Though to me Chengdu can still feel like uncharted territory at times, I often wonder what it was like for foreigners here before we could choose between spending an evening at an Irish pub, a Tex-Mex Restaurant, a Swedish coffee shop, or at home catching up with friends on Skype.
Fortunately for the curious, Western explorers since Marco Polo have been writing up their impressions of our city. In his travelogue, Polo described the Veranda Bridge straddling the Fu He—a broad river carrying an impressive quantity of merchandise. "Within the city it is crossed by a bridge, wholly of marble, half a mile long and eight paces broad; the upper part is supported by marble columns, and richly painted; and upon it are many houses where merchants expose goods for sale; but these are set up in the morning and taken down in the evening," he wrote, further observing that "the inhabitants are all idolaters."
Later visitors to the region have left us with somewhat more to go on. What follows is a summary of my (admittedly arbitrary) recent survey of accounts of 20th-century exploration that touch on Chengdu.
The Lady and the Panda
By Vicki Constantine Croke
American Ruth Harkness was in Sichuan from 1936 to 1938, with the goal of becoming the first Westerner to capture a live panda and bring it back to her home country. Perks: Help and advice from friends in high places, a small fortune that enabled her to hire a guide, hunters, a chef, and coolies // Tribulations: Bureaucracy, sexism, unreliable opium-addicted coolies, the Japanese military // Chengdu connection: Harkness stopped in Chengdu several times on her way to and from her hunting grounds in Western Sichuan, not far from Wenchuan.
After Harkness's husband died of disease while in Shanghai waiting for approval to launch a panda-hunting expedition, she decided to use her small inheritance to finish the job herself. At the time, Western hunters were swarming China's bamboo forests and sending panda and other exotic pelts to natural history museums to be stuffed and displayed, but no one had yet captured a live panda and transported it to a zoo. The idea that Harkness, a Manhattan socialite and dressmaker, could accomplish such a thing seemed ridiculous. Yet she and her Chinese expedition partner (and lover) Quentin Young found a baby panda in a tree almost as soon as they reached their chosen hunting grounds. Harkness and the panda, which eventually went to live in the Chicago Zoo, achieved near-instant fame and helped raise awareness of the need for conservation of pandas and other animals. Croke paints a vivid picture of both her subject and the China she traversed, relying on sources such as near-daily letters from Harkness to her best friend. Of these books, Croke's biography of Harkness is by far the best in terms of capturing the thrills and hardships of exploring China's unknown frontier.
The Man Who Loved China
By Simon Winchester
Joseph Needham came to China for three years in 1943 as a member of the British diplomatic corps to support scientists in war-torn China as well as gather material for a planned tome on the history of Chinese science and technology. Perks: Not only were personal drivers, secretaries and translators on hire, so was his mistress. // Tribulations: Terrible roads, unreliable vehicles, the Japanese military, long separation from his mistress // Chengdu connection: Though Needham was based in Chongqing during his time in China, he visited Chengdu only briefly (Winchester notes that he found many beautiful women here).
Needham was already an eminent Cambridge biochemist (also, a lefty, nudist, and Christian) when, at 37, he fell in love with a Chinese scientist, and soon afterward with the Chinese language. He learned to read and write Chinese in his spare time, writing his own reference books in the process. The British government then tapped him to go to China to assess what universities there needed and get it to them. Needham soon found an additional project: researching the history of Chinese science and invention, which at that time was largely unknown even in China. He traveled the country carrying out his official duties, but also visiting factories, the Dunhuang Caves, and numerous used-book shops. Much of the book covers Needham's life back in Cambridge after the war, when he and a few assistants combed through his spoils and began to produce the Science and Civilisation in China series, which prove that for centuries China's achievements far outpaced those of the West. Winchester's book is the most educational of the three, but is never ponderous. Though not so novelistic as the Harkness biography, The Man Who Loved China is a very readable account of a strange and brilliant character as well as of a very tough time in Chinese history.
Looking for Chengdu
By Hill Gates
American Hill Gates carried out her anthropological research on women entrepreneurs, and later, footbinding in Chengdu from 1987 to 1991. // Perks: Research grants, being treated like a VIP by solicitous Chinese colleagues // Tribulations: Sharing one washing machine with dozens of Canadians, hormonal imbalances, poor Sichuanhua, being treated like a VIP by solicitous Chinese colleagues // Chengdu connection: As the title implies, most of the book takes place here
A Marxist anthropologist with experience in Taiwan, Gates set out for the little-researched mainland in 1987, where she conducted numerous interviews with women in and around Chengdu. Most of the book consists of cleaned-up diary entries and interview notes. It's interesting to compare Gates's descriptions and bouts of culture shock with the present-day expat experience. The meatiest chapter, though, is the one in which Gates gives her Chengdu-focused perspective on the causes and effects of a certain 1989 event. Looking for Chengdu isn't in the same class as the previous two well-researched tomes, and it isn't meant to be; it's interesting in much the same way that reading a friend's blog is interesting.
This article by Shawna Williams was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 32.