In discussing what is now sometimes called the Ba-Shu culture it is important to remember that originally the Ba and Shu were peoples of differing customs, ethnicity, and history. During the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) they came to inhabit neighboring areas in the Sichuan Basin: the Ba in the east (today’s Chongqing environs) and the Shu to the west (today’s Chengdu environs). Geography linked their cultures and these accelerated as both were absorbed into the unified Chinese empire of the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties whose customs including the language and writing became dominant. Interestingly, as will be described below, distinctions in character between the inhabitants of what once were the Ba and Shu kingdoms do continue to be noted.  

More information about the Shu people survives in ancient documents and lore than about the Ba. Their homeland was supposed to be in the north central region of today’s Sichuan province, in the upper reaches of the Min River and their earliest ruler was the semi-legendary Cancong who lived in a stone chamber in that locale. Described as having protruding eyes Cancong can be associated with the Bronze Age culture of Sanxingdui (1700–1150 BCE) which features images with such eyes, although this site lies south of the upper reaches of the Min, closer to area where the Shu people gradually moved, the Chengdu Plain. There a Shu Kingdom ruled by a series of yet more semi-legendary kings called Boguan, Yufu, and Duyu was established. This would appear to coincide with the time that Shu people are recorded in the Warring States period Shu jing (Book of documents) as participating as allies of King Wu (r. 1046–1043 BCE) at the Battle of Muye (ca. 1046 BCE) as he defeated the last Shang king and established the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–256 BCE). Around 666 BCE a person called Bieling or Kaiming established a dynasty which centered its rule in Chengdu and made the Shu kingdom dominant in the western Sichuan Basin. He was said to have come from Chu kingdom to the east and is regarded by some scholars as semi-legendary and others as truly historical; his ethnic connection to the Shu people is unclear. In any case, the Kaiming dynasty continued in power until Shu’s conquest by the Qin state in 316 BCE, with some members of the dynasty playing a role in the government during the early years of Qin rule.    

The earliest references to the Ba people associate them with the Han River, a Yangtze tributary and also mention them as being allies (like the Shu) of King Wu (of the Zhou) as he overthrew the Shang (ca. 1600–ca. 1100 BCE). During the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), the Ba people were mainly active in the Jianghan Plain, the region in Hubei near the confluence of the Yangtze and Han rivers where they fought numerous battles with the Chu people. In the Warring States period, with the growing power of the Chu state, the Ba people migrated westward to today’s Chongqing area, establishing the Ba kingdom thus consolidating an east-west division of Ba and Shu in the Sichuan Basin. The culture of the Ba and that of the Shu quickly merged and formed the “Ba-Shu culture” as referred to as in archaeology as well as by some cultural historians.

In 316 BCE, Qin, with the aid of Ba conquered Shu. It then annexed Ba. Shu and Ba commanderies were established in the formerly independent kingdoms as part of the Qin state and then the Qin dynasty. Succeeding the Qin, the Han dynasty continued this practice. Thereafter Ba and Shu became a geographical concept. Over time this model of Shu and Ba, sometimes with Shu being the name of an independent entity persisted until the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) when Sichuan province, primarily comprised of Ba and Shu was created as an administrative unit. This continued in varying form until 1997 when the Chongqing region was detached from Sichuan province to create the Chongqing Municipality. Today Chongqing Municipality and Sichuan province mirror the ancient divisions of Ba and Shu and the region is often referred to as the Ba-Shu area.

From the standpoint of the Central Plain of the Yellow River which viewed itself as the cradle of Chinese civilization, the Ba-Shu culture of the far southwest was of little importance. However, the complex developmental roots of China are now better understood through archaeological discoveries as well as the reevaluation of sources originating from the Central Plain. The long history and splendid culture of the Ba and Shu people of the Sichuan Basin is no less important than those of other regions in the formation of Chinese culture. Indeed it is an integral part of the pluralistic structure of Chinese civilization. From the early Bronze Age exemplified by the bronze and jade finds at Sanxingdui and Jinsha in the Chengdu Plain through later periods when the Sichuan Basin was a place noted for its advanced technology as shown by its Dujiangyan irrigation system and its Zigong salt wells, the Ba-Shu region impacted China. With regard to philosophy and religion, there was saying about the “Changes tradition in Shu” pointing to the importance of the Classic of Changes in Shu, and there are also many developments in Daoism associated with this place. Furthermore the earliest form of banknote (jiaozi), a form of paper currency appeared in the tenth century in Chengdu. Among the famous individuals native to this region are the noted writers Sima Xiangru (179–117 BCE); Su Xun (1009–1066) and his two sons, Su Shi (1037–1101) and Su Zhe (1039–1112); and Ba Jin 1904–2005) as well as the painter Zhang Daqian (1899–1983).  

Strictly speaking, the notion of Ba-Shu culture in fact includes two concepts. One is the more than a millennium old culture of ancient Shu and Ba peoples of the period starting from Shang-Zhou to the Warring States period. The other is the Ba-Shu culture based on its geographical characteristics, which started from the Han dynasty and continues to today, spanning a period of over 2,000 years. The former Ba-Shu culture is mainly of an archaeological nature, as seen in the early Bronze Age Sanxingdui culture of the Chengdu area and the Warring States Fuling Xiaotianxi tombs of the Chongqing area. Although this early Ba-Shu culture vanished to some extent as the Qin vanquished Ba and Shu, it laid the foundation of the later Ba-Shu culture of the imperial era. The latter Ba-Shu culture is a fusion of different aspects of Chinese culture which gradually entered the region. Since the Ba-Shu region is located in the Sichuan Basin and is surrounded by mountains, which form a relatively closed circuit, its natural conditions are quite favorable. On numerous occasions in history, the area became a refuge for certain individuals as well as a stronghold for some political factions. Examples include: Emperor Gaozu (256–195 BCE, r. 206/2–195 BCE) eventual founder of the Han dynasty who was first given the title of King of Han and more or less exiled to the Ba-Shu region in 206 bce by his rival Xiang Yu (232–202 BCE); the warlord and would-be emperor Liu Bei (161–223) entering Shu where he established a kingdom with his Jingzhou (Hubei-Hunan) group; various bureaucrats of the Western Jin dynasty (265–316) migrating to Shu during time of turmoil; Emperors Xuanzong (685–762, r. 712–756 ) and Xizong (862–888, r. 873–888 ) of the Tang respectively fleeing to Shu from the An Lushan and the Huang Chao rebellions; the respective establishments of Former Shu and Later Shu dynasties in the tenth century; Mongolian troops attacking the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) from a base in Sichuan in the twelfth century; the peasant revolt leader Zhang Xianzhong (1606–1647) who seized control of Sichuan (Shu) in the late Ming dynasty (ca. mid-senventeenth century); during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) an influx of people fleeing disorder in Hunan, Hubei, Guangdong, and Guangxi seem to all but fill up Sichuan; the Nationalist (KMT) led Republic of China moved its capital westward to Sichuan (Chongqing) during the Sino-Japanese War period; the three-line national defense construction project which included Sichuan, instituted in 1964 after the initial phase of the Liberation period; etc.

In the centuries following the incorporation of Ba and Shu into imperial China, waves of different groups of people from all over China as well as its borders came to the Ba-Shu area. It was a place of cultural exchange and integration which formed today’s richly diverse Ba-shu culture. One may draw a metaphor: the Ba-Shu region is like a big caldron containing many different flavors, in which all ingredients and seasonings from all directions are slowly cooked by the flame of history. The special delicacies prepared in this “hot pot” comprise the Ba-Shu culture.

As the Ba-Shu culture was formed on the basis of the distribution area of the two ancient nationalities of Ba and Shu, there still exist some significant differences between their respective cultures as described in past and present. The eastern Ba people are “straightforward and righteous; their local customs honest and sincere; their common practice is simple and unadorned, without temerity and flashiness in words.” On the other hand, the western Shu people are “elegant and enjoy embellishment and appreciate flavor and fragrance; the gentlemen are smart and the commoners cunning.” In short, the Ba people are brave and martial while Shu people are intelligent. For this reason, according to history, Ba mainly produced warriors while Shu yielded numerous literati. This gave rise to the proverb of “Ba raises generals and Shu brings up prime ministers.” Even today, this distinction still remains in the Ba-Shu area, as represented by Chengdu (Shu) and Chongqing (Ba). For example although Sichuan dialect is spoken in both Chengdu and Chongqing, Chengdu-ese sounds slow and soft while Chongqing-ese rapid and rushing. Chengdu people prefer a leisurely pace and are often tardy whereas Chongqing people are generally impatient and even bad-tempered. Chengdu people are usually indirect while Chongqing people are straightforward; in disagreements Chengdu people like using their mouth (i.e., debating) while Chongqing people like using their hands (i.e., fighting), etc. This is a very interesting cultural phenomenon, probably due to the differing histories of the core populations of Chengdu and Chongqing.