Chongqing is often referred to as “the world’s largest municipality,” but this moniker is a debatable topic that depends on how it’s measured (metro area? population?). For the locals, however, the answer is simple: Chongqing is king. And if truth be told, there are few cities in the world that can match Chongqing in both city area and population size. This titan of a metropolis boasts upwards of 28 million souls (though much of that comes from towns and cities) and takes up an area roughly twice the size of Switzerland. Throw in the fact that Chongqing’s municipal area includes two of the world’s most famous gorges, and you have a recipe for one of the most unique megalopolises on the planet. For a large portion of its history, Chongqing was actually a part of Sichuan Province, but in 1997 it broke away – it’s because of this that the city has a great deal in common with its spicy western neighbor. In fact, Chongqing is actually the birthplace of hot pot, one of Sichuan’s most famous dishes, and anyone in China will tell you that Chongqingers like their food spicy and their conversations loud. Take away the beautiful but rough geography and what do you have? A people filled with a fiery passion for friendship, debate and life equalled only by the zest of their favorite hot pots.
The area now known as Chongqing was once the home of the Ba people. Genetically distinctive from the Han that now overwhelmingly reside in Chongqing, the Ba settled the area after being pushed out of central China by the Chu Kingdom in 698 BCE. They were similar to their rivals the Shu, who inhabited inner Sichuan, and they are considered the predecessors of both the Tujia and Miao minorities who are also found in the area.
The Ba were a tribal people who subsisted on the products of the river as well as their ability to harvest salt, which they used as a commodity when trading with neighboring kingdoms. Other than a few architectural concepts, not much of their legacy remains, and archeologists continue to debate over the purpose of the few cultural vestiges in existence, such as the hanging coffins that are found outside of Chongqing. Despite their relative obscurity, the Ba are proudly spoken of by Chongqing historians as their forefathers, but some feel that this pride stems from an attempt by the Chongqingese to distinguish themselves from the Sichuanese, who are thought to have decended from the Shu.
During the Three Kingdoms Period, Chongqing was firmly part of the Shu-Han territory. For a good 200 years following the dissolution of the Shu-Han, Sichuan and Chongqing suffered from devastating floods, famines, Mongolian raids and merciless attacks from despotic warlords. These calamities left Chongqing and Sichuan with notably sparser populations.
Under the Ming and Qing Dynasties, socially orchestrated mass migrations were undertaken to repopulate the area, and Chongqing found itself flooded with immigrants from numerous other provinces. In fact, most of today’s Sichuan and Chongqing Han populations are descendants of these migrations.
By the early 20th century, the whole of China was in the midst of great political upheaval as the Manchurian Qing Dynasty edged towards its last days. At the same time, a number of Western powers had been carving up regions of the country for decades, and the trade they had developed up and down their controlled areas of the Yangtze helped Chongqing blossom into a major inland port. From the city, coal and agricultural products floated down the river to feed booming factories and bustling populations.
The years of the Sino-Japanese War would prove to be a defining time in the identity of modern Chongqing. Before the invasion of central China, the Japanese boasted that they would take “Shanghai in three days, China in three months,” but it took them considerably longer than they had anticipated to secure Shanghai, and they were never able to take the whole country. The Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government, lead by Chiang Kai-shek, found themselves fractured after years of fighting, limping their way west to Chongqing to seek refuge in its mountainous terrain. From there, the brave Chinese fighters were able to hold Chongqing as one of the last Chinese havens outside of Japanese control, turning the city into the nation’s capital for much of World War II. Japanese aerial attacks devastated the city, and were designed not only to weaken military targets, but also to weaken the Chinese morale through the bombing of hospitals, schools and residential areas.
By the time the war ended, Chongqing had seen plenty of devastation at the hands of the Japanese, but its citizens held a deep sense of pride in the fact that they had helped keep China alive for the duration of the war, with the city at times acting as a launching point for counterstrikes against the Japanese. Chongqing’s resilience through staggering losses earned it the nickname “City of Heroes,” even garnering strong praise from Franklin D Roosevelt for its unyielding courage.
With the Communists’ victory over the Nationalists, Beijing became the capital, and Chongqing was relegated to being just a part of Sichuan Province. In 1997, however, Chongqing was given provincial level autonomy in order to better manage the mass urbanization project of the Three Gorges Dam.
It’s useful to know that in regards to culture, Chongqing is nearly identical to Sichuan, but it’s wise not to advertise this observation around town. Chongqing and Sichuan, most specifically Chengdu, have an intense sibling rivalry. They argue about everything, from whose local dialect sounds better and whose food is spicier to whose women are more beautiful and whose city is more influential. The list is endless.
Just like its ancient neighbor to the west, Chongqing loves food, and the spicier the better. Make no mistake, hot pot is a proud Chongqing tradition, and though Sichuan’s hot pot is famous throughout China, it is Chongqing’s that holds the title of “the original.”
Those who speak standard Mandarin may have more trouble getting around Chongqing than other cities. Although many the local dialect is technically part of the Southwestern Mandarin family, this dialect, known as Chongqinghua (i.e. Chongqing dialect), can be fairly incompatible with standard Mandarin. Some useful Chongqinghua phrases include:
没得 – pronounced “may day” and is the equivalent to 没有 (méi yǒu in Mandarin; "don’t have" in English).
要得 – pronounced “yao day” and is the equivalent to 好的 (hǎo de in Mandarin; "OK" in English).
啥子 – pronounced “sha zi” and is the equivalent to 什么(shén me in Mandarin; “what” in English).
Also remember that in Chongqinghua many standard Mandarin sounds get slurred and transformed. Here are some of these transformations, with the standard Mandarin sound on the left and the Chongqinghua sound on the right: s→sh, z→zh, j→zh, l→n.
If you are looking for an appropriate compliment to give your Chongqing hosts, then don’t be afraid to say a dish or situation is “bah se” (巴适), which means “really good.” There is nothing more welcoming to a Chongqinger than a foreigner speaking Chinese with the local twang.
The city of “Double Happiness,” as Chongqing is sometimes called, is truly the tale of two cities. One side of Chongqing is rural and agrarian, struggling to find a foothold in the new Chinese dream. The other side is urbanizing at a rate that has made the metropolis one of the fastest growing cities on the planet, with crowded dwellings along the Yangtze giving way to soaring towers of dusty steel and glass. Many a CCP members have spouted that these two contrasts are a fact of life in modern China, that the country’s evolution to a consumer-based economy is a metaphoric war between the old world and the new world – nowhere is this more evident than in Chongqing.
Honestly, Chongqing is not a pretty city. It lacks the serenity and sophistication of it’s Sichuan cousin, Chengdu, and the heat of the city’s hazy and humid summers has earned it a spot as one of China’s Furnace Cities. Then, there is the pollution – Chongqing’s smog gives Beijing a run for its money! But the city doesn’t attempt to hide its rough side, and it’s in this down-to-earth honesty that most people find how to love this “ugly” city.
Though the Chongqing municipality boasts an earth-shaking population nearing 30 million, the city itself only runs up a total of about 7 million. And once you get down into its gritty lanes, you’ll realize that in many ways this city is like one massive small town. This is wherein Chongqing’s rugged charm lies, as night fills with a cacaphony of roaring chatter from layers of hot pot restaurants and mahjong parlors, while families play badminton, chit-chat and laugh in outdoor apartment corridors. By day, steep stairways transform into bustling farmers’ markets, and city kids chase chickens on their way home from school.
Among Chongqing’s many nicknames, the most famous is possibly the Mountain City (Shān Chéng; 山城). This name comes from Yuzhong District (Yúzhōng Qū;渝中区), the centrally-located peninsular-shaped area of Chongqing’s main development and CBD. The area is known for being quite hilly, and it still has a number of ancient Ba stilt houses – known as diàojiǎolóu (吊脚楼 ), which literally means “hanging foot building” – built right into the mountain slopes. These lovely buildings were grouped one on top of the other and crammed so tightly it can be difficult to tell where topography stops and building begins. The few that remain today are some of Chongqing’s most fascinating sights.
Surrounding Yuzhong District are are the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers (Jiālíng Jiāng; 嘉陵江). Most people identify them by remembering that the Yangtze is dirtier and wider than the Jialing.