The people of Sichuan are known to be some of the most carefree, laidback people in all of China. They prefer to sip tea all morning, play mahjong in the afternoon and feast on spicy hot pot all night. What the people bring to this verdant province on China’s southern end, from its glimmering but mellow metropolises to its peppering of engrossing traditional villages and mountain temples, is a life that rolls at an easy pace.
But Sichuan’s charm doesn’t stop with its people. The middle of the province is home to China’s most iconic creature, the giant panda, while various UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the world’s biggest Buddha in Leshan and sacred mist-capped mountains such as Emei Shan, dot the landscape. Head north for hiking among turqoise lakes and plunging mountain valleys – some of the most gorgeous scenery in the country – at Jiuzhaigou and Songpan, then spend a few days in the fiery capital of Chengdu. When you need to earn back some karma points, Sichuan’s western ambit – known as Kham, one of old Tibets traditional regions – is a breathtaking land of mountains and powerful glaciers, where ancient Tibetan shrines and temples still scatter along the renowned Sichuan-Tibet Highway.
The earliest residents of Sichuan date back to before the 15th century BCE. Due to the unique positioning of the bodies discovered in burial sites here, archeologists believe that the first inhabitants had very unique spiritual beliefs. A millenium later, in the 2nd century BCE, China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang united Sichuan with the rest of China for the first time under the Qin Dynasty.
After the fall of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century CE, during a time known as the Three Kingdoms Period, Liu Bei established the Kingdom of Shu-Han (221 – 263 CE) and named Chengdu the capital. For the next 2,000 years, Sichuan slipped between the hands of various Chinese empires and fell into a major slump. For much of this time it was a mere buffer state that suffered numerous attacks from the neighboring Tibetan kingdoms.
Adversity has continued to challenge the Sichuanese throughout the 20th century. The province was hit hard by the Great Famine of 1959 – 1961, which resulted in nearly 10 million deaths. Chongqing split away from the province in 1997, and 11 years later (May, 2008) a massive earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale tragically took over 80,000 lives, left millions injured and homeless, and nearly toppled the city. As if this was not enough, the province was jolted again in April, 2013 by a 7.0 quake, leaving 196 dead.
Since 2008, rebuilding efforts have helped Sichuan to regain its title of the “Province of Abundance,” with Beijing and international corporations alike investing billions to roll the province into the future and cement it as the hub of western China.
The Sichuanese speak a local Mandarin dialect known as Sìchuān Huà (四川话). Its accent is strong, and speakers of standard Mandarin may have trouble communicating, even when locals speak standard Mandarin.
Some things to keep in mind are that the Sichuanese say “háizi” for shoe, which is the same pronunciation for “child” in standard Mandarin. In fact, there’s an old story of a Chengdu woman who lost her shoe in a river in Beijing. She began shouting, "Oh no! I lost my haizi in the river!" All the locals, who thought she was talking about her child rather than her shoe, jumped in the river looking for her lost item.
The former Tibetan region of Kham in the western part of Sichuan makes up 51.5% of the province’s total area, and it still has a large population of Tibetans (Han are a minority in this region). Full of grassy high-altitude plateaus, creaky wooden temples and all-around picturesque scenery, this area is essentially just like being in Tibet. Many Han unfortunately consider the people here “backwards” because of their high poverty rates, poor health care, low education and “illogical superstitions,” a sentiment in no small way a product of government indoctrination. In fact, the Chinese government is investing billions to develop Tibetan lands, mostly in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds” of the people of these needy counties so that they’ll support Beijing’s agenda. This means the ancient windswept charms of this area won’t last forever. But for now, if you want to explore Tibetan culture without the hassle of getting a tour guide and spending a small fortune to reach Tibet proper, consider western Sichuan as an alternative.