The Middle Qingdom

Chinese megacities and what they are known for

China is one of the world’s most populous countries, which means it also has some of the largest cities on the planet.

A Chinese skyline with buildings from Shanghai
In China, the sky seems to be the limit

China is one of the world’s most populous countries, which means it also has some of the largest cities in the world, like Beijing and Shanghai. But there are many other cities that few people outside of China know, despite having populations larger than New York City.

There’s a page on Wikipedia that lists the largest cities in China. It’s safe to assume that the numbers are inaccurate, misleading, outdated, or a combination thereof. Not just because it’s hard to determine exactly how many people live in a city, but also because there’s no clear definition of what a city really “is”, and because local governments have the tendency to inflate numbers.

Nevertheless, they’re all big cities that are worth mentioning – even if only on a page about fairly obscure megacities.

Shanghai (上海)

City type Direct-Administered Municipality
Established unknown
Literal meaning Upon the Sea
Population 27M

Shanghai is often considered to be one of the – if not the – “worldliest” cities in China, and deservedly so. As a major global financial and commercial centre, Shanghai is home to the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the world’s largest port, one of the world’s busiest airports, and a large number of gorgeous-looking skyscrapers.

Shanghai’s most popular tourist attractions include the and a waterfront area known as The Bund, a historic district with European colonial-era buildings.

Beijing (北京)

City type Direct-Administered Municipality
Established 1045 BCE (Zhou dynasty)
Literal meaning Northern Capital
Population 21M

Everyone knows Beijing, or Peking, as it was once called in the west. As the capital city of the current People’s Republic of China and several Chinese dynasties, Beijing has seemingly uncountably many palaces, temples, gardens, and other sites of major historical or cultural importance.

The city is mostly known for the Forbidden Palace, , The Great Hall of the People, and Tiananmen Square, where absolutely nothing happened in 1984. It’s also where many of its state companies are headquartered, like its national television broadcaster CCTV.

Guangzhou (广州)

City type Sub-Provincial City
Province Guangdong
Established 214 BCE (Qin dynasty)
Literal meaning Broad Prefecture
Population 19M

Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province in Southeast China. For a long time, the city and its surrounding region were known as Canton. Its people, language, and cuisine are referred to as Cantonese. Although all still exist and do pretty well in most parts of the world, in Guangzhou, the Cantonese language has taken somewhat of a back seat to Mandarin in the past few decades due to migration from other parts of the country.

Guangzhou is the largest city in the Pearl River Delta, a metropolitan region that is one of the most densely populated and wealthiest regions in the country. Nevertheless, it’s not as well known as some of its smaller neighbours, which include the Special Administrative Regions Hong Kong and Macau, and the next megacity on this list…

Shenzhen (深圳)

City type Municipality with Independent Planning Status
Province Guangdong
Established 1979
Literal meaning Deep Drainage
Population 18M

It’s absolutely insane that Shenzhen is #4 on this list. While most Chinese cities have histories that go back centuries, Shenzhen technically isn’t even 50 years old as a city.

For most of its history, Shenzhen was a small village of farmers and fishers, just across the border from Hong Kong. But in 1980 Shenzhen was designated as China’s first Special Economic Zone, which and offered incentives to attract foreign investment.

It all worked out extremely well for Shenzhen, which has become a leading global technology hub. The city is sometimes known as China’s Silicon Valley. Deservedly so, as the city is home to many major tech companies like Huawei, Tencent, DJI, BYD, ZTE, and TCL, and has some of the largest electronics markets in the world.

Chengdu (成都)

City type Sub-Provincial City
Province Sichuan
Established 400–300 BCE (Zhou dynasty)
Literal meaning The Established Capital City
Population 15M

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province. The city has a long and rich history, but is nowadays primarily associated with two things. The first is Sichuan cuisine, which is known for its (sometimes inedibly) spicy and flavourful dishes, like Kung Pao Chicken and Mapo Tofu.

The city is also home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can see and learn about these adorably stupid creatures that should’ve gone extinct decades ago.

There are plenty of other things that make Chengdu a great city, but it’s often overshadowed by Chongqing, which also lies in the same province.

Tianjin (天津)

City type Direct-Administered Municipality
Established 340 BCE
Literal meaning Heaven’s Ford
Population 14M

Prior to writing this article, I literally had never heard of Tianjin, and to be blatantly honest, after reading the Wikipedia article on Tianjin, I’m still not entirely sure what makes Tianjin so special other than its proximity to Beijing. I saw someone on Reddit compare Beijing and Tianjin to Washington DC and Baltimore, but .

I mean, it’s not that Tianjin is a bad city. Tianjin’s got plenty to be proud of: it’s one of the country’s financial centres, and reportedly in the top 20 cities in the world by scientific research output, and the city has some unique historical districts from back when parts of it were ceded to a number of European countries. But “being one of the best” in a country that has lots of other cities that are literally the best in class is like being everyone’s 11th favourite act at Eurovision: it’s not worth a lot.

Chongqing (重庆)

City type Direct-Administered Municipality
Established 316 BCE
Literal meaning Doubled Celebration
Population 12M

Every once in a while, I see someone make the claim that Chongqing is the world’s largest city. It’s kind of true in the sense, that at least geographically, Chongqing municipality is about the size of Austria. However, this is kind of misleading, because the municipality also includes various cities and rural areas. The actual city of Chongqing is much smaller (but still has a higher population than Austria).

None of this matters though, because Chongqing has plenty of other qualities that make it a great city. The city is built in a mountainous area, which can not only be seen around the city, but also inside it, as some parallel streets have baffling differences in elevation. Another fun fact about Chongqing is that it has the world’s longest and busiest monorail system!

Nanjing (南京)

City type Sub-Provincial City
Province Jiangsu
Established 500–300 BCE (Zhou dynasty)
Literal meaning Southern Capital
Population 9M

Nanjing (also known as Nanking) is the capital of Jiangsu province in East China. It is a city of great historical and cultural significance in China and was the largest city in the world at various points in its history.

Historically, Nanjing was the capital of several Chinese dynasties. Outside of China, the city is probably best known for its role in the 20th century. First, as the capital of the nationalist Republic of China, and then as the city where Japanese troops raped and massacred around 300,000 people for absolutely no reason.

Wuhan (武汉)

City type Sub-Provincial City
Province Hubei
Established 1500 BCE (Shang dynasty)
Literal meaning (The combined cities of) Wu(chang) and Han(kou)
Population 9M

Wuhan sadly needs no introduction, as we all know Wuhan as the city where the Wuhan Institute of Virology can be found and where coincidentally SARS-CoV-2 was first discovered. But Wuhan has much more to offer than global pandemics.

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province. The city we know as Wuhan today is the result of a merger between three distinct cities: Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang, in the early 20th century in an attempt to make the region work more efficiently and to allow for major investments in infrastructure.

The investments have paid off, because prior to COVID-19, Wuhan was primarily known as a major transportation hub. The city is also home to the prestigious Wuhan University, which has a rich history and is highly regarded in China.

Xi’an (西安)

City type Sub-Provincial City
Province Shaanxi
Established 1100–1000 BCE (Zhou dynasty)
Literal meaning Western Peace
Population 8M

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province in north-central China.

The presence of an apostrophe in “Xi’an” might suggest that Xi’an is very different from the other cities in this list, but that’s not actually the case. The apostrophe is not part of its name – it’s there to make sure that people pronounce Xi’an as “Xi An” rather than “”. There’s nothing special about Xi’an’s name.

What is unique about Xi’an though, is its history. Xi’an is one of the world’s oldest cities and has a history that dates back over 3,100 years. It once was the starting point of , and has served as the capital of some of the most important dynasties in Chinese history.

Nowadays, the city is still home to a lot of cultural and historical sites, which include a historic city wall dating back to the Ming dynasty and the Terracotta Army, a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of the first emperor of China that was unearthed in 1974 by local farmers.