichuan University) is founded in 1896 and staffed mostly by missionaries with the intent of educating Christians, although by 1926, much of China has erupted in a period of anti-foreigner and anti-Christian sentiment, forcing many to leave the country. Upon their return in 1929, they taught regardless of students' religious preference.
1928–1945 Civil war erupts between warlords Liu Xiang and Liu Wenhui. Liu Xiang, stationed in Chengdu, rules much of the basin and southeastern Sichuan while Liu Wenhui rules Xi Kang from Kangding. Liu Xiang eventually strengthens his relationship with the Nationalist Party who in turn stations soldiers in Chengdu after its retreat from Nanjing due to the invasion by the Japanese. Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War (dovetailing into World War II), Chengdu and Sichuan were often the target of Japanese air raids. At this time a number of notable scholars and artists move from China's eastern cities to Chengdu and other cities in Sichuan such as Li Zhuang in Yibin.
This article by Edwin Schmitt was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 25 ("Sichuan"). Illustration by Chris Knecht.
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