Malcolm Moore, The Daily Telegraph, September 20, 2013
"If cities were people, Chengdu would be a happy drifter with a complete lack of ambition. Chengdu’s soft dialect melts your ear. It’s said it can make a person’s anger dissolve instantly. Chengdu people are famous idlers. Feet stretched out in a rattan chair with a glass of tea, or at the mahjong table, their lives are a fleeting dusk."
From 'Leave me Alone’, a novel by Murong Xuecun
At the teahouse behind the Great Mercy Temple, Shen Xulu’s eyes shine brightly as he tells one of his favourite stories from Chengdu’s history. It is about a battle from 1,805 years ago, when Chengdu was the capital of the kingdom of Shu and fighting for its survival.
The wiry 70-year-old pensioner, himself a former soldier posted on the border between India and Tibet, sits on the edge of his bamboo chair as he tells the tale, tapping the table to underline the key moments and playing out the cut and thrust of war with his arms.
“After the battle, the king was routed and split from his wife and child,” says Mr Shen. “One of his generals went to find them and he strapped the infant to his chest under his breastplate.
“Seven times he charged the enemy before breaking through their lines! Finally he returned the boy to the king. But the king threw the child on the ground, cursing that his general’s life had been risked. The general was deeply moved. This is what we think of as loyalty.”
Behind Mr Shen, the courtyard is filled with the hum of dozens of other conversations, the crackling of newspaper pages and the gurgle of hot water being poured into the Chinese tea cups on every table.
A game of cards at the Daci Temple teahouse
An easy rhythm settles over the teahouse. As the mint-green Thermos flasks on each table are poured, puffs of steam rise up and catch the sun filtering down through the long swathes of dark-green canvas hung above for shade.
“We come here every day,” chip in two other pensioners, holding up their bus passes and using the lids of their tea cups to stir up the pale-green leaves. “It is relaxing. We are neighbours and we have been drinking tea together for 30 years.”
At the temple in front of the teahouse, Buddhists chant prayers and light hundreds of tea lights. A stall offers a chance to contribute to the Chinese equivalent of the fund for the church roof: £3 buys a tile for the renovation and a chance to paint your name in scarlet on the under side.
The daily ritual of stopping in at a teahouse to meet friends and pick up gossip began in Chengdu at least 1,000 years ago and little has changed: there has always been a teahouse on every corner.
Talking shop at the Shunxing teahouse
The era of the Three Kingdoms (Shu was central, with Wei to the north and Wu to the south) is Chengdu’s equivalent of Arthurian legend, an age of dashing knights and epic battles, of cavalry charges and siege towers.
Today, on the eve of British Airways’ first direct flight to Chengdu, pandas are the city’s main attraction. The breeding base is just a short taxi ride away, and it is worth going at dawn when China’s “national treasures” are most active.
There are panda stickers on the green taxis, panda hats and plush toys in every tourist area, and even strange and avant-garde public sculptures, interpretations of pandas in steel and bronze.
But while pandas are guaranteed to please families, it is worth stepping back along the vivid arc of Chengdu’s history. Much, of course, has been destroyed, both by the madnesses of Chairman Mao and then by the modern madnesses of the city’s economic boom.
“The old palace of Shu used to stand in the centre of the city,” says Mr Shen. But then the Cultural Revolution broke out. “I remember when they knocked it down. It was August 1967, and I was on leave from the army, visiting home.
The gardens of the Wuhou shrine
“They smashed it and built a memorial hall for Chairman Mao. The moat around the palace was turned into an air-raid shelter. Most of us felt ashamed of the destruction. If we still had it, it would have been a real marvel, a smaller version of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.”
A few years later, the old city walls were also torn down, another relic of the past deemed useless by the Maoists. What the Red Guards left untouched has been reconfigured more recently, transforming ancient lanes into wide boulevards, lined with shining towers of glass and steel.
One of the only remaining old lanes in the city sits off Shuijing Road, behind the towering Shangri-La hotel and close to an ancient distillery.
Outside, the residents play cards on small tables under the eaves of their ancient, and crumbling, buildings. But above them, a red banner spells out their future: “Be the first to sign away your lease, get your pick of the new apartments.”
In the heart of the city, one remnant from the kingdom of Shu has become a major attraction. The Wuhou shrine is 400,000sq ft of soft mossy mounds, osmanthus blossom, rockeries full of bonsai trees and ceremonial halls that celebrate the architect of Shu’s golden era, Zhuge Liang. Walking down a long vermilion-walled corridor, shaded by tall bamboo on both sides, you reach a pavilion holding a golden statue of Zhuge Liang, holding his trademark fan of long feathers. The balustrade posts outside are topped with symbols of prosperity: carved stone pumpkins, pomegranates and the strange Chinese fruit called Buddha’s Hand.
If the inside of the Wuhou shrine has been carefully maintained, the streets outside have been made into a tacky tourist trap. The buildings in Jinli alley look charmingly ancient, but one houses a teahouse offering Russian pole dancing displays while another sells fried chicken.
Chengdu residents like to snack
Still, the alley is worth braving for the stalls down one part which sell Chengdu street snacks: cold rice jelly noodles topped with chilli and peanuts, steamed savoury cakes and barbecued skewers.
The key to the strength of the Shu was its “abundance of wheat and rice” and the Sichuan basin remains China’s breadbasket today. Chengdu’s obsession with eating has been refined over the millennia to the point where the city was named, in 2010, as Asia’s first “city of gastronomy”, beating Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore.
In any part of the city there are carts selling dumplings on the street, or small holes in the wall serving anything from dou hua, smooth “flowery” bean curd drizzled in chilli and crushed spices, to roasted rabbit heads.
In the morning, locals gulp down boiled dumplings bobbing in bowls of red chilli oil or bowls of noodles topped with minced pork.
“People from Chengdu love to eat dumplings, fried buns and noodles, no particular reason why, they are just tasty,” said Xi Zhonglian, a 56-year-old noodle seller who runs a small eight-table restaurant. “We don’t actually have a name for our place,” he added. “We just call it 'Authentic Searing Noodles’.”
At the Long Chaoshou, or Dragon’s Dumpling restaurant on Chunxi Road, climb the stairs to the second floor, where for around £10, the waitresses will deliver a banquet of tiny dishes, each one filled with a Chengdu delicacy. Or try the Old Shunxing teahouse with its grey slate floors and dark wood tables, where again an array of the city’s finest dishes is on offer, as is the chance to try a Sichuan-style ear cleaning, and a rather less compelling floor show of dancing and Sichuan opera.
Better to sit, eat and chat, like the locals. Life in Chengdu is timeless, as Mr Shen says. “They were very civilised and elegant back in the time of Shu, and the people of Chengdu are the same today. We would rather talk than fight.”
Additional reporting by Adam Wu
Malcolm Moore is the Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent