China Geography

Sichuan Province

China Geography

Maurice Howard gives his impressions of China's central Sichuan province, the article first appeared in SACU's China Now magazine 1982.

Last summer [This article was written in 1982] , people in the West picked up their newspapers to find that China was once more suffering from a series of natural disasters. The worst floods for decades had hit the west of the country, and in particular Sichuan province. Sichuan only recently rose to prominence when Premier Zhao Ziyang, formerly the First Secretary of the Party Committee there, was promoted in the government following his experimental industrial reforms. For all Sichuan's importance, it receives less attention than it should.

On a relief map, Sichuan stands out strikingly as does the Red Spot on Jupiter. The core of this sprawling province - the most populated in China, with one tenth of the population and one fifteenth of the cultivated area - is a broad basin sunk into the highlands and mountain ranges of western China. Innumerable meandering rivers traverse it, and four of them (no-one can quite decide which) gave it its name. These drain through only one outlet, the Changjiang (Yangzi River) Gorges. As the orogenic forces have raised the mountains surrounding the basin, so the river has cut its way downwards.

Sichuan is characterised by isolation: on the western side, the foothills of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau leap out of the Chengdu plain; to the south the Yunnan-Guizhou. plateau; to the east the Wushan; and to the north the Daba Shan form impenetrable walls to it. These barriers have always discouraged invaders and traders alike, and the Sichuanese are proud of being just a bit different from everyone else; and this is reflected in the local dialect. The northern mountains insulate the province from the continental cold air-masses during the winter, giving it a generally subtropical climate and over three hundred frost-free days a year.

My first impression of Sichuan was the green-yellow of ripe rice. This I found was the characteristic colour of the province. As I flew from Xian into Sichuan, I was greeted by low single-storeyed thatched 'cottages' with broad eaves and black-and-white appearance which nestle in thick bamboo groves or eucalyptus woods. These woods were dotted everywhere between the fields - a 'feather duster' landscape... The farmhouses in their little groves were close together and spaced individually without enclosed courtyards; reminiscent in a strange way of medieval England. Water buffalo were common. Everywhere seemed neat, clean, and prosperous. This impression persisted even in Chengdu city itself - smart, modern, well-built blocks of flats under construction all around, using steel instead of bamboo scaffolding. People were well-dressed and seemed well-fed. Such is the contrast with Shaanxi.

Sichuan province
Exaggerated relief map showing the isolated and unique placement of Sichuan Province

Chengdu, the centre of Sichuan

Chengdu, though heavily rebuilt, still retains a lot of the traditional Sichuan architecture and way of life. The typical Chengdu house is wood framed with two storeys and tiled roof. In the evenings, the families eat or watch their televisions on the ground floor, or sit outside watching the activity in the street. In a teahouse I chanced upon an audience sitting in rapt attention. An elderly gentleman, who had learnt English during the war explained that the venerable chairman sitting at a desk in front of the assembly and holding forth dramatically was a storyteller. In this part of China, the teahouse is still very much part of the social scene.

I visited a number of traditional places of interest around Chengdu - the cloud-swathed Qingchengshan with its subtropical forests; the mountain townships of bark-roofed houses inhabited by Hui, Zang and Yi people, always colourfully dressed; temples and monuments surrounded by their groves of bamboo and stately nanmu hardwood trees; and a journey out along the narrow and busy Chuan-Shaan gonglu to the Baoguang (Divine Light) monastery where the jostling crowds of local tourists, successors to the pilgrims, contrast with the quiet halflight of the inner courtyards. In one of these tea was served by an affable monk and one of his novices.

The Chengdu Plain, although part of the Sichuan basin, is quite distinctive. It is mainly the creation of years of irrigation of the alluvial fan of the Minjiang the famous Dujiangyan system. The rich soil allows three crops a year: two of rice, and a third of vegetables, and makes it a major source of rice for western China. It was the arbitrary generalisation of this system throughout the province which is said to have led to the collapse of production in 1976, when grain had to be shipped into Sichuan. Rice fits into the agricultural economy in other ways - the straw feeds the water buffalo and provides the thatching for the houses.

Chengdu city (population 3.7 million) is the commercial centre and hub of communications of western Sichuan, specialising in electrical engineering and textiles. The Sichuan basin is underlain by rock-salt (it was formerly a lake), beneath which are great natural gas reservoirs. Chengdu serves as the petrochemical centre for the gasfields around the western edge of the basin. Fur pelts and wool can be seen in the shops and markets, and a lot of timber is processed in the city - these are the products of the western highlands, the grasslands beyond the Qionglai Shan, and the forests of the foothills. Its position as gateway to the West explains the number of Tibetan trucks driving through the streets.

It is also the capital of the province, though its position is peripheral to the economic centre of gravity, a line of industrial conurbations roughly following the Tuojiang between Chengdu and Chongqing.

Further afield

From Chengdu, an overnight train trip of some 504 kilometres through the industrial heartland of the province, brought me to Chongqing. By first light, after a stifling night, the train was running along the northern edge of the Changjiang valley. At this point the river begins to cut into the basin, and the steep slopes of red earth and rock-earth are the fruit bowl of the west, being Sichuan's source of tangerines, oranges, and bananas. Wispy eucalyptuses alternate with mud and stone houses; little valleys and bluffs shelter small coal mines on the one hand, while on the other, glimpses of the misty expanse of the Changjiang offer themselves. These merge all too soon into the urban sprawl. of Chongqing. [Note: Chongqing has since been created a separatte province of China]

Before I could recover from my journey from Chengdu, I found myself climbing the hairpin bends out of the grimy suburbs of Chongqing on the main road west. Higher and higher over the limestone ridge of the Jinggangshan; rocky outcrops and dry valleys with terraces of rice and vegetables and smoke from the numerous lime-kilns at times obscured the road.

Across a broad valley of orange trees - running north-east to south-west, I entered the long Qingmuguan Pass. This is both the boundary of Chongqing City (62 kilometres from the city proper!) and the start of the red sandstone which characterises the area. Beyond, the scenery would be described as 'badlands' - dissected basins, each about 40 kilometres across, and corresponding roughly to the counties; a real geographer's paradise of monadnocks, mesas, scarps, dry valleys and rolling hills, all in the inescapable dull, rusty, muddy red. Even the telegraph poles are frequently made out of thin pillars of sandstone.

Oranges and rice grow where they can, but the farms are scattered. The shopkeepers in the little hamlet where I stopped for relief scurried in amazement to supply our possible needs. Westerners have only been able to pass this way since 1980; few do, and even fewer stop. The county towns I passed through were places of bustle and traffic jams. Astonished inhabitants, young and old, crowded the pavements to see and pressed up against the side of the van. Small-scale commerce and agricultural engineering seemed to be the mainstay of their activities. Brick making is an important rural industry here; the thatched huts for drying the bricks and tiles can be seen all around. After firing, the clay becomes grey.

Dazu is on a plateau gouged by the erosion of the seemingly interminable rain. The landscape is full of terraces, glens and rice paddies intricate as brain coral covering the red sandstone canyons. They were beautiful, quiet places, secluded little worlds holding maybe a water buffalo and ploughman, the only sound being the squelch and wallowing of the stubble being turned in; the occasional shout of 'zhuan' to the buffalo at the end of a furrow, echoing dully from the cliffs. The boldness of the rockfaces is impressive, receding by perspective into the mist and distance, a real-life Chinese painting. Perched on some of the hilltops are old pagodas, growing trees and moss. Little paths and steps wind up from the valleys; women carrying laden baskets and empty ones on bamboo poles pick their way along them and between the paddies. Broad-roofed brown-and-white houses covet the best spots, homesteads in a land of plenty.

Ripening rice and red basin

The German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen gave Red Basin its name when he passed through it in the 1870s. It is broadly speaking the central part of the geomorphologic system of Sichuan. Intense cultivation, although less than in the Chengdu Plain, is permitted by the greenhouse-like cloudy and humid climate. Maximum temperatures in July can exceed 40°C, much higher than in the middle reaches of the Changjiang. The population density, though high, is less than on the Chengdu Plain, and the people are poorer. The area is actually quite low. Hilltops and plateau features are around 500 metres above sea-level and the valley floors only 300; and this 2,500 kilometres inland. The centres of population and industry are compressed along the main rivers, most particularly the Chengdu-Chongqing axis. Heavy industry relies on the five big natural gas-fields around the edge of the basin for production of organic chemicals and fertiliser (Chengdu, Luzhou, Chongqing), oil products (Nanchong), and artificial fibres (Changshou), as well as for a variety of end-uses as energy (including fuel for some urban buses). A system of pipelines now links all the fields and petrochemical plants. Salt extraction gives rise to inorganic chemical production (Zigong), and coal is used mainly for iron and steel production (Chongqing, Zigong, and Yibin). Light industry depends on the area's agriculture. Specialities such as sugar (Neijiang) and cotton (Chongqing) have caused centralised industry to spring up.

Chongqing is the fourth largest city in China with 6.3 million people. It has an atmosphere of commerce and importance, although it certainly isn't a beautiful place. Buildings cling, often precariously, to the sides of the Changjiang and access to the various parts of the city is difficult. The city centre has to be reached through a long and fume-filled tunnel. The city is all up and down; blocks of modern if undistinguished flats, TV aerials, battered buses. But it somehow seems quite European perhaps because it is very much the creation of the modern era, its cosmopolitanism temporarily vanished, and no roots in history.

Corniches wind around the steep sides of the peninsula which forms the city centre between the majestic Changjiang and the Jialing. The shangbancheng, or upper city, stands on the top of this promontory like a citadel. Old buildings which must have seen better days fifty years or more ago line the snaking streets. From the citadel and corniches, long stepped streets and ginnels lead down through the poor areas of wooden houses hugging the rock-face to the xiabanchen (lower town).

Finally, bare cliffs overlook the Changjiang. Sewage tumbles in waterfalls into the river around the wharves where lighters, ferries and steamers are tied up. The wharves are where the importance of the city lies, since before everything else it is a port (opened to foreign shipping in 1890 and again in 1980) and administrative centre for shipping on the upper Changjiang as far as Yibin. Apart from this, it is a centre for a number of major industries: steel, petrochemicals, shipyards, goods vehicle manufacture, metal fabrications, timber mills, textiles... The steelworks is important to the city, but now overshadowed by the Dukou/Panzhihua steel-titanium-vanadium complex in the far south of Sichuan, which is about five times as big.

The new bridge, built in 1977-80, has immensely improved communications with the south bank of the Changjiang, and new developments are beginning there. I was impressed by Chongqing and very surprised at the rehabilitation effected after the flooding of the previous month: little marks inscribed 1981.7.16 were frequently above our heads, yet straw shacks along a few pavements in the lower town were the only evidence of the calamity.


Sichuan is a region of problems and opportunities. The things which help the province also hinder it. Firstly, its sheer isolation has meant that until very recently, it hardly formed part of the national economy. The Changjiang Gorges were only opened last year to 10,000 ton ships, with the completion of the Gezhouba locks and the demolition of the reefs and spurs in the river. It is now possible for bulk goods such as oil to reach Sichuan economically. Even the four trunk railways into the province were only opened between 1958 and 1978, and they are critically vulnerable to natural disasters. Secondly, intensive cultivation throughout Sichuan has destroyed the forest cover. When the seasonal rains arrive, calamitous flooding now takes place almost regularly: major floods occurred in 1974, 1975, and 1981. This causes loss of life and crop damage, and threatens power and communications. Additionally, dam sluices have to be opened to release the water, and, since the province is not yet part of a regional grid, power cuts occur as they did last summer.

Sichuan had a head start over the other inland provinces when complete industries were removed there in the face of the Japanese advance in 1937, but the factors which made it a fortress at the time have slowed its economic development. With its rich agricultural base, however, it is in a good position to take advantage of its new accessibility and adapt to the needs of the whole of China. The problems are now recognised, and the less intractable ones are being solved. Since 1975, new high technology and nuclear industries have been set up, and the province has become a showplace for innovations such as domestic methane production, reformed structures in local government, industry and combines, and others. If the difficulties are overcome realistically with imaginative leadership, and the present dynamic trend in the provincial economy continues, there is every reason to think that Sichuan will stand out in statistics as it does on the map.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 102, Page 22, May 1982.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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