Sichuan [Four Rivers] province’s most abiding impression could well be its spicy cuisine, famous for its diversity and comprising over 5,000 dishes such as twice-cooked pork, spicy chicken with peanuts [which I loved!], fish-fragranced sliced pork, and long dumplings. Noodles are eaten as a snack. A legendary dish in Chengdu is pock-marked Grandma’s beancurd. It was invented 90 years ago by a Grandma with spots on her face. Not many knew about the dish or ate it. An important poet once visited her and the meal, thereafter, became the most popular one in the city.
The tradition of drinking tea took birth in Sichuan 3,000 years ago, later spreading throughout the country and onto Europe. It is said there is a tea-house at every corner in Chengdu. The tea-houses do not merely serve as places to drink tea, but are rather a venue for locals to relax, play cards and majhong, a local form of gambling. There are two types of tea-houses in Chengdu. Those that charge by the hour, 400 Yuan for a pot and four small cups, and the cheaper ones where you can order tea and sit and drink and while away the whole day. Sichuan is also where the complex process of feeding silkworms and making silk started. A number of silk and brocade factories were set up in the city in antiquity. During the Tang dynasty the Silk Road started from Chengdu. The silk industry in Chengdu is still based on hand labour.
Chengdu, capital of Sichuan with a population of 10 million manages to preserve a sense of history despite wholesale modernisation. Apart from its fine temple architecture, tea-house atmosphere, and giant pandas, it provides a gateway to Tibet. The city is also a springboard for Buddhist pilgrims to Leshan and Emeishan.
Founded by Qin before he unified China in 221 BC, Chengdu, meaning “Becoming Capital” prospered as a major commercial centre during the Tang dynasty and was responsible for introducing paper money in the 10th Century. The city additionally earned a reputation for its brocades and satins, winning it the name “Brocade city” and is also commonly known as the “Hibiscus city”.
I spent my whole morning at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base which aims to preserve the giant panda. The animals are free here to wander through the immense grounds covered with bamboo groves and forest. Pathways wind through the thickets providing delightful sights of the protected animals. The giant pandas are huge and not much different from their acrylic counterparts sold across counters all over the world. Just as cute and adorable, munching away at bamboo sticks besottedly, or tumbling down lawns as they play with each other. It is sad they are an endangered species, and that it is only with much diligent and careful effort have they been able to be saved and sustained.
The giant panda—an 8 million-year-old species striving for survival
Giant pandas are often called living fossils; they are a unique species 8 million years old. Humans in comparison only date back to 1.7 million years. Brave, adorable, independent, and a perfect example of life’s passion for survival, the giant panda is rightfully the symbol for the World Wildlife Foundation.
They were “first discovered” in China by a French missionary and amateur zoologist, Pere David. One day in 1869 he came across a panda skin. Finding it strange he returned to the site to find a baby panda there this time. He proceeded to write a book on his discovery; the world hence learnt the story about the panda that lived to tell.
The giant panda is a lonely animal. It often lives a hidden solitary life, deep within thickets of bamboo. The young cubs leave their mothers at a mere 1 and a half years of age. Unlike bears, pandas do not hibernate. They feed on snowland during winters and usually live near streams and creeks as they like drinking water a lot and will travel long distances to quench their thirst. They are adept at climbing trees to escape danger or enemies.
Pandas can only digest and absorb the protein and sugar in the bamboo. They have, as a result, large amounts of daily intake—40 kg or 150 bamboo shoots per day—and equally generous droppings throughout the day consisting mainly of leaves and branches. Although carnivores, they live primarily on bamboo. Only occasionally will they pick up carcasses. In spring and summer they feed on bamboo shoots. In autumn and winter meals consist of the bamboo’s stems, leaves and branches.
When spring comes, male and female pandas break their habit of living solitarily to run after each other, fall in love and mate. Mating ceremonies are often in the field, sometimes in trees. After mating, they part ways. Before the cub is due, mothers select old tree holes or caves as her maternity den. In late-August or early-September, the little cub is born. The litter usually is made of one or two cubs only.
The giant panda has a false thumb evolved from the oscarpi radii. It gives the panda an extraordinary grasp on bamboo. When eating, unlike bears who hold and break their food with both their forepaws, the giant panda can eat by just holding the shoots. They are short-sighted by birth and depend on their strong sense of smell.
In 1953, the Chengdu zoo raised its first panda and showed it to the public. The panda died in half a month. From 1963 to May 2003, through China’s artificial breeding programme for pandas, there has been a total litter of 181 with 256 cubs. Of these, 144 have survived over six months and 98 have lived to adulthood. Of these 98, 95 live within China.
A new born giant panda is a premature infant. The whole body is reddish and naked; both eyes closed firmly. It weighs about 100 grams or one-thousandth its mother’s weight and can neither see nor pass water. It is very difficult for such a cub to survive. The new born infant is raised fully by its mother. Since the mother can look after only one cub, if she were to give birth to two, the other is squeezed to death. The average age of pandas living in the wild is 18 to 20 years. In captivity they live up to 22 to 25 years. They usually weigh 150 kg when one year old.
The research centre in Chengdu was set up in 1987 by the government. Four generations of pandas brought up in captivity at the centre trace back to Mei Mei, the oldest panda in the centre. Her family has had 28 litters of 43 cubs with 32 survivals of which 21 are still living. There are only 1,000 giant pandas in the whole world. In 2003 the American government rented two giant pandas for one year at a fee of US$ 1 million each. Infant pandas are sent to zoos in China and worldwide after six months of age.
The Wuhou Temple is a monument dedicated to the Three Kingdoms period
Lunch was a bowl of spicy noodle soup with bits of bone floating around, in a small eatery in a side lane. At first doubtful, I eventually plunged in with a pair of chopsticks. I was too hungry to be prejudiced. I sucked in the noodles like a local, sniffing and eating at one continuous go without taking a pause to breathe. I surprised myself; I was getting better every day: at the handling of chopsticks to capture impossibly slippery and small portions of food, and in the range of tastes my taste-buds could actually bear with honest relish.
Every city has its precious cultural gems. Chengdu’s is the Wuhou Temple, a monument to the Three Kingdoms Period of Chinese history. The Three Kingdoms Period lasted from 220-265 AD and was made up of the states of Wu, Shu, and Wei. In the year 265 Wei emerged as the main kingdom and was, thenceforth, called Western Qin. Wuhou translates as “Minister of War” and refers to Zhuge Liang, a famous military strategist of the period.
The temple’s dark structures interspersed with lakes and green foliage hold Chengdu’s claim to ancient history in its folds. Every stele, tablet, effigy and pavilion recount the Three Kingdoms era and the glories of the strategist. It was first built in 223 AD, and then rebuilt in 1672 under the Qing dynasty.
Another essential place of homage for Chinese, and foreigners like me in search for that something more, is Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage. Du Fu (712-770 AD) was a Confucian poet of the Tang dynasty and is widely considered to be China’s greatest poet. He is revered for his lyrical rendering of a lifetime of great suffering. He composed 1,400 poems in his lifetime, 240 of which were written during his four years in this cottage.
I very much wanted to see a Taoist temple. Thus, though not part of the usual “tourist circuit” I dragged Sue, my guide, to visit the Qingyang Palace or “Green Goat Temple”, an important Taoist temple in the city. The whole complex was decorated with gay colourful banners; they had just recently completed celebrations for one of their important festivals. A typical Taoist motif is the octagonal Eight-Diagram Pavilion, a design reflecting the eternal principle of the Bagua, or the eight trigrams of Taoist philosophy. The eight trigrams represent all natural phenomena, combining to form the 64 hexagrams of the Book of Changes or I Ching. Inside, a statue of Laozi, the founding father of Taoism, rides through the Hangu pass on his green ox. Laozi compiled his mystical musings into a thick volume and deposited them with the gatekeeper at the pass, before continuing on his journey west, to become Buddha, some say. In the last hall, a handful of monks and worshippers had gathered to chant. It is amazing how fluid and continual spirituality is, flowing through so many souls in so many forms, yet its essence always remaining a single primary universal core.
Sue wouldn’t let me leave Chengdu without seeing a Sichuan opera show on my last night. The Shufengyayan Operatic Circle, located inside the Qingyang Temple complex, gathers together distinguished actors in the Sichuan province and holds China Sichuan Opera Unique Skill Performances every evening. The performance started with the Baixi Zhengba which dates back to the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). The Stick Puppet Show, also rooted in the Han dynasty, has both the puppet and performer on stage. Changing Faces, a unique act in Sichuan opera is derived from old west Shu country and well known all over the world; the actors change their masks in a magical way during the dance. Other acts included the Hand-Shadow Show, Spitting Fire, and instrumental concerts with the zither, gong and drums.
I don’t know if I loved it or hated it. The line between can be thin at times. It was a complete antithesis to the serenity and grace of the day. The distorted painted faces screeched shrilly whilst cymbals clashed loudly incessantly. And trying to get a good view amidst the thousands of chattering Chinese all around me was an impossible task. Yet, in a very strange secret unannounced way, I enjoyed it. And wouldn’t mind seeing it again. 🙂
The next morning I left for Tibet for 7 days. I write about that part of my journey in a separate section for it seems more appropriate that it be given an independent unattached expression and record. Even though China calls Tibet a part of its own land and tries aggressively and persistently to wipe out its essence, Tibet is a world in itself. Unique and inimitable. And will always remain so.