Sìchuān’s early history was turbulent. The region was the site of various breakaway kingdoms, ever skirmishing with central authority, but it was finally wrested under control and established as the capital of the Qin empire in the 3rd century BC. 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).

During the Warring States period (475–221 BC), local governor and famed engineer Li Bing managed to harness the flood-prone Mín River (岷江; Mín Jiāng) on the Chuānxī plain with his revolutionary weir system; the Dūjiāngyàn Irrigation Project still controls flooding, and supplies Chéngdū and 49 other provincial cities with water 2200 years after it was constructed. It’s one of the reasons the Sìchuān basin is synonymous with fertile soil.

Another more recent factor was the efforts of Zhao Ziyang, the Party Secretary of Sìchuān in 1975. After the Great Leap Forward, when an estimated 10% of Sìchuān’s population died of starvation, Ziyang became the driving force behind agricultural and economic reforms that restored farming output. He reinstated the ‘Responsibility System’, whereby plots of land were granted to farming families on the proviso that they sold a quota of crops to the state. Any additional profits or losses would be borne by the families. This household-focused approach was so successful that it became the national model. Sìchuān continues to be a major producer of the nation’s grain, soybeans and pork.

Catastrophe struck the region on 12 May 2008, when the Wènchuān earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit the province’s central region. Some sources reported it killed more than 88,000 people, as many as 10,000 of them school children, and left millions more injured or homeless. The trillion-yuan aid and rebuilding effort continues in the remote, mountainous areas. The main road linking Chéngdū with Jiǔzhàigōu took four years to reopen, and now travellers on that route will see brand-new villages rising from the rubble. In the areas surrounding the city of Wènchuān, the earthquake's epicentre, significant damage is still apparent nearly a decade on.