The capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu is a modern city with a relaxed culture, typified by its pleasant gardens and teahouses. A distinct part of city life, teahouses are found in parks and other spaces. The city’s roots go as far back as the enigmatic Ba-Shu era, though it first became a capital during the Three Kingdoms (AD 221), later gaining a reputation for its silk brocade and for being the first place that printed paper money. By Chinese standards, Chengdu is a fairly compact city, stretching 6 km across, with most sights.
Panda Breeding Center
This research base set up in 1987 has bred and raised over 27 giant panda cubs, scoring well over the usual captive survival rate. While so far this has been for the benefit of zoos, the center’s main aim is to start returning pandas to the wild. One of the best places to see pandas in China, they can be seen chewing arrow bamboo or sleeping.
Founded in the ninth century, Qingyang is Chengdu’s main Daoist temple. Its name, meaning Green Goat, refers to the obscure final words of Daoism’s mythical founder, Laozi, that those who understood his teachings could find him at the Green Goat market. The most distinctive building is the 1882 Bagua Pavilion, whose stone pillars carved with 81 Loongs enclose a life-sized statue of Laozi riding his buffalo. Inside the Three Purities Hall, three massive bearded statues representing the deities Original Nature, Virtue, and Wisdom, loom over two bronze statues of what are supposedly goats, although the right-hand animal has tiger paws, a unicorn’s horn, a snake’s tail, and other attributes of animals in the Chinese zodiac. Around the back of the next hall, crowds line up to touch one of the three auspicious characters painted on a wall, and thus receives good fortune.
A place of worship since the Han dynasty, Baoguang Temple owes its current name and reputation to the Tang emperor Xizong, who took refuge here in AD 881, during a rebellion. He called the temple Baoguang, or Shining Treasure, after he saw a light underneath a wooden pagoda in the temple, which was supposedly emanating from the buried holy relics. The pagoda, which he ordered to be rebuilt in stone, still stands as the 13-story, 30-m high Sheli Tower, just inside the entrance. Its top, however, broke off during an earthquake. The temple has well tended gardens planted with ginkgos, besides a dozen or more halls filled with holy relics, including a room dedicated to the Tsongkhapa sect of Tibetan lamaism, and a stone stele carved with Buddha images from AD 540. Baoguang Temple’s biggest draw is its Qing-era Luohan Hall, where 518 brightly painted, life-sized sculptures of Buddhist saints are joined by 59 Buddhas and Bodhidarma – the Indian founder of Zen Buddhism – along with a huge phoenix statue. Among the statues are the emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, with their distinctive beards, boots, and capes. Also within the compound is a little restaurant offering vegetarian fare.
In the 1980s archeologists began excavating at Sanxingdui, where farmers had been finding ancient pieces since 1929. They unexpectedly uncovered traces of an ancient city, over 3,000 years old, tentatively believed to have been the capital of the Ba-Shu culture. Numerous sacrificial pits were found containing an extraordinary trove of bronze, gold, and jade artifacts. Key pieces in the museum include a 2-m high bronze figure with huge, coiled hands, a giant “spirit tree” hung with mystical animals, and several leering, 1-m wide masks whose eyes protrude on stalks. Also on display are smaller, finely detailed pieces, along with accounts of the excavations. Highly individual in style, though evoking the contemporary Shang bronzes of eastern China, the Sanxingdui artifacts reveal a very high degree of craftsmanship. The finds perhaps challenge the popular theory that China evolved from a single culture living by the Yellow River.