Not until 1986, with a major archaeological discovery of the late-Shang dynasty culture of Shu at Sānxīngduī, was the Sìchuān basin’s importance to Chinese history fully realized. Never really a backwater as long assumed, the region’s rough land (if not fiery food) perhaps giving rise to a rough character of people, it has been the site of various breakaway kingdoms, ever skirmishing with central authority. It was finally wrestled into control and established as the capital of the Qin empire in the 3rd century BC and it was here that the kingdom of Shu (a name by which the province is still known) ruled as an independent state during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220–80). The Kuomintang spent its last days in Sìchuān before being vanquished and fleeing to Taiwan; and most recently Chóngqìng split from Sìchuān when it was promoted to the status of Municipality in 1997.
During the Warring States period (475–221 BC) a famed engineer, Li Bing, managed to harness the Du River (Dū Hé) on the Chuānxī plain with his weir system, allowing Sìchuān some 2200 continuous years of irrigation and prosperity. No exaggeration – this breadbasket region in no small part helped unify (and feed) the nation. Sadly, the Great Leap Forward dealt Sìchuān an especially cruel blow: it’s believed that one in 10 people starved.
In 1975 Zhao Ziyang, governor of Sìchuān and the province’s first Communist Party secretary, became the driving force behind the agriculture and economic reforms that put Sìchuān back on the map (Zhao was also the CCP’s national general secretary from 1987 to 1989 before he fell from grace and into lifelong house arrest for opposing the use of troops during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations). His system (the ‘Responsibility System’), whereby plots of land were let out to individual farmers on the proviso that a portion of the crops be sold back to the government, was so successful that it became the national model and was later applied to the industrial sector. As of 2006, this fertile land of ‘Heaven’s Granary’ was still producing over 10% of the nation’s grain, soybeans, pork, and more.