/sech"wahn", sech"ooh ahn'/; Chin. /su"chwahn"/, n.
Sichuan. Also, Szechuan.

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Chinese (Wade-Giles)  Ssu-ch'uan,  (Pinyin)  Sichuan,  
      sheng (province) of China. It is located in the Upper Yangtze Valley in the southwestern part of the country. The second largest of the Chinese provinces, it covers an area of 220,100 square miles (570,000 square kilometres). Szechwan is bordered by the provinces of Kansu and Shensi to the north, Hupeh and Hunan to the east, and Kweichow and Yunnan to the south and by the Tibet Autonomous Region to the west and the province of Tsinghai to the northwest. It is the most populous province in China. The name Szechwan means “Four Streams” and refers to the four main tributaries of the Yangtze River, which flows through the province. The capital, Ch'eng-tu, is located in the centre of the province.

      From economic, political, geographical, and historical points of view, the heart and nerve centre of Szechwan (Sichuan Basin) is in the eastern basin area, commonly known as the Szechwan, or Red, Basin. Its mild and humid climate, fertile soil, and abundant mineral and forestry resources make it one of the most prosperous and economically self-sufficient regions of China. The area has been seen by some as China in a microcosm and is often viewed as a country within a country. The Chinese call the basin Tien Fu Chih Kuo, which literally means “Heaven on Earth.”

Physical and human geography
The land
      Szechwan is bordered on all sides by lofty highlands. To the north, the Tsinling Mountains (Qin Mountains) extend from east to west and attain an elevation between 11,000 and 13,000 feet (3,300 and 4,000 metres) above sea level. The limestone Ta-pa Mountains (Daba Mountains) rise to approximately 9,000 feet on the northeast, while the Ta-lou Mountains, a lower and less continuous range, with an average elevation of 5,000 to 7,000 feet, border the south. To the west, the Ta-hsüeh Mountains (Daxue Mountains) of the Tibetan borderland—rise to an average elevation of 14,500 feet; to the east, the rugged Wu Mountains, rising to about 6,500 feet, contain the spectacular Yangtze Gorges.

      In general, the relief of the eastern region of the province is in sharp contrast to that of the west. The extensive Szechwan Basin and its peripheral highlands predominate in the east; the land slopes toward the centre of the basin from all directions. This basin was a gulf of the China Sea in the later Paleozoic Era from 570,000,000 to 225,000,000 years ago; most of it is underlain by soft sandstones and shales that range in colour from red to purple.

      Within the basin, the surface is extremely uneven and gives a general appearance of badland topography. Numerous low, isolated, and rolling hills are interspersed with well-defined high ridges, floodplains, valley flats, and small, local basins. The most impressive portion of the basin's surface is the Ch'eng-tu Plain—the only large continuous tract of relatively flat land in the province.

      The landforms of western Szechwan include a plateau in the north and mountains in the south. The northern area is part of the edge of the Plateau of Tibet (Tibet, Plateau of), which consists of highlands above 12,000 feet and higher mountain ranges. There is also an extensive plateau and some swampland. To the south the transverse mountain belt of eastern Tibet and western Yunnan Province rises to an average of between 9,000 and 10,000 feet. Trending from north to south is a series of parallel lofty ranges with narrow divides and canyons more than a mile deep. Mount Kung-k'a (Minya Konka) in the Ta-hsüeh range, is the highest peak in the province, rising to a height of 24,790 feet.

      Seen from the air, the principal drainage pattern of the eastern section of the province has the appearance of a leaf with a network of veins. The Yangtze (Yangtze River)—flowing from west to east—is conspicuous as its midrib, and the main north and south tributaries appear as its branch veins. Especially important are the Chia-ling (Jialing River) and Min river systems in the north and the Wu river system in the southeast. The distribution of these veins is primarily concentrated in the upper, or northern, half of the leaf.

      The four main tributaries of the Yangtze, to which the name Szechwan refers, are the Min, T'o, Chia-ling, and Fou rivers, which flow from north to south. Most of the major streams flow to the south, cutting steep gorges in the west or widening their valley floors in the soft sediments of the Szechwan Basin; they then empty into the Yangtze before it slices its precipitous gorge through the Wu River below Wan-hsien. Within the basin most of the rivers are navigable and are a common means of transportation.

      There are six major soil regions—three in the east and three in the west. In the east, they include the highly fertile, purple-brown forest soils for which the Red Basin is named. This group of soils rapidly absorbs and loses water, so that it erodes easily. The other eastern soils consist of the noncalcareous alluvium and rice-paddy soils of the Ch'eng-tu Plain and other river valleys and the yellow earths of the highlands and ridges. The alluvial soils are the most important group agriculturally, as they are very fertile and are formed mainly from the rich black soils washed down from the Tibetan borderlands. The yellow earths are usually gray-brown in colour, are generally less fertile, and are agriculturally unimportant. The three major groups of soils in the west are the degenerated chernozem (dark-coloured soils containing deep, rich humus) soils of the Sung-p'an grassland, the alluvial soils of the numerous valleys, and the podzolized (leached), gray-brown soils of the mountain slopes.

      In Szechwan a form of soil erosion known as soil creep has developed. On hillsides where the surface slopes are composed of smooth sandstones, the covering soil gradually slides downward under the influence of gravity. In many places the thin surface soils have been completely removed, leaving only bare rocks. When the surface rock is composed of comparatively rougher shales, the soil is less easily moved.

      The eastern basin area and the lower western valleys are sheltered from cold polar air masses by the surrounding mountains. The climate is therefore milder than would be expected and is similar to that of the Yangtze Delta region. There are more than 300 frost-free days in the eastern basin, and the growing season lasts nearly all year round. In the west, the sheltering effect of the mountains is evident from the contrast between the perennially snow-capped peaks and the mild weather prevailing in the valleys beneath them. During the summer, in the month of July, the mean temperature is about 84° F (29° C) at Chungking in the southeast and less than 68° F (20° C) in most parts of the west. During the winter the mean temperature in the west decreases northward from 54° F (12° C) in Hsi-ch'ang to 18° F (−8° C) in Ch'ien-ning.

      The eastern rainy season begins in April and reaches its peak during July and August. Annual rainfall and precipitation measures about 40 inches (1,020 millimetres) annually. The east is noted for its frequent fogs, its many cloudy days, the relative absence of wind, and the high relative humidity. The extent to which the region is overcast is reflected in the saying, “Szechwan dogs bark when they see the Sun.” Precipitation is lower in the west than in the east. The average total of about 20 inches falls mainly during the summer and early autumn, and there is heavy snowfall in the mountains during the winter.

Plant and animal life
      There are four major vegetation regions—the pine-cypress-banyan-bamboo association of the basin area, the dense mixed association of coniferous and deciduous trees in the eastern highlands, the grasslands of the northwest, and the dense coniferous forests of the western highlands. Its great altitudinal differences, low latitudinal position, diversified topography, and high rainfall make the area what has been called a paradise for botanists. Extensive forests grow on the upper slopes, and rich rhododendrons are found at higher elevations; arid vegetation prevails on many canyon floors.

      One of the outstanding features of vegetation of Szechwan Province is its division into vertically differentiated zones. Cypress, palm, pine, bamboo, tung, and citrus fruit trees grow below 2,000 feet, while between 2,000 and 5,000 feet there are evergreen forests and oaks. From 5,000 to 8,000 feet the vegetation is characterized by dense groves of mixed coniferous trees. Between 8,500 and 11,500 feet there is a subalpine zone of coniferous forest, while above 11,500 feet there are alpine zones of scrub and meadow up to the snow line, which occurs at 16,000 feet. One of the unique vegetational features is the presence of the dawn redwood, or Metasequoia—a tree previously believed to be extinct.

      Two of the most interesting indigenous animal species are the hsiung-mao (lesser panda, or bear cat) and the ling yang (a special species of antelope). Both inhabit the highlands of western Szechwan, and both have become endangered because of overcutting of their diet.

Settlement patterns
      As one of the most densely populated provinces of China, Szechwan may be compared to the Yangtze Delta and the North China Plain. The population, however, is unevenly distributed, with most of the population concentrated in the eastern part of the province. The majority of the population is rural. There are comparatively few large villages and nucleated hamlets, except for the provincial and prefectural capitals. In the hilly regions, farmsteads are scattered through generally small and irregular terraced fields. In the Ch'eng-tu Plain the larger field units are commonly square or oblong in shape, and the farmsteads are surrounded by groves of banyan, cypress, mimosa, palm, or bamboo.

      Most urban settlements give the appearance of being compactly built. Generally, the houses have only one story. There are no yards or sidewalks in front of the houses, which abut streets that are narrow and often are paved with limestone slabs. One of the outstanding features of urban settlement is the concentration of cities on river terraces, notably along the Yangtze River. Because water transportation is vital, large cities are always found wherever two major streams converge. Chungking, located at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Chia-ling rivers, is the largest city of the province and the most important trading, transportation, industrial, and cultural centre of southwestern China. Other such cities include Lu-chou on the Yangtze and the T'o rivers and Lo-shan on the Ta-tu and the Min. The principal disadvantage of these urban sites is that their areas are limited by their locations, so that development is hindered; the hazards of flooding are always a problem. Ch'eng-tu, the provincial capital and Szechwan's second largest city, is located in the centre of the Ch'eng-tu Plain.

The people
      Szechwan Province has one of the most diversified ranges of ethnic groups in all China, including Han (Chinese), Yi, Tibetans, Miao, T'u-chia, Hui (Chinese Muslims), and Ch'iang peoples. Most of the Han—who comprise the major part of the population—live in the basin region of the east. The Yi reside in the Liang-shan-i-tsu Autonomous Prefecture of the southwest, while the Tibetans (Tibetan) are distributed in the plateau region of the west. The Miao live in the mountains of the southwest near Kweichow and Yunnan provinces. The Hui are concentrated in the Sung-p'an grassland of the northwest and are also scattered in a number of districts in the east. The Ch'iang are concentrated in the Mao-wen area on both banks of the Min River.

      The majority of the non-Han ethnic groups are fiercely independent and have maintained their traditional way of life. In most cases, they practice a mixture of agriculture, animal husbandry, and hunting. Among the Han there has been an influx of people from various neighbouring provinces, particularly from Hupeh and Shensi. This immigration was especially intensified in the early part of the 18th century, as a result of the massacre of the people of Szechwan by a local warlord. The immigrants brought with them agricultural techniques that are reflected in the heterogeneity of present cultivation patterns.

      There are three major linguistic groups: the Han, who speak Southern Mandarin; the Tibeto-Burman group, including the Tibetans and the Yi; and the Hui, who speak Southern Mandarin but use Turkish or Arabic in their religious services. The Han practice a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They do not maintain rigid boundaries in religious belief. The Tibetans follow their own form of Buddhism. Many people in the northwest profess Islām, while some hill tribes of the southwest may be classified as animistic. All the religious communities suffered increasingly severe proscriptions culminating in the Cultural Revolution, but a limited toleration of religion has since been instituted as government policy.

The economy
      Szechwan Province has a varied economy based on agriculture, forestry, mineral deposits, and diversified branches of industry.

      Mineral deposits are abundant and varied. They include both metallic and nonmetallic deposits, such as iron, copper, aluminum, platinum, nickel, cobalt, lead and zinc, salt, coal, petroleum, antimony, phosphorus, asbestos, and marble. The production of brine salt is the most extensive mining activity. Petroleum and natural gas are often located together and are widely spread throughout the province, especially in the Tzu-kung area. Natural gas deposits are also being exploited in the Pa-hsien area and elsewhere. Natural gas has been used for centuries in the production of brine salt. Most coalfields are located in the eastern and southern mountain areas; those of the Hua-ying Mountains are the richest. The most important iron deposits are along the southern and western plateau areas; those of the western sector are of high-quality titaniferous magnetite associated with vanadium. Some placer gold is panned along the Chin-sha (“Gold Sand”) River. Other valuable minerals include tin and sulfur.

      Most of the population of the province earn their livelihood from agriculture, and most of the provincial exports are agricultural products. Cultivation is characterized by the diversity of crops, intensive land use, the extensive practice of terracing, irrigation, the cultivation of tsai-sheng-tao (or “rebirth” rice), and the special methods of soil culture, fertilization, composting, and crop rotation.

      The basin area of eastern Szechwan is extensively terraced and is often known as a “land of 1,000,000 steps.” The terraces are of varying dimensions, commonly long narrow strips of land that frequently have rather steep slopes. They are easy to construct because the bedrock is soft and weathers easily. Even 45-degree slopes have tiny steps of terraced land. Irrigation is widely practiced in the terraced fields, and numerous methods and devices are employed. Among the most spectacular is the Tu Chiang-yen system of the Ch'eng-tu Plain, which captures the torrential flow of the Min River and guides it through an artificial multiplication of channels into numerous distributaries along the gently graded plain. Annual dredging keeps the river level constant. The system is not only the oldest but also the most successful and easily maintained irrigation system in China. It has freed the plain from the hazard of floods and droughts and ensured the agricultural prosperity of the basin. A special landscape feature of the eastern basin is the tung-shui-t'ien (literally “winter water-storage field”) system, in which large tracts of terraced fields are left fallow during the winter season and are used for the storage of water that is needed in the paddy fields in the spring; from the air they resemble a mosaic of broken mirrors.

      Crops range from those of subtropical climates to those of the cool temperate zone. Although Szechwan is generally classified as a rice region, it is also a leading producer of such crops as corn (maize), sweet potatoes, wheat, rapeseed, kaoliang (a variety of grain sorghum), barley, soybeans, millet, and hemp and other fibre crops. Tropical fruits—such as litchi and citrus—grow together with the apples and pears of cool temperate climates. Other principal cash crops include sugarcane, peanuts (groundnuts), cotton, tobacco, silkworm cocoons, and tea.

      Szechwan leads the nation in the total number of its cattle and pigs. It is the only region in China in which both water buffalo of South China and oxen of North China are found together. Pig bristles from Szechwan have been an important item of foreign trade for years. About half of the inhabitants of the west are pastoral. Their animals include cattle, sheep, horses, donkeys, and yaks.

      Szechwan is second only to China's Northeast as a lumber region. Valuable forests are located in the east, on the peripheral highlands that surround the basin area, and on the numerous hills within the basin. Western Szechwan still has much of its original forest cover. The most important products from the forests are tung oil, white wax, and various kinds of herbs.

      There has been considerable industrial development since the 1950s, and Szechwan has become the most industrialized province of southwestern China. The most important industries include iron and copper smelting, the production of machinery and electric power, coal mining, petroleum refining, and the manufacture and processing of chemicals, textiles, and food. Chungking is the principal industrial centre, although industry in the other large cities of the province is also important. Szechwan is also known for its cottage industries; it has a long history of silk production. Other products include handwoven cloth, embroidery, porcelain, carved stone, and silver and copper items.

      Among the problems facing the province, none is more important and more acute than that of transportation. For centuries, travel into or out of the province has been extremely difficult; the main entrances to it were the dangerous Yangtze Gorges in the east, a treacherous plank road across the mountains in the north, and the deep canyons and swift currents of the Ta-tu and Chin-sha rivers in the west. Since the 1950s great efforts have been made to improve transportation. Dangerous shoals along the Yangtze Gorges routes have been removed by blasting, a railway has been built across the northern mountains, and steel bridges have been constructed over rivers in the west.

      Water routes are the most important means of transportation. Of the approximately 300 streams in the province, the Yangtze River is the most significant, traversing the entire width of the basin from the southwest to the northeast. It is the spinal cord of the river transportation system. In the west, water transport is difficult and limited except for the lower reaches of the An-ning and Ta-tu rivers.

      Railways are important for the transport of bulky products. Since the 1950s railway construction has included the Ch'eng-tu–Pao-chi railroad—the first to cross the Tsinling range—which connects with the principal east–west Lung-hai Railway and thus links Szechwan to both northwest and coastal China; and the Ch'eng-tu–Chungking railroad, which links the Ch'eng-tu Plain with the Yangtze River.

      The thoroughly dissected terrain and the easily weathered rock structures of the province have made the construction and maintenance of highways costly and hazardous because of the constant threat of landslides, the presence of numerous steep slopes and hairpin turns, and the necessity of constructing many solid embankments. Ch'eng-tu and Chungking form the two principal highway centres. Major highway routes connect with bordering provinces in the north, Hupeh in the east, Kweichow and Yunnan in the south, and Tibet in the west. Within the province, the most important highways are the Ch'eng-tu–Chungking route and the Ch'eng-tu–Wan-hsien route.

      The province's first commercial air service began in 1937. Since then, commercial flying has grown steadily. Ch'eng-tu is the principal air transportation centre, and Chungking is also a major hub.

Administration and social conditions
      In 1955, former Sikang Province at the edge of the Plateau of Tibet was incorporated into Szechwan Province, doubling its area. The province is divided into six prefecture-level municipalities (shih), nine prefectures (ti-ch'ü), and three autonomous prefectures (tzu-chih-chou). The province is further divided into counties (hsien), autonomous counties (tzu-chih-hsien), county-level municipalities (shih), and the so-called industrial-agricultural districts (kung-nung-ch'ü). They are the most important administrative units because it is through them that the government exercises control.

      The autonomous prefectures are the A-pa Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, with its headquarters at Ma-erh-k'ang; the Kan-tzu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, with its capital at K'ang-ting; and the Liang-shan-i-tsu Autonomous Prefecture with its capital at Hsi-ch'ang. As a rule, the autonomous prefectures represent little more than a symbolic cultural indulgence of local minorities. The actual control of the units is exercised by the central government at Ch'eng-tu. The ethnic groups, however, enjoy their own mode of life and preserve their language and cultural traditions with a minimum of interference by the Han-controlled provincial government.

      Szechwan Province was a leader in the economic reform movement that began in the late 1970s, introducing innovative policies such as the one that linked farmers' incomes to actual output. Three counties in the province became the first areas to dissolve communes, a practice that soon spread nationwide.

      Szechwan has many institutions of higher education, nine of which are “key” schools for training China's most talented students. These are Szechwan University, Ch'eng-tu University of Science and Technology, Ch'eng-tu Institute of Telecommunication Engineering, and Szechwan Medical College (all in Ch'eng-tu); Chungking University, Chungking Agricultural Engineering Institute, Southwest Agriculture Institute, and the Southwest Institute of Political Science and Law (all in Chungking); and Southwest China Chiao-t'ung University (in O-mei).

Health and welfare
      The warm and wet climate of most of the province makes respiratory ailments a major health problem. Because of the severe pressure of the people on the land, the farmers of Szechwan must work extremely hard to eke out a living. The farmers of the Ch'eng-tu Plain are the most prosperous and have the highest standard of living. Rural life is harder in the hills surrounding the basin, and the standard of living is considerably lower in the west, where pastoral activities predominate. In the western mountains, many of the people migrate seasonally from the lowlands to the highlands in search of pasturage.

Cultural life
      Ch'eng-tu has always played a vital role in the cultural and intellectual life of Szechwan. The city is a haven for intellectuals and scholars, and—with its heavy traffic, rich nightlife, and luxurious surroundings—is sometimes called the “Little Paris” of China.

      The unique form of architecture of the eastern basin is characterized by projecting eaves, gracefully curved roofs, and rich, elaborate roof ornaments. Because there is little wind and practically no snow in the basin, these fragile and extraordinarily beautiful structures and decorations can safely be constructed. The frequent misty rains make it necessary to project the roof eaves over the walls to protect them from the rain.

      Apart from the Upper Huang Ho (Yellow River) Valley provinces, Szechwan was the first area of China to be settled by the Han. The first organized Han migration took place in the 5th century BC. Szechwan was known as the Shu Pa territory during the Chou dynasty (1111–255 BC). During the Ch'in Dynasty (221–206 BC) the territory was incorporated within the Ch'in Empire and began to assume considerable importance in China's national life. It was at this time that the Tu Chiang-yen irrigation system was built. In the time of the San-kuo (Three Kingdoms; AD 220–280) the Szechwan region constituted the Shu kingdom. From the end of this period until the 10th century, Szechwan was known by various names and administered through various political subdivisions. During the Sung dynasty (AD 960–1279) it was known as Szechwan Lu (Szechwan Province). Szechwan was established as a province during the Ch'ing, or Manchu, dynasty (1644–1911/12).

      During the early years of the Chinese republic (1911–30) Szechwan suffered seriously from the feudal warlord system; at one time it was divided into as many as 17 independent military units, and not until 1935 was it unified under the Nationalist government. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45 there was a great influx of people and new ideas from coastal China, which resulted in extensive economic development. Many factories and trading posts were moved from the coastal area into Szechwan, and a number of industrial centres were established, especially in Chungking and at Ch'eng-tu.

      Because of its geographic isolation, inaccessibility, extensive area, large population, and virtual economic self-sufficiency, Szechwan has served periodically as a bastion in its own right. The area is easily defensible, and geography has encouraged political separatism. During the war with Japan, the province was the seat of the Nationalist government from 1938 to 1945; the Japanese were never able to penetrate the area.

Charles Y. Hu Yueh-Gin Gung Hu Robert Lee Suettinger Ed.

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Universalium. 2010.

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