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    Chilling out in China's chilli capital

2006-03-18 07:22

CHENGDU: To my surprise, the weather of Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, was rather cold in late February.

But the enthusiasm of my local hosts, the Chengdu Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, immediately thawed the coolness.

The warm atmosphere echoes the comments of my Sichuan-originated colleagues: "Chengdu is full of cloudy weather, but local people always try to break the climate oppression with jokes, laughs and chilli food."

In the roads towards downtown Chengdu from the airport, teahouses and shops advertising mah-jong tables a traditional Chinese game played by four persons are dotted everywhere.

"In most residential zones in Chengdu, the business of mah-jong houses is booming. People spend little for tea, a place at the mah-jong table and the carefree atmosphere," Chen Liang, one of my colleagues who hails from Sichuan, told me.

"People would not do big gambling. They would play mah-jong with just 10 yuan (US$1.20), win or lose, but everyone enjoys it," Chen said.

Given the mass enjoyment of various games, Chengdu has kept the fame as the "City of Leisure" in China for years.

The image is confirmed outside Wuhouci, or the Temple of Marquis Wu, which is a major culture site in Chengdu.

When we stepped inside the temple, an old man staggered across the high threshold with a crutch. While trying to help him, a service worker of the cultural site asked the old man: "Old uncle, where will you go after leaving so early?"

"Playing mah-jong," the old man answered loudly.

Wuhouci is the only temple in China to memorialize both an emperor and his major minister. It honours Zhuge Liang (AD 181-234), the famous prime minister of Shu Kingdom (AD 221-263) which ruled the Sichuan area, and his lord, Emperor Liu Bei (AD 161-223, reigning 221-223).

With the help of Zhuge Liang, originally weak Liu Bei conquered the wealthy and peaceful Sichuan and chose Chengdu as his capital. With low taxes and encouraging policies, Liu's ruling promoted local economies and welfare.

After Liu Bei died in 223, Zhuge Liang was loyal to his inept son Liu Chan (AD 207-271, reigning 223- 263) and died of illness in the front lines of his fruitless attack against the Wei Dynasty (AD 220-265).

Speaking of Zhuge Liang, almost everybody in China will eulogize his greatness and loyalty, with the aid of the famous classic novel, "The Romance of Three Kingdoms." But is this the only reason of making him share the same temple with his lord?

Searching historical literature, I cannot find an answer. Perhaps the answer lies in the easygoing nature of Chengdu people. For them, the social status of historical figures is far less important than their

real contribution to their happy life.

Historical roots

The palaces commemorating Zhuge Liang stand in the central axis of Wuhouci, covered by huge ancient trees, while those for his lord only stand in the left corner of the temple.

Like most memorial buildings in China, the palaces are magnificent, but still a little different from those in North China and the Yangtze River Delta in Southeast China.

The palaces here do not have so many heavy brackets to support the flying eaves like the Forbidden City. But they are much grander than the slim imperial buildings in Nanjing, another ancient capital in East China's Jiangsu Province.

No wing buildings can be found in the temple, enabling the pilgrims to be more relaxed.

In the exhibition hall of the temple, an unearthed guffawing pottery statuary of the era of Shu Kingdom attracted my attention.

The statuary, about 30 centimetres tall, sits with his belly protruding high. He is so happy that even his two hands cannot curb the undulation of his belly.

According to "Chinese History of Aesthetics" by Li Zehou, a famous aesthetician and thinker of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the arts in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and the period of Three Kingdoms have been marked by the great stress, continued tribulation and deep reflection.

It wasn't until Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when China was undergoing a flourishing age and a lot of unrestrained ethnic minority cultures were absorbed, that guffawing statuaries became popular.

But here in Chengdu, the arts history has to be rewritten.

The endless laugh of the statuary at least represents the immanent optimism of ancient Chengdu people.

Mixed nature

In Chengdu, Du Fu Caotang (Thatched Cottage) enjoys the same fame as Wuhouci. Located in the western suburb of Chengdu, the historical site was built in the estimated site of the residence of Du Fu (AD 712-770), the great patriotic poet of the Tang Dynasty.

Du Fu came to Chengdu to escape the tribulation caused by a civil war.

He has spent a hard life in the city, only able to construct four thatched houses.

Yet sometimes, the hard life and common environment were described by the poet as a romantic heaven.

The small river before his house was said as a place to anchor big boats from eastern Wu (now Jiangsu Province), and a common road towards his room was dotted with flowers in his poems.

Nowadays, in the thatched cottage park, nanmu (Phoebe Zhennan), a precious log cherished by the poor poet, is found all over the courtyard.

The tablets inscribed with Du Fu's poems and later generations' eulogies on him could be seen behind the green.

In a newly constructed long corridor, Du Fu's poems are written with skilful calligraphies in more than 100 tablets. The poems, the calligraphies and the corridor form a full image of the traditional Chinese garden.

Yet, like in Wuhouci, no buildings here can be found older than Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

In the Chinese history, during the national unification wars of several major dynasties Tang, Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) the local rulers in Sichuan either surrendered, or made very slight resistance. Perhaps the mild resistance is also a result of Sichuan people's character in desiring a carefree life .

Where, then, went the more ancient buildings that should have survived the peaceful history?

Zhang Yan, the guide of the thatched cottage park, revealed that during the turning point between Ming and Qing dynasties, Sichuan people first firmly resisted the peasant revolt led by general Zhang Xianzhong (1606-46), and then the Manchuria Qing invaders. The entire city of Chengdu was under fire during the war and the population in Sichuan reduced by 80 per cent after the war.

According to Zhang, after the war in the early Qing period, many migrants from the central province of Hubei and the western province of Shaanxi were moved to Chengdu and elsewhere in Sichuan.

"Most of us could be traced to an immigrant forefather," said Zhang.

This doesn't matter. Today's Chengdu people inherited the happy-go-lucky attitude of their ancient ancestors, no matter where they really came from.

(China Daily 03/18/2006 page10)


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