Chengdu the earliest settlement in Southwest China is a famous cultural city with a recorded history of more than 2,300 years, although there is evidence of human habitation there 3,700 – 4,500 years ago. This is a rare and great city. Its name has never changed and since its foundation, the city has always been the capital of Sichuan province. The geographical location of the fertile Chengdu Plain has proved beneficial to the local populace.
Wine vessel excavated from Sanxingdui Cultural Site
The Shu is an age-old ethnic group. Its earliest people moved to Sichuan and established their own kingdom more than four or five thousand years ago. They created themost brilliant civilization of Sichuan and the fertile Chengdu Plain was the center of the Shu Kingdom. The 3,200 year-old Sanxindui Cultural Site in Central China was probably the kingdom’s early capital. A new cultural branch from the west plateau invaded the Chengdu Plain and so formed the Sanxingdui Culture by assimilation with that of the plain, culminating in a pinnacle during the development of the Shu Kingdom.
Some 2,300 years ago, the capital relocated to present Chengdu and for a long time, people deemed that the city built during that period was the real start of the city.
However, the discovery of Jinsha Cultural Site in 2001 overthrows the common impression of the city’s history. The establishment of the city recedes for 700 years (from 2,300 year ago to 3,000 year ago). A great number of excavations from Jinsha Site exhibit a different ancient civilization from that of Central China but relative to Sanxingdui Culture. Apart from jade articles, there are many astonishing bronze masks, tree-shaped articles as well as gold masks and staffs. Gold masks and staffs are rarely found in Chinese ancient culture but they are suggestive of the gold masks of the ancient Egyptian and Mycenaean Civilizations while the sacred tree and staff occurred in Mesopotamia.
All of these add an exotic flavor to Jinsha. There do remain some unsolved mysteries, but most people would rather to believe that Jinsha is another center of ancient Shu Kingdom (late Shang Dynasty (16th – 11th Century BC) to Western Zhou Dynasty (11th Century BC – 771 BC)) after the vanishing of Sanxingdui, and Chengdu is undoubtedly the central area of the ancient kingdom.
Characteristic of Shu Culture in Warring State Period (476BC-221BC)
It was in the middle 5th century BC when the capital of the Shu Kingdom moved to and constructed in Chengdu. Passing through the brilliance of Sanxingdui and Jinsha, the kingdom entered the tempestuous Warring State Period. Many ancient tombs have been discovered hereabouts by archeologists. The boat coffin is the most characteristic burial style of this period. So far, the biggest tomb discovered in Shangye Jie is of a lord’s family. The 30.5 meters (100 feet) long and 20.3 meters (66.6 feet) wide grave contains some thirty boat coffins dating from 770BC – 256BC.
People hewed a canoe from a tree trunk. Using canoes as coffins is a unique burial custom to Ba (an ancient kingdom in present Chongqing) and Shu people. People put the deceased in a boat-like coffin hoping he can return home across the sea after death. However, boat coffins will not floating in water. Ba people usually hang them from cliffs, while the Shu people bury them deep in the earth. Generally, the bigger the boat coffin, the higher rank of the deceased occupant.
In 316BC, the Qin State conquered the Ba and Shu kingdoms and established the Shu Shire in the former kingdom. The region was a county where the shire government sat. Five years later, the king ordered the building of Chengdu along the lines of the capital, Xianyang. The Dujiangyan Irrigation Project constructed around 250BC is world famous, continuing to work over 2,000 years later. After the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC) unified the warring states, the city still belonged to Shu Shire, administrating twenty counties.
- Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) – The area became the center of world’s lacquer craftwork and the birthplace of tea culture with advanced technology of Shu Brocade.
- Five Dynasties period (907-960) – the emperor of Later Shu planted hibiscus all round the city wall, hence Chengdu got the nickname, Furong Cheng (Hibiscus City), or Rong Cheng for short.
- Tang Dynasty (618-907) – Engraving typography was first invented and used here.
- Song Dynasty (960-1279) – Chengdu led the list, being a foremost prosperous city on a par with Yangzhou which had the busiest water transport and port in China at that time. The earliest paper currency in the world ‘Jiao Zi’ was issued there during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
- Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties – The previously flourishing city vanished during the war during the late Ming Dynasty but its economy made a gradual recovery during the Qing Dynasty. Through two expansions during Kangxi and Qianlong Periods, a grand new city evolved once more. Following the Opium War, the city went into a decline and its role overtaken by Chongqing.
- In modern times, the city was re-established as the capital of Sichuan Province in 1928, and has remained so following the foundation of the PRC.