Chengdu might be China’s most underrated city, though its worldwide reputation is slowly catching up to this wonderfully easygoing and exciting city. Chengdu has been a creative hub since its earliest days, with artworks from 33 centuries ago unearthed recently in Jinsha. As the capital one the three kingdoms, Shu, Chengdu has always been Southwest China’s major power. Chengdu is surrounded by high mountains at the base of the Tibetan plateau, connected regionally since 4th century BCE by the shudao, a system of roads cut into the sides of cliffs. Getting to Chengdu wasn’t easy: poet Li Bai famously wrote that it was harder than climbing into the sky. Nowadays, Chengdu is much less isolated, linked to the rest of the world via rail and planes, but continues to produce wordsmiths like Li Bai. Many of China’s lauded writers, scholars, poets, and increasingly, rappers and hip hop artists claim Chengdu as their home.
Chengdu has always been a self-sufficient place that did things its own way. Over 14 million inhabitants make Chengdu China’s 5th most populous city, many who speak the Chengdu version of Sichuanese. The “land of plenty” is also known as the home of pandas, Chengdu face-switching opera, most excellent spicy street food, a thriving culture of tea houses and mahjong, and in the past decade, as an explosive creative center. Several of China’s world-class museums and galleries like the A4 Art Museum and 1000 Plateaus have run for decades in the city, and Art Chengdu’s second edition of their contemporary art fair this year contributes to expanding Chengdu’s visual arts scene. Artist-run spaces like Almost 4, a tiny project space and coffee stand that takes its name from it’s minute square-meterage, work with neighborhood businesses on their residential street to bring contemporary art into unconventional settings. In 2003, four artists rented studios by the Chengdu airport that they named after the constructions’ blue metal roofs. Over the years, the original Blue Roof Art District relocated and expanded on the eastern side of the city, where the Blue Roof Museum now stands and a constellation of artist villages have popped up in the neighboring towns.
Many of Chengdu’s creative spaces bridge communities by combine art, design, bookstores, and music venues, like Nu Space, that has exhibitions upstairs and live music in their downstairs venue. The vibrant music scene runs the gamut of official venues and jam bars where artists hang out and improvise, hanging out over street-side hot pot and chuanchuan until late. Steam Hostel recently launched a video series recording live shows in unconventional settings. Underground clubs and recording studios hide in unassuming apartment buildings, and even the megaclubs in plazas surrounded by skyscrapers give space for artists to create experimental installations, like the Ghost happenings.
Chengdu is expanding quickly, especially southward, where the New Global Center currently claims the record of the world’s largest continuous building, and where software parks and startups set up new headquarters. In 2010, the city’s first subway line opened, growing into a six line network in nearly just as many years. Creative spaces that combine art, design, and technology are also popping up, like the maker space A-Mass that focuses open source technology and fires kilns using everyday materials like ash to make new ceramic glazes.
Chengdu’s known for its chill, relaxed and fun-loving vibe. Chengdu is also one of China’s most queer-friendly cities, embracing a “live and let live” attitude where everyone can thrive. With deep spiritual ties to Tibetan buddhism through surrounding sacred sites like E’mei mountain and the world’s largest stone buddha, and proximity to bountiful bamboo forests, Chengdu is also one of China’s most liveable cities, with beautiful riverbanks and parks cutting through the city.
This city guide video was filmed by Jessica Kingdon & Kira Simon-Kennedy, edited by Li-Lian Alhskog-Hou. This guide is written and produced by Kira Simon-Kennedy, with edits and additional translation by Amanda Zhang.
- Wu Zhuoling 吴卓玲
- Bohan Phoenix
- Cai Liyuan 蔡丽媛 of the A4 Art Museum & residency
- Artworks by 陈秋林 Chen Qiuling from her exhibition Peppermint
- Artworks by 100KM 100 公里 collective
- Jiang Shan 江山
- A-Mass Studio 一门社
- Nu Space
Many thanks to all our friends in Chengdu for sharing their takes on the city they call home, and to the British Council China for their support in developing these resources. Like all of our resources, this guide is a work-in-progress and will be updated regularly. Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and recommendations!