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Why had we never heard of Wuhan? Chinese megacities are changing the world. Knowing about only Beijing and Shanghai is no longer enough

Qingdao - larger than London and Paris and you've probably never heard of it (Photo by - / AFP) / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

Qingdao - larger than London and Paris and you've probably never heard of it (Photo by - / AFP) / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

March 17, 2020   9 mins

We’ve all heard of Wuhan now. But before the virus, who had?

Well, Chinese people, obviously. As for us in the West, though, I have my doubts. China has scores of major cities with millions of people that most westerners have never heard of. Wuhan, for instance, is home to around ten million people, larger than London or Paris, and were it in Europe or North America, it would have already been a household name like Berlin, Los Angeles or Toronto.

However, when it comes to Chinese cities of equal or even greater size we’re incredibly ignorant. Yes, most people have heard of Beijing and Shanghai; some of us will be familiar with Guangzhou and Xi’an. But test yourselves on these: Tianjin, Qingdao, Xiamen, Chongqing, Chengdu. Ring any bells? Could you place them on a map? Say anything about them?

You might think that’s unfair — that beyond the most prominent Chinese cities, the rest is specialist knowledge — yet these are places that could change the world (and in the case of Wuhan, unfortunately, already have). Indeed, they are changing the world. So what stops us from getting our heads round the very basics of Chinese geography?

To be fair, it is a daunting task. By one count, there are 65 Chinese cities with more than a million people. Language provides another barrier. Not being attuned to the tonal qualities of spoken Chinese, let alone the symbolic significance of the written characters, we only hear and see Chinese place names in one dimension. It doesn’t help that there are several ways of transliterating Chinese names and words into our alphabet, and some of the earlier attempts weren’t very accurate — giving us Peking and Canton, for instance, instead of Beijing and Guangzhou. Then there are sounds (like those written as ‘q’ and ‘x’) that have no equivalent in English (‘ch’ and ‘sh’ are inadequate approximations).

This article is an attempt to provide a rough guide to ten Chinese cities you ought to know about.


First, though, a quick primer.

China is almost the same size as the United States of America. In fact, there’s a debate as to which one is bigger — it depends on precise territorial definitions. In any case, China is big.

It also occupies much the same latitudes as the contiguous United States, although the southernmost parts of China are at Mexican latitudes and the northernmost at Canadian latitudes. So China ranges from the bitterly cold to the steaming hot.

But while America stretches from “sea to shining sea”, China stretches from the Pacific Ocean to Central Asia. In fact, the most inland place on the planet is in the far north-west of China.

There’s something called the Heihe-Tengchong line that bisects China from the Russian border in the far north-east to the Burmese border in the south. Remarkably, just 4% of the country’s population lives west of the line. So, when you look at China on a map, remember that almost everything is going on in the eastern half of the country.

Here’s another really important line: the line of latitude that lies thirty degrees north of the equator. It’s on or near this parallel that all four of the world’s oldest civilisations — ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley civilisation and ancient China — got their start. Later civilisations arose further north or further south, but the earliest ones were all at this crucial latitude.

River valleys were another essential ingredient. Whereas in ancient Egypt it was the Nile, in ancient China it was the Yangzi (or Yangtse), the third longest river in the world. Unlike the Nile, however, it runs east-west along the 30th parallel, allowing civilisation to spread and stay connected over a wide area sharing the same sort of climate. Furthermore, not too far to the north is another great river — the Huang He (a.k.a. the Yellow River). Even better, the land through which both rivers flow is fertile not arid. Tributary rivers (and, later, canals) helped to link up the Lower Yangzi Plain and the North China Plain into a vast and cohesive Chinese heartland.

It was there that Chinese civilisation developed over the millennia and from there that it spread out in all directions.


1. Wuhan — the crossroads of China

Which bring me back to Wuhan. The city is known as the cross-roads of China for a very good reason.

It sits on the Yangzi about a thousand kilometres inland; a thousand kilometres to the north is Beijing; a thousand to the east (i.e. downstream) is Shanghai; a thousand to the south is the Pearl River delta, which includes Guangzhou and Hong Kong; and a thousand to the west (i.e. upstream) are the mighty Sichuanese cities of Chongqing and Chengdu.

Wuhan is also where the Han river flows into the Yangzi — the Han being the birthplace of the Han dynasty, which in turn gave its name to the Han people i.e. China’s majority ethnic group.

Wuhan, therefore, is the most central city in the most populous country on the planet. There couldn’t have been a worse place for the coronavirus to take hold. Whether the city is where it all started remains to be seen.


2. Kaifeng — an ancient connection to the West

From Wuhan, it’s about 500 kilometres north to Kaifeng, one of the eight ancient capitals of China. It sits on the southern bank of the Huang He — or rather a safe distance further back from the notoriously flood-prone river. Almost a million people live there, so it’s not an especially big city by Chinese standards. It is remarkable, however, for its Jewish community, whose history stretches back a thousand years or more.

The city’s synagogue has long since disappeared and centuries of intermarriage have meant that those claiming Jewish ancestry are as Chinese as their neighbours. And yet Jewish traditions persist, though to what extent is unclear. Episodes of persecution — most recently, Xi Jinping’s crackdown on unregulated religion — means that the community is once again hidden from history.


3. Lanzhou — the gateway city

The ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews presumably travelled to China along the Silk Roads (note the plural). Heading west out of Kaifeng (i.e. upstream along the Huang He), we pass the much bigger cities of Zhengzhou (6 million people) and Luoyang (2 million). We leave the North China Plain and move on to higher ground. The Huang He itself takes a dramatic turn to the north, but a key tributary keeps going west. It’s there, along the Wei river, that we come to Xi’an, home to 7 million people and the Terracotta Army.

At this point we’re 500km west of Kaifeng, but we’re going to keep going all the way up the Wei and then a bit further until we rejoin the Yellow River. It’s here, about 600km from Xi’an, that we find Lanzhou. This city of 3 million people was the Northern Silk Road gateway to and from the Chinese heartland. It is the anchor point of the Hexi corridor — a string of oasis towns squeezed between the Tibetan plateau and the Gobi desert.

This was the fragile artery through which Chinese goods eventually found their way to the Roman Empire. Today, Lanzhou is a vital node in the Belt and Road Initiative — the massive infrastructure programme designed to extend China’s commercial power across Eurasia.


4. Tianjin (and Beijing) — at the head of the nation

Instead of continuing westwards into Xinjiang province (home to the persecuted Uighurs), we’ll retrace our steps all the way back to Kaifeng.

Downstream of Kaifeng, the Huang He turns north-east, eventually reaching the Bohai Sea (the innermost part of the Yellow Sea). A little way up the coast we come to the port of Tianjin, one of the biggest cities in the world — with a population of about 15 million. It also has the highest per capita income of any Chinese city. So why isn’t it a household name in the West — up there with Shanghai and Hong Kong?

Well, one only has to look 100 km to the north-west, and Beijing, an even bigger city (a massive 21 million people) and China’s capital, overshadowing its coastal neighbour.

But why did Beijing come to rule the rest of China? Why not somewhere more central, i.e. one of the cities along the coast or the two great rivers? The answer is precisely because Beijing isn’t in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, but at the northern extremity of the North China Plain — on the frontline against nomadic invaders.

Protected by mountains, and later the Great Wall, there’s no doubting Beijing’s strategic significance. In commanding the defence of the heartland (or as serving as a capital for successful invaders), the rulers of Beijing have grown used to a position of absolute authority.


5. Harbin — the ice city

Mongolia (Inner Mongolia is a Chinese province, ‘outer’ Mongolia an independent country) lies north-west of Beijing. To the north-east is another vast land — Manchuria, where China butts up against Russia and Korea.

The Japanese have also vied for control of this territory. In 1931, they invaded — setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo. The man they chose as its puppet ruler was Puyi — the deposed last emperor of the China and, as the member of the Qing dynasty, an ethnic Manchu.

Today, the Manchus are a small minority, and Manchuria itself — the focus of industrialisation in the Mao era — has become China’s rust belt, left behind by the frenetic growth of the coastal cities further south.

The biggest city in the region, with five million people, is Harbin. Situated a 1,000 kilometres north-east of Beijing it makes the most of its freezing winters with its spectacular ice sculpture festival.

But even being that far north, Harbin is still 500 kilometres south of the Russian border and the northern end of the Heihe-Tongcheng line (see above).

Did I mention China was big?


6. Qingdao — Germany’s long lost Hong Kong

Returning to Beijing, we should say something about China’s Grand Canal, the world’s longest. It connects the capital to Tianjin (although it  continues all the way down to Hangzhou, a city of 9 million people), and from Tianjin we head down the coast, past the mouth of the Yellow River and to the Shandong peninsula, which sticks out towards Korea. 

At the tip of the peninsula was a forgotten fragment of the British Empire — Weihaiwei. It was leased by Imperial China in 1898 to the British, and finally returned in 1930. The territory even had its own flag — featuring a Union Jack and some mandarin ducks.

On the south side of the peninsula is the major port city of Qingdao (population 6 million — larger than Berlin or Madrid). Again, not a household name in the West — though you may be familiar with the older spelling of Tsingtao, the name of the beer founded by Germans here in 1903.

It’s a reminder that, for a while, Qingdao was the German Hong Kong — yet another “leased territory” extorted from China by predatory foreigners. At the start of the First World War the city was seized from the Germans by the Japanese with British help. It was returned to China in 1922, but in 1938 the Japanese took it back again.

There is a reason why the Chinese resent outside interference.


7. Wenzhou — China’s Jerusalem

Let’s carry on hundreds of kilometres down the coast. We’ll go past the mouth of the Yangzi, and also wave without stopping to Shanghai and its neighbouring cities (total metropolitan population, 34 million). 

South of the great river, we’re into a different China. The climate is warmer, of course, and wetter; the terrain is hilly, sometimes mountainous; and the main crop is rice not wheat.

There’s a theory that rice farming, because it is so challenging, has shaped a different cultural mindset — interdependent and holistic (as opposed to the North’s rugged individualism). That said, the South also has a strong mercantile tradition. Not having the broad open plains of the North, the coastal cities have tended to look outwards to the wider world.

They’ve also been where the wider world has come to China. For instance, Wenzhou, a city of three million people, almost 500 kilometres south of Shanghai, is known as “China’s Jerusalem” because it is a long-established centre of Chinese Christianity.

It is also a focal point for Xi Jinping’s crackdown on religion. Though the persecution is not as bad as that suffered by the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, hundreds of churches have been demolished or vandalised. The Communist authorities are especially keen on tearing down crosses.


8. Xiamen — launchpad of the Chinese diaspora

Further down the coast, across the sea from Taiwan, we come to the port city of Xiamen (better known to us as Amoy).

It’s long been a departure point for China’s emigrants. Over the centuries, the Chinese diaspora has drawn heavily from the southern provinces, including Fujian (of which Xiamen is biggest city). It’s why the Hokkien language and culture of Xiamen is spoken in Chinese communities across the world — and especially Taiwan and Singapore.

A quirk of Xiamen’s geography is that Taiwan is almost 300 km away across the Taiwan Strait but also just 2 km away. That’s because the Taiwanese government still controls the nearby Kinmen islands — a strange remnant of a frozen conflict.


9. The Pearl River delta — capital of the world?

Heading even further down the coast we come to another special territory — Hong Kong. But as special as it is, it’s also part of a bigger urban conglomeration: the cities of the Pearl River delta, among them Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan, Jiangnan and Macau, slowly growing together into a mega-city of some 60 million people.

United by proximity, they are however divided by politics — Hong Kong and Macau being Special Administrative Regions — and also language. Southern China is a place of great linguistic diversity. Cantonese, Hokkien and other languages of the region are more than mere dialects. In their spoken form, they are mutually unintelligible with Mandarin Chinese.


10. Chongqing and Chengdu — deep China

If we travel 1,000 kilometres north of the Pearl River delta we end up back where we began — in Wuhan, on the banks of the Yangzi. From there we’ll make one final journal — upstream. As we head west, the terrain gets mountainous, but we’re not at the Tibetan plateau yet. Long before that, we pass through the Three Gorges and into the Sichuan basin, a large and fertile lowland region surrounded by mountains on all sides.

It is the breadbasket of China — but also home to two huge industrial cities: Chongqing in the east and Chengdu in the west.

Chongqing is sometimes listed as the world’s biggest city. That’s a bit of a misconception, because its official boundaries encompass an area the size of Austria, including all the smaller cities and towns therein. Even so, the actual urban area of Chongqing is a vast growing metropolis, home to 18 million people.

Some 400 kilometres onwards, at the far end of the Sichuan basin, we reach Chengdu (population: 12 million). This is la Chine profonde, the national redoubt. In the Second World War, it is where the Chinese government fell back before the advancing Japanese. It was also the last mainland city to fall to the Communists.

And not far from Chengdu, just before the Earth rises up to form the Tibetan plateau, we find one final refuge — the last habitat of the giant panda, and the most fitting place to end this journey.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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Auberon Linx
Auberon Linx
4 years ago

A very useful introduction to China. There is, however, a mistake in the article. There are several references to the city of Guangdong. Guangdong is in fact, a province, and the city is Guangzhou. Both used to be known as Canton in the west, hence the confusion.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
4 years ago

I lined in Guangzhou/Canton for a few years – I never was tempted to visit Wuhan because it was known as one of the 5 ‘ovens’ of China. Coming from Australia I had had enough of ‘ovens’. I suppose it depends on reading tastes, but I was one of the many readers of Pearl Buck, Han Suyin et al. so we had heard of those Chinese cities. What a shock those authors would get if they could see those cities these days!

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
4 years ago

A fascinating overview. I’ll read it again with a map.