When you’re moving to China and trying to choose which city to live in, the decision can be a little overwhelming! There are more than 600 different cities in China, each having their own dialects, foods, and customs.

There are big, well-known cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where it’s easy to find English speakers, other expats, and lots of information about living in the city. Then there are smaller cities in China to consider, where you can experience a unique, more local  lifestyle and be more immersed into Chinese culture with less Western influences. There are definitely pros and cons to both – so how do you choose?

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Cities in China are often divided into tiers depending on the size, the population, the GDP of the city, as well as a few other factors. Examples of tier cities:

  • Tier 1: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Tianjin
  • Tier 2: Hangzhou, Nanjing, Chongqing, Qingdao, Xiamen, Chengdu
  • Tier 3: Guilin, Sanya, Yangzhou, Zhuzhou, Hengyang

I’ve worked in China for more than 3 years now, and during that time I’ve lived in giant Tier 1 cities like Beijing and Guangzhou, but also lived in a small Tier 3 city called Hengyang for two years. I’ve also traveled to lots of cities in China of all sizes in between, and some even smaller than Tier 3.

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Hengyang has more than 7 million people counted in it’s population, so it doesn’t sound small. However, compared to Beijing and Guangzhou, the size and development of Hengyang is drastically different and is considered a small city by Chinese standards.

Depending on the experience you’re looking for, you may prefer life in a Tier 1 city or a Tier 3 city, or possibly Tier 4 or 5! It will also depend on the kind of job you have and what part of a city you live in.

Here are a few different aspects I’ll look at to compare a big city in China to a small city in China:

  • Cultural Quirks and Mannerisms
  • Communication
  • Cost of Living
  • Things To Do
  • Expat Life
  • Overall

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Cultural Mannerisms in A Big Chinese City VS. A Small Chinese City

China is a huge country with a diverse population. When you travel through different regions and cities, you’ll notice the mannerisms of people will change, especially compared to big and small cities.

When I first came to China, I immediately went to Hengyang and lived there a few months before traveling to another city in China. My whole experience in China was based on life in a small Chinese city – I was used to people spitting on buses and babies peeing on streets. We used squat toilets and brought our own toilet paper everywhere. Lots of people wore their pajamas around the city and shouted loudly at each other. I walked down market streets where you could choose a live chicken or frog and someone would kill it and prepare it for you.

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A few months after I came to China I finally visited Guangzhou, the third largest city in China. I was amazed by how developed it was and had no idea how modern and advanced city life in China was. I was also surprised at how differently the people behaved – it was completely different than Hengyang. Guangzhou felt more like a Western city to me.

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Of course, just because someone comes from a big or small city doesn’t mean they behave the same way as everyone else, but there were noticeable differences in mannerisms overall. As a foreigner, you’ll notice big differences in how Chinese people look at you, too. I’ll talk about this more later.

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Communication in A Big Chinese City VS. A Small Chinese City

Living in China, you won’t always encounter people who speak English. However, you’ll find more people in bigger cities who can communicate at even a basic level in English. When you go to restaurants, banks, stores, etc., it is far more likely you’ll encounter someone who can speak English and help you communicate.

In a smaller city, unless you work with older English speaking students like I did, this is way less likely. It can be a bit challenging to live in a small city if you don’t speak any Chinese, but this is actually a great way to improve your Chinese speaking abilities because you’ll quickly learn what to say and do to get your point across.

These are some of my university students who helped translate things for me! Sometimes we would have funny miscommunications though – here are a few messages they sent me that made me laugh.

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Whether you’re going to a big city or a small city, I recommend downloading translation apps like Google Translate and Pleco – it will help you a lot in your daily life.

And no matter where you are in China, you’ll still see funny Chinglish translations and interesting English clothes 😉

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Cost of Living in A Big Chinese City VS. A Small Chinese City

As expected, a bigger city will cost more to live in than a smaller city in China. Everything from restaurants, activities, and having a night out with friends will cost more. The biggest different is the cost of rent; in big cities prices drastically increase, especially if you live close to the city center.

When I lived in a small Chinese city as a university teacher, my salary was much lower than most teachers in China. However, the university I taught at provided an apartment for me so I didn’t pay rent, and the cost of living was so cheap that I could still live very comfortably, go out to eat and have drinks with friends, travel on holidays, and save money for student loans.

My apartment in Hengyang was really big, too. It had a living room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining area, an office, and a laundry room. I could invite my entire class over for a party and we would all fit!

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In a bigger city like Beijing, you’ll pay much more for rent. When you rent an apartment in China, you’ll most likely be required to pay several months rent up front, plus a security deposit and possibly an agency fee, so when you first arrive it will be quite expensive. Read more about how I found my apartment in Beijing here and how I found my apartment in Guangzhou here.

My apartment in Guangzhou – much smaller and more expensive by comparison than Hengyang – but still filled with wonderful friends 🙂

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While a big city is much more expensive, you do get so many more conveniences.  You can get more varieties of food, more Western shops, convenience stores, and restaurants, and more English speakers. Salaries are also higher in bigger cities, which helps offset the cost of living, and if you want to save money you can live farther away from the city center or find roommates.

Food in a Big Chinese City Vs. A Small Chinese City

One of the best things about China is that no matter where you live, it’s possible to find cheap food. If you go to more local places and less touristy restaurants, you won’t spend an arm and a leg.

A big ole noodle plate for 11 RMB ($1.59)

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If you’re not buying Starbucks or going out to nice Western restaurants everyday, you’ll find going out and eating to be very affordable. There are also lots of Chinese delivery apps like Meituan and Eleme you can order food from all over the city for a great price.

You can find Chinese BBQ in both big and small cities and it’s super cheap and super delicious!

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The restaurants you’ll find in big or small cities will vary. You can always find good local food, but if you’re looking for Western places, small cities will have less variety.

In Hengyang we still had some Western food options:

  • McDonald’s
  • KFC (even more popular than McDonald’s in China!)
  • Starbucks
  • Pizza Hut (which is very fancy in China)
  • A few stores that imported some foreign items

Everything else we had to order on Taobao (Chinese Amazon). My first Thanksgiving in China we ordered everything online because the stores didn’t have what we needed – like a giant turkey! People don’t eat turkey in China, so that was pretty funny.

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In big cities you’ll have even more foreign restaurants and brands like Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, and Subway,  as well as every kind of international cuisine – Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Thai, and on and on.

An important thing to consider with food: if you have certain dietary restrictions it will be much harder living in a smaller city. Bigger cities will have more options and imported selections.

Transportation in A Big Chinese City VS. A Small Chinese City

As a whole, public transportation in China is great. Not everybody will have a car or even hold a drivers license (it’s difficult and costs a lot), so there are lots of ways to get around a city.

A bigger city will obviously have better options. Most bigger cities will have metro lines with English signs that are very convenient and easy to use. There are also high speed train stations, regular train stations, airports, public buses, scooters and e-bikes, taxis, and bikes you can rent with an app. Taxis started at 7 RMB in Hengyang, while in bigger cities it might be 13 RMB.

Riding an Ofo bike around Guangzhou (1 RMB per ride!)

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In smaller cities you won’t find as many metros, airports, or high speed train stations. Chinese cities are rapidly expanding their infrastructure and constantly building new railroads, though, so smaller cities are now becoming even more developed. There are still lots of public buses, bikes, and taxis readily available.

In Hengyang we were lucky to have a high speed train station and a slow train station, as well as a small airport that had flights to Beijing and a few other big cities. For most flights, however, we would go to Changsha (45 minutes away by high speed train) or Guangzhou (2 hours away by high speed train.)

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Things To Do in A Big Chinese City VS. A Small Chinese City

When you’re looking for things to do after work or on the weekend in China, you’ll notice a difference between big cities and small cities in China.

In a small city you’ll see lots of malls, KTVs, movie theaters, public parks, gyms,  and some bars and clubs. It is all very Chinese related – so if you enjoy trying Chinese activities and want to experience more Chinese traditions, it’s very easy to do! You can learn mahjong, play badminton with Chinese friends, and get invited to make dumplings with your Chinese neighbors.

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In Hengyang if we wanted to go to a bigger mall and more international stores like H&M, Gap, Carrefore, and Walmart, we would take a train to the nearest big city called Changsha (45 minutes by high speed train).

I spent a lot of time with my Chinese university students in Hengyang and we’d go to dinner together often!

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In a bigger city, your options increase tenfold and you’ll find a bigger variety of activities that are more international. You can join expat sport teams, book clubs, and language exchanges, and attend comedy nights, live music shows, food festival, and trivia games. You have more places to shop and eat, and there are also more famous historical sites to visit (like the Great Wall and the Canton Tower).

The volleyball team I play with in Beijing – you wouldn’t even know we were in China!

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In bigger cities there are bars and restaurants that will celebrate more international holidays and have big parties, like this St. Patrick’s Day Party in Guangzhou.

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Both big and small cities offer a lot to do – it really depends on the kind of activities you like doing. I really enjoyed living in a smaller Chinese city for two years because I learned so much about Chinese culture. I came to appreciate their traditions, and I understood so much more about Chinese customs than if I moved to a big city where more international choices would be. In a small city I couldn’t rely only on Western comforts and was pushed out of my bubble to really embrace China.

No matter if you’re in a big or small city you can still enjoy Chinese activities and learn more about Chinese customs. I just personally found it much easier to do more Chinese activities in a smaller city.

KTV with teachers we taught during a summer semester at the university.

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Expat Life in A Big Chinese City VS. A Small Chinese City

The biggest difference you’ll notice between big and small cities: the phenomenon of being a foreigner.

In a small city, you’re going to stand out. You’ll be noticed everywhere you go and stared at on the street. People might follow you in the grocery store and peek in your cart to see what the “foreigner” likes to buy. People will take your photo on the bus, with or without your permission. You might be asked to hold a baby, and people will want to add your Wechat and be your friend. You become somewhat of a celebrity.

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It’s a bit strange at first. People aren’t trying to be rude or intrusive, but in smaller Chinese cities, especially very rural parts, many people hardly ever see foreigners. I remember visiting a school in the countryside with students who had never seen a non-Chinese person. That struck me as totally crazy, since in the U.S. you see diversity everywhere. I was even interviewed on the Chinese News one time because I was a foreigner visiting a very local place in Hengyang.

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In a bigger city, your experience will be totally different. Once I moved to Guangzhou, I was hardly ever asked for photos. Foreigners are everywhere, so you’re no longer a rarity. Every now and then I’m still asked for photos if I go to more local areas outside the city center, or if I go to some popular tourist destinations where Chinese people from other cities like to visit.

A cute grandmother and granddaughter who asked for my photo in Beijing.

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In Hengyang, the foreigner group was small and spread out across the city, but we all met often because there were only around 30 foreign teachers in the area. There were lots of weekly meet ups and hangouts, and it was great to have a group for support when you were feeling homesick or overwhelmed with culture shock.

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I also loved living in a small city because it was easy meet people and see them around. When I walked around the university campus or in the city, I would constantly run into people I knew.

In a bigger city it’s a little bit harder to build that community at first because there are so many more people with their own groups. However, if you get involved with organizations, hang out at the same bars and cafes, or join lots of Wechat groups, you’ll find it’s very easy to meet people and build a community.

The Pizza Festival in Beijing

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Overall Experience Living in a Big Chinese City Vs. a Small Chinese City

I appreciate both big and small city life in China and have enjoyed how different my experiences have been in each city. Regions and cities in China are so varied that two small cities won’t be alike, and two big cities won’t be alike either.

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The part of a city you live in will also change your experience. When I first moved to Beijing  I lived in a tall apartment building closer to the expat area. Now I live in a hutong area, a small kind of Chinese neighborhood. Although Beijing is one of the most modern cities in China, in the hutong areas you’ll experience very local Chinese life. I feel like I’m back in Hengyang, which I love. Living in the Beijing hutongs gives me the best of both small and big city life.

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Which Should You Choose?

There are pros and cons to big and small cities in China, and it really depends on your personal preferences. Some people want to be a part of big city life, while others would rather live further away from the noise. Some people love being close to expat bars and restaurants, while others want a more traditional Chinese experience.

Other points to consider:

  • Pollution: Although bigger cities are taking more steps to improve pollution, the levels are still much higher than in small cities and many people wear masks for protection.
  • Traffic: With more people in big cities comes more traffic – Beijing during rush hour can be rough!
  • Hospitals and Healthcare: in smaller cities it will be harder to find English speaking doctors, and many expats will choose to travel to bigger cities to get procedures done

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Make sure you do some research to decide what is the best fit for you, because that will definitely impact your time in China! No matter if you’re in a big or small city, you’re going to have an amazing experience.

Have you lived in China? Do you prefer living in a big or small city?

Check out my other articles about living and teaching in China:

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