China is the world’s most populous country. According to the United Nations Data for 2020, the population of China stands at about 1,438 billion people, which is roughly 18.5% of the world population. Though population growth has slowed down in recent years, its urban population continues to rise.
In 2020 and for the first time, China’s urban population is more than 60% of the total. In anticipation of the 2020 official census, we can only guess the exact data. According to the previous census, in 2010, 10% of the total population lived in the 10 largest cities in China. Forecasts for 2020 place that number at around 15 %.
Urbanization in China
In the mid 20th Century, China was overwhelmingly rural. The first population census of the People’s Republic of China took place in 1953. The census revealed that only 13.3% of people lived in urban areas. The urban population kept growing at a fast pace up until 1965. From 1965 to 1975, during the Cultural Revolution, the percentage of people living in cities dropped from 18% to 17.3% of the total population.
Things kept changing. In fact, from 1975 onwards, migration from rural to urban areas accelerated. Today, urbanization in China has reached its peak, and 60.8% of the total population lives in urban areas. Regarding the future, most estimates believe China’s urbanization will continue to grow in the following decades. Projections for 2050 put the percentage of people living in cities at 78%.
Population Density and Distribution in China
According to the most recent UN data, population density in China stands at 153 people per km2 or 397 people per mi2. However, this data should be taken with caution since the population distribution in China is uneven. In fact, in 1935 Chinese Geographer Hu Huanyong came up with the so-called Heihe – Tengchong Line dividing the densely populated southeast from the sparsely populated northwest.
Currently, roughly 94% of China’s population lives southeast of said line on 43% of the country’s landmass. That means that only 6% live in the remaining 57% of the territory. Therefore, population density in China’s Southeast is 280 people per km2 (725/mi2). Considering the latter, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all of the country’s major cities are in the southeast.
How Many Cities are There in China
China’s rapid urban population growth is undeniable. What remains unclear is how many cities are there in China. Before answering this question, we have to define what a city is. The fifth Chinese national census of 2000 defined an urban settlement as one that has a population density of over 1500 people per km2. With such criteria, the total number of cities is almost impossible to determine.
On the other hand, according to the latest estimates, 65 Chinese cities have over 1 million inhabitants, 360 between 100,000 and 1 million, and 388 between 10,000 and 100,000. That brings a total of 813 cities with a population of over 10,000 people.
Ranking of Chinese Cities by Population
Since the most populated cities in China keep growing, it’s difficult to determine population numbers exactly. Different sources put out different numbers. We will have to wait to have official numbers from the census. The issue gets more complicated when we take into account the definition of a city. Some sources consider just the population within the city’s administrative area. Others consider the whole urban area. Finally, some include metropolitan areas too.
We have decided to rank Chinese cities by urban area population. Not only that, but we also take into account their historical and geographical importance. We focus on cities that stand out in any way. Likewise, take note that our list includes only cities from Mainland China. There is a special section dedicated to Hong Kong on our website.
List of the Biggest Cities in China
Our list includes 10 of the biggest cities in China. We are talking about the country’s financial powerhouses. Not only that, but these cities played an important role in the country’s history. Most Chinese migrated from rural areas into these cities. Administratively speaking, these cities are either Direct-Administered Municipalities, Sub-Provincial Cities, Prefecture-Level Cities, or Municipalities with Independent Planning Status.
In recent years, the main cities in China grew so much that enormous satellite cities mushroomed around them. For instance, Dongguan and Foshan are satellite cities around Guangzhou. Though individually each would be amongst the largest cities in China by population, we haven’t included them in our list.
Shanghai 27.0 million people
When it comes to population, Shanghai is by far China’s largest city. It is also the richest city in China and one of the world’s main trade centers. Shanghai has managed to take advantage of its privileged location, where the Yangtze River enters the sea. The city’s port is the world’s largest and Pudong Airport, one of the busiest on the planet.
Unlike most major cities in China, it came into the spotlight in the 19th century. The city flourished in the early 20th century and became one of the world’s biggest trade and financial centers. However, things changed after World War II. Shanghai’s international clout declined rapidly only to come back in recent decades.
Beijing 20.4 million people
Beijing is China’s second-most populous city and the largest city by total area. Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China. Not only that, but the city is also the country’s educational and cultural center. It is also an important transportation hub. Both the world’s busiest airport and largest metro network are in Beijing.
The city’s history goes back some 3000 years. Even before China’s reunification, it was the capital of smaller kingdoms. Since then, it served as the imperial seat of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The enormous Forbidden City is a testament to those times. More recently, in 2008, it hosted the Summer Olympic Games.
Chongqing 15.8 million people
Chongqing is unique in China for its large rural population. If we count the total number of inhabitants (30.5 million), Chongqing would be the largest city in the world. Additionally, it is the most densely populated city in Mainland China. Though its economy is growing, it does so at a slower pace than other major cities.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was an important trade center in central China. During the Second Sino Japanese War (From 1937 till 1945), Chongqing was the national capital. It was part of Sichuan Province until 1997. Since then, the city is under the direct rule of the central government.
Tianjin 13.6 million people
Tianjin is one of the richest cities in China and a major manufacturing center. Together with Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing, it’s one of the four cities under the direct administration of the central government. Tianjin has two distinct sections. The historic core spreads along the Hai River, while modern Binhai is an enormous port city on the coast of Bohai Bay.
Just like Shanghai, Tianjin came into prominence in the 19th century. It’s got an unbeatable location, between the sea and the Grand Canal, and close to Beijing. Thus, it developed into a large port city. After World War II and the major earthquake of 1976, Tianjin fell into decay. Today, it’s a fantastic city that has reclaimed its importance.
Guangzhou 13.3 million people
Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is China’s southern capital. It is also the largest city in the largest metropolitan area in the country: the Pearl River Delta. Guangzhou is an important manufacturing center. It has the highest GDP per capita of all the cities in Mainland China. The city is famous for the renowned Canton fair, the country’s largest and oldest.
Guangzhou has been an important trade center for centuries. It was the only Chinese port open to foreign trade for a long time. During the First Opium War, it fell into British hands and lost importance to other ports. The city came back roaring in the late 20th century, becoming one of the first to open again to foreign trade.
Shenzhen 12.3 million people
Shenzhen is the most modern of all Chinese metropolises. The massive foreign investment of the last couple of decades made it one of the world’s fastest-growing cities. Today, it is the country’s leading technology hub, also called China’s Silicon Valley. It is home to numerous multinational companies.
Shenzhen’s past is not that glorious. It was never an important city, thus its modern appearance. When the train line from Hong Kong to Guangzhou opened in 1911, Shenzhen was just a small town around the last station in Mainland China. In 1980, Shenzhen became China’s first Special Economic Zone. Since then, the city never stopped growing and is now enormous.
Chengdu 9.1 million people
Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, is one of the largest cities in Western China. It is an important cultural, economic, and transportation center. Its main train station and airport are amongst the biggest in China. You probably know it for its delicious Sichuan cuisine and the Giant Panda Research Center.
Chengdu is one of the few Chinese large cities that never changed its name. It was the capital of the Han Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period and the capital of smaller kingdoms in the following centuries. After World War II, Chengdu became the most important transport link between Eastern and Western China.
Nanjing 8.8 million people
Just as Beijing is China’s Northern capital, Nanjing is the southern one (its Chinese name means that). Nanjing is an important education center. Some of China’s top universities are here, including world-famous Nanjing University. It is also one of the country’s main research centers.
Throughout its history, Nanjing was the capital of different kingdoms and empires. Together with Beijing, Xi’an, and Luoyang, it is one of China’s great ancient capitals. During the short rule of the Republic of China, it was its capital in two different periods. In the years 1937 – 1938, it was the seat of the so-called Nanjing Massacre.
Wuhan 8.4 million people
Wuhan is one of China’s most important transportation hubs. The country’s east-west and north-south transport corridors meet in Wuhan. Two large rivers, Yangtze and Han, divide the city into three historic areas: Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang. It is also an important economical, financial, and educational center.
Though Wuhan is over 3500 years old, it came into the spotlight at the beginning of the 20th century. The Wuchang Uprising of 1911 marked the end of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. In 1937 it was the war capital of China. In recent times, it grabbed the world’s attention as the center of the COVID 19 outbreak.
Xi’an 8.0 million people
Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China and one of its four great ancient capitals. Today, it is the biggest city in Northwestern China. The city is universally known for the incredible Terracotta Warriors nearby. Xi’an is a major cultural and educational center. The city is also an important center of science and space technology.
Not only that, but in the 3rd century BC, Xi’an was the first capital of the Han Dynasty. In the 6th century AD, it became the capital of unified China once again. What’s more, at that time it was the largest city in the world. For centuries to come, it was the starting point of the Silk Road. In 1936, during the civil war, the so-called Xi’an incident forged the alliance between nationalists and communists that kicked out the Japanese.