Top 10 Ancient Capital—Chengdu
Chengdu, capital city of southwestern China's Sichuan province, was named one of the top 10 ancient capitals in China at a forum held on Oct. 25. Along with Chengdu, nine other cities, including Beijing, Xi'an, Nanjing and Luoyang, were also on the list. What does Chengdu look like? I still cannot give an accurate answer, though I have lived in Chengdu for 20 years.
The longer you live in a city, the impression it leaves on you is vaguer. I think it is just the same complex as mentioned in the lines “Why can’t I tell the true shape of Lu-Shan? / Because I myself am in the mountain.” It is a problem about distance and space, also about philosophy and psychology.
Take Chengdu for example, I have lived there for 20 years with my footprints almost found everywhere. But what are the characteristics of Chengdu? Is it the cultural connotations presented in the Jingli Street and the Broad and Narrow Alley? Is it the leisurely and comfortable mood spread in the teahouses? Or is it the burning passion boiling in the hot pot?
Except for all these, what perspective can we take to observe the city and get the true spirit of it? The only and the most proper one is the age of the city for the age is constantly changing the appearance of it and people’s recognition of it.
For most outlanders, the first time to experience Chengdu is just to follow the patterned travel route with your parents: from Dujiangyan Dam to Mt. Qingcheng, Dufu's Thatched Cottage, Wuhou Temple and then to the zoo. While travelling, you can have street snacks and cheap ice cream, ending up the trip with specialty home.
When you grow older, you may spend holidays with classmates in Chengdu. The frequent visited spot sights are just the Broad and Narrow Alley, Tianfu Square and Chunxi Road, exclusive of all the charged ones. You are so bored that they bask themselves, stare blankly or checking the passing by beautiful girls all the time. The trip ends up with jokes and a hot pot.
In your twenties, you may visit Chengdu with your girlfriend or boyfriend when the only scenery for you is the one standing by you. And you spend most time on the hotels rather than scenic spots; thus, Chengdu is shut out of your mind.
In your thirties, you may have some business activities in Chengdu, when you are busy in dealing with your friends, classmates and clients and taking a taxi around hotels and clubs. Afraid of being ignored by others, you drink liquors, beers and wine like a fish, throwing yourself at them; Chengdu is pictured in your sleepy eyes from drink and you may even forget you’ve had such a trip.
In your fifties, you begin to slow down and have a peaceful mind for your fair-weather friends have left you and you finally find the unveiling beauty of Chengdu, which is simple but attractive, ancient but fresh.
At that time, you’ll find time has its own colors dying the bricks and tiles of the ancient buildings. Every time you touch the red wall and wooden doors of the ancient temples, you can see the colors of time, which tell you the weight of time: cinereous and glossy bricks, dark black traces of burning incenses and candles, grey mottles on the rain-washing walls, golden bright light casting through roofs as well as the purple gloaming in the long alleys. The history of a city presents various traces of time placing on it through various colors.
In Chengdu, the pink hibiscus is the city flower; the golden ginkgo is the city tree; and the Sun Bird that was excavated in Jinsha is the city image.
It is said that “Chengdu" is derived from the allusion of Emperor of Zhou Dynasty's move from Qi Mountain District, "One year into a tribe, two years into a city, three years into a capital". In Chinese, “Chengdu” means “into a capital”. Of course, it seems a little far-fetched and the evidence is insufficient; however, 2,500 years ago, the Kaiming Dynasty of the ancient Shu Kingdom moved the capital here, and Chengdu became the capital of it, which can be proved by Jinsha Ruins unearthed in 2001. Therefore, the history of Chengdu city was advanced to 611 BC, surpassing Suzhou as the most ancient city in China.
When mentioning such a big ancient capital, we have to talk about some emperors who lived here and the history of the kingdoms that established its capital here. There are altogether seven kingdoms making Chengdu its political center, although most of which just owned local power and short-lived, they still won Chengdu the title of "the ancient capital". One of the emperors, named Meng Chang, who was the emperor of Later Shu Kingdom, planted hibiscus flowers all around the city, "Forty li flower sea like splendid brocade", which won Chengdu the title of "Hibiscus City".
Besides, Chengdu is also called “Jinguan City”, which means “the city of brocade”. It is said that it has become the Shu brocade-weaving center and only when the Shu brocade was washed in the city river, it would become gorgeous and splendid. That is why the Funan River is also called "Jin RIver", the river of brocade. It was written in Du Fu's poem (a known-to-all poet in China, who was born in Tang Dynasty) that "Where to find the memorial temple of the Prime Minister (Zhuge Liang, the most respectable Prime Minister of the Shu Kingdom)? /Outside the Jinguan City deep in the cypress forest. At that time, the Wuhou Temple was sitting outside the city, but now it locates in the busiest and most prosperous part of the city.
The fame of Chengdu's location is never a white elephant. Water running down from the snow mountain, Min Mountains, goes through hills and valleys to the Longmen Mountain, silting up a large amount of silt in the Sichuan basin and forming a vast and fertile Chengdu Plain. According to Shu Record, the Chengdu plain is a place rich in water and fertile lands, saving people from drought and famine. It is no wonder that SimaCuo, the general of the Qing Kingdom in the War Period, once said that the treasure in the Shu Kingdom can save the whole China. Even Zhuge Liang, living in the far-awayNanyang, knew that the strategic, economic and agricultural significance of Yizhou (the old name of Chengdu).
All Chengdu people are proud of their homeland “the Heavenly Land of Plenty”, which boasts a wild climate with abundant rainfall, moderate summers and winters. The fertile land not only nurtures rich products but also beauties. Besides, the geographic features and mild climate of Chengdu preserve the fortune and beauty. Even in Wenchuan earthquake, the neighboring Chengdu didn’t suffer a lot from the disaster.
Chengdu was once so prosperous that it was only second to Yangzhou from the Tang Dynasty. In the Northern Song Dynasty, it was second only to Bianjing, the capital at the time, while Chengdu ranked the second large city just as Shanghai now. Therefore, for a long time, "Chengdu drift" was very popular for people just as “Beijing drift" now. Here is the enduring Dujiangyan Dam, which was Built by Li Bing and his son; here happened a romantic loves story of ZhuoWenjun and SimaXiangru (a well-known matched couple of the Western Han Dynasty); here is the base where Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang were planning the revival of the Han Dynasty; here is a club for poets where they like Du Fu, Lu You, Yuan Zhen and others went hiking or had romances to get poetic inspiration.
The most successful “Chengdu drifters” are undoubtedly Emperor Xuanzong and Emperor Xizong of the Tang Dynasty. Afraid of losing life in the Anshi Rebellion and the Huang Chao Uprising, they spent three and four years relatively in Chengdu. The worst “Chengdu drifter” was Zhang XIanzhong, a leader of the peasant uprising in the late Ming Dynasty, who established Daxi Kingdom and named Chengdu XIjing that means western capital. But when he lost in the uprising, he began to burn the city and massacre citizen, which leading to a sharp decline of Sichuan’s population and a century-long immigration flowing from other provinces to Sichuan.
In the past, the drunk make-up was all the rage for women in Chengdu, which finally became popular nationwide. The emperor of the former Shu Kingdom, Wang Xing, wrote a poem named “The Drunk Make-up”: “This way, that way, just for finding frequent houses of courtesans, / This way, that way, never tired of drunk in golden goblets.” Such a luxurious life of kings no wonder resulted in the subjugation of the kingdom.
Chengdu people are those who you cannot afford to offend. A scholar Ran Yunfei drew a secret to success of Chengdu people from the “raised-eyed Shu people” mask of Sanxingdui Site that you have to be a unique individual even you look extremely ugly. When you are distinguishing enough, you have already been one of the scarce resources for others.
Never rightfully think that all Chengdu wen are hen-pecked and only know eating hotpot, playing mahjong and chattering away. SimaXiangru (a gifted scholar in the Western Han Dynasty) was not only good at writing Han-style speech but also chasing girls. He played Fengqiuhuang, a famous Chinese ancient song written by him to tell a story about how a male phoenix pursues for a female one, to win ZhuoWenjun’s heart who even rebelled against the feudal ethics to elope with him. Li Bai, a well-known poet in the Tang Dynasty, always lived a free life ignoring the bound of ethical codes, who was much similar to Bob Dylan. Su Dongpo, another famous poet, was always an opponent to authorities who was exiled for many times and sent feelings into wine and poems. Even in modern time, the flamboyant actress, Liu Xiaoqing, the quick-witted hostess, Xie Na, the popular singer, Li Yuchun, the Siren of poet, Zhai Yongming, etc. are all respectable Chengdu people.
Hotpot, mahjong, teahouses, mask-changing in Sichuan Opera, Sichuan beauties are just the superficial side of Chengdu, but what live deep in the quiet and beautiful landscape and unique culture and customs are the spirit of wildness and freedom!