China’s central and southern mountain ranges are the giant panda’s native stomping grounds. According to the government, a growing population of more than 1,000 of these cute critters roam free, after decades of precarious endangerment. So, after soaking up Chengdu’s vibrant teahouse culture and spicy hot pot broths for the last week, we visited the world’s premier panda breeding ground, where a significant percentage of the population chill (and breed) for the viewing pleasure of tourists.
The animal’s commanding size is easily overshadowed by its playful demeanor and blasé attitude. The same can be said about Sichuan’s capital – China’s fifth largest city. Cultural relevance, on the Chinese or international stages, may be expected from the dynastic canyons of Beijing or cosmopolitan Shanghai. But Chengdu’s burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene, boutique fashion trends, unmatched culinary scene (the first UNESCO designated gastronomic heritage city) and blossoming LGBTQ community all speak to its uniqueness as a welcoming, if still second-tier, Chinese city.
Initially, I thought my immediate infatuation was just a side effect of my 28-hour sleeper train ride from Beijing. After a day, I began to realize the seeming progressiveness of Chengdu is the byproduct of the preservation of a long, but mostly gentle, history, where teahouses and literary legends reign supreme over imperial rule.
Du Fu, one of China’s most revered poets, built a cottage in Chengdu in 759 and lived in it for four years, which some scholars point to as his most creative stretch. Though his straw structure is long gone, the trees and streams he wrote amongst were preserved over generations by his fans, who hoped to pass along his legacy, a seemingly successful endeavor. Du Fu’s thatched cottage park is one of the most tranquil places I’ve visited in China – especially remarkable in a megacity of more than 10 million.
Sipping tea in the People’s Park and in former Buddhist monasteries were equally enjoyable activities and great places to spy on some older women in a heated game of Mahjong (played, of course, with a set of lax rules apparently local to Chengdu).
Linguistic prowess could be the defining layer to Chengdu. I’m not just talking about the scores of writers and poets who followed in Du Fu’s footsteps. China’s formerly underground hip hop scene has exploded into the mainstream veins of official media, from popular American Idol-style reality shows to major record labels. Many top rappers hail from Sichuan, Chongqing and Chengdu – the Houston, Atlanta and Queens of Chinese hip hop culture. The sharp accents of Sichuanese dialect lend themselves to stringing together complex and quick rhyme schemes. Some of the region’s biggest names – namely the Migos-like quartet Higher Brothers – have toured successfully stateside and beyond.
Chengdu’s extraordinary variety today may have some dark roots, however. During Zhang “Yellow Tiger” Xianzhong’s rule of Sichuan at the end of the Ming Dynasty (around the 1640’s), a huge chunk of Chengdu’s ethnically homogeneous population was said to have been massacred. To restore the city, a 200-year resettlement program was initiated during the Qing Dynasty. By the end, nearly 80% of the population was reportedly non-native. It’s hard not to think this melting (hot)pot conglomeration is what helps make Chengdu such a deep place today. Plus, pandas.
Photo gallery below: