Take a Journey to the East: The 10 Best Places to Live in China
There are over 1.4 billion people living in China
And guess what? You could be one of them.
If you want to eat 包子 (bāo zi) — steamed stuffed buns every day, ride around the country on a high-speed train during holidays and use WeChat non-stop, then you’re already thinking like a Chinese person.
Now you just need to decide which city in this huge country is right for you. That’s why I’ve created a guide to the best places to live in China.
How to Prepare for a Move to China
Learn the history
Chinese culture stems back thousands of years. And Chinese people take tremendous pride in their history.
Learn about the major Chinese dynasties, formation of the Republic of China and later formation of the People’s Republic of China. Locals will be impressed by your knowledge and efforts!
If you want to be a foreigner who effortlessly mingles with the culture, you should know enough about China’s history to understand its most important cultural traditions.
Learn the language
Apart from a few notable exceptions, English isn’t widely spoken in China. If you’re trying to live in China without any Mandarin skills, you’re setting yourself up for a tough time.
By learning the local language, you’ll be able to experience Chinese culture from a firsthand perspective instead of constantly having it translated back to you.
Learn the rules
Chinese culture is unlike any other culture in the world. The traditions and customs of China are often jarring for foreigners who don’t know what to expect.
Much of this culture shock can be absorbed if you do some research on what is and isn’t culturally appropriate in different parts of China.
How to Find the Best Place to Live in China
Everyone has different needs when it comes to living abroad.
Some people want to work in a big, bustling metropolis. Others want to engage with a more relaxed way of life.
And since China is such a diverse (not to mention ginormous) place, it can accommodate all types of international travelers with different interests.
Use this list as a guideline to give you some insight on what kind of Chinese city is perfect for you.
Take a Journey to the East: The 10 Best Places to Live in China
What you should know about Chengdu
- Urban population: 14.7 million
- Location: Midwest, Sichuan province.
- Who should move to Chengdu: Nature-lovers. You can live in a modern city, but the rest of the province’s outdoor scene is easily accessible.
Why you should live in Chengdu
- Hub of Sichuan province. Sichuan is famous for many things—super spicy food, rich and diverse landscapes, cultural minority populations and, of course, pandas.
As the province’s capital, Chengdu is the main hub for tourists and the primary destination for cultural artifacts of the region. Eat some incredibly spicy food before heading out to one of the region’s many historically important cultural sites.
- Economic boom. Chengdu has been getting a lot of attention from investors recently as it steps up its economic game to compete with its neighbor, Chongqing. After being named as an Economic and Technological Development Zone in the 1990s, a lot of multinational companies have been coming into Chengdu to take advantage of the booming automotive, aviation and bio-medical sectors.
- Ease of life. Chengdu has a much more laid-back feel than its eastern city counterparts. Because it’s seen as the main tourist hub for Sichuan province, the city maintains an overall relaxed, touristy vibe. But it’s still a modern city with advanced amenities. There’s a good public transportation system that’s relatively easy to navigate. There are also plenty of areas for the growing number of expats to hang out.
What you should know about Hangzhou
- Urban population: 10 million.
- Location: Mideast, Zhejiang province.
- Who should move to Hangzhou: People who want a balance of city life and the great outdoors.
Why you should live in Hangzhou
- West Lake. Hangzhou is famous for West Lake, the 6.5 square kilometer lake on the western edge of the city. This UNESCO World Heritage site is so picturesque that it’s represented on the back of the one RMB note. It has influenced poets, painters and artists for thousands of years.
One time, my friend and I woke up early, biked down to West Lake, brewed some tea and watched the sun rise over the lake. It was one of the most idyllic moments of my life.
- Cultural and natural beauty. But many Hangzhou attractions exist other than West Lake. There are numerous pagodas and temples around the city’s many forested mountains. You can spend hours getting lost in the woods by the city or sitting in one of its idyllic parks. Hangzhou is also notable for its tea culture, with West Lake Dragonwell being one of the most famous types of green tea in the world.
- Modernity. Hangzhou is a major player in the international business world. Not only is it the headquarters of Alibaba, it’s also home to some of the most innovative hi-tech startups in China. Thanks to its modernity, Hangzhou has a large collection of expats, a great public transportation system and lots of urban activities for its citizens.
What you should know about Shenzhen
- Urban population: 12.4 million.
- Location: Southeast, Guangdong province.
- Who should move to Shenzhen: Expats who want to be on the cutting edge of the Chinese business.
Why you should live in Shenzhen
- High-tech. Shenzhen is China’s first Special Economic Zone, which has opened this once fishing village up to an absurd amount of growth over the past 30 years. Shenzhen currently houses some of the country’s largest and most important companies, such as Tencent and Huawei. The amount of money that flows into Shenzhen from domestic and foreign investors continues to increase and promote rapid advancements in technological growth.
- Modern culture. Because of its rapid expansion, Shenzhen is arguably China’s most modern city. Apart from it being within earshot of the hyper-modern Hong Kong, many of the buildings, transportation, restaurants, music clubs and amenities are relatively new. There’s also an active arts and culture scene, even earning it a nod from UNESCO as a Creative City.
- Chinese haven for expats. One of the reasons expats love Shenzhen is because locals are upbeat and friendly toward foreigners. One time I waited for my friend on the subway platform, and multiple people approached me and asked—in English!—if I needed help getting somewhere.
Expats do remarkably well in this bustling Chinese city. Many amenities are new and modern, there’s a thriving nightlife scene, there are ample opportunities for business ventures and it’s just a metro ride away to Hong Kong for travel or visa runs. It’s no wonder Shenzhen is home to one of the largest expat scenes in China.
What you should know about Beijing
- Urban population: 22.5 million.
- Location: Northeast, Beijing municipality.
- Who should move to Beijing: People who want to get a feel for what China is all about—culturally, politically, socially and economically.
Why you should live in Beijing
- Culture. Apart from it being the political capital of the country, Beijing is often referred to as the cultural capital. People from all over China come here to conduct business, go to university, engage in Chinese politics and enjoy a markedly “Chinese” way of life. As such, the food, music and lifestyles of locals all represent a diverse cultural heritage.
And if you’re a tea snob like me, you’ll be treated to the finest teas from all over the country as they come to Beijing to be traded and sold around the world.
- Ease of life. Because Beijing is one of the largest cities in China—and in the world—it offers a lot of modern amenities to make locals and foreigners alike feel comfortable. The public transportation system is well developed and reliable, and there are plenty of expat communities to go to when you’re homesick.
- Opportunities. Most things Chinese have roots in Beijing. It’s a business, technology and education hub. There are many world-renowned universities, corporations and startup prospects based out of the capital city. Opportunities are everywhere, and expats who know how to assimilate with the local culture do phenomenally well here.
What you should know about Tianjin
- Urban population: 15.5 million.
- Location: Northeast, Tianjin municipality.
- Who should move to Tianjin: People who want a balance between a modern lifestyle and traditional Chinese culture.
Why you should live in Tianjin
- Convenient location. Tianjin is also one of the largest cities in the world. But it’s probably most notable for its close proximity to Beijing. Just take a high-speed train for 30 minutes, and you’re in the capital city! Both Tianjin and Beijing are near Hebei province, but Tianjin offers its residents better access to the scenic, traditional province.
- Cultural heritage. Tianjin is often overshadowed by Beijing, but it boasts a distinct and important history. The city is famous country-wide for 相声 (xiàng sheng) — a type of comedy performance. Tianjin is also known for a famous kind of clay figure sculpture. The architecture of the city is unique, from ornate bridges to elaborate skyscrapers. And in the 1800s, there were many European concessionary bases in Tianjin. Many of them still exist in some form today.
- Technology and business. It may come as no surprise that such a huge city has a bustling business scene. From 1996 onward, the government has been ramping up its efforts to highlight Tianjin as a business hub, trying to make it mimic the development seen in Shenzhen and Shanghai. This vibrant tech and business surplus brings with it a large expat scene and many western-style amenities.
What you should know about Kunming
- Urban population: 3.5 million.
- Location: Southwest, Yunnan province.
- Who should move to Kunming: People who want to live in a laid-back city.
Why you should live in Kunming
- Relaxed and mild city. Make no mistake, Kunming is definitely a big and important provincial capital city. But sitting far away in the southwestern part of the country, it feels very removed from the hustle and bustle of the big cities to the east. Apart from the mild-mannered citizenry, Kunming is also notable for its mild climate, often called the “City of Eternal Spring.”
- Hub of Yunnan. Yunnan province is one of China’s most culturally, biologically and geographically diverse provinces. It’s world-renowned for its vast mountain gorges, visually stunning rice terraces and idyllic waterfront temples. As the capital of the province, Kunming is the best base for exploring the surrounding areas. It’s also the main marketplace for Yunnanese goods and cultural artifacts.
- Expat-friendly. Because Kunming is so laid-back and close to untouched natural wonders, it attracts a fair amount of expats and foreigners looking to take advantage of its chilled-out cityscape. There’s a decent public transportation system and all the necessary western services to make foreigners comfortable.
What you should know about Shanghai
- Urban population: 24.5 million.
- Location: Mideast, Shanghai municipality.
- Who should move to Shanghai: Business-minded expats and people who want a Western-style atmosphere.
Why you should live in Shanghai
- Modern lifestyle. I usually refer to Shanghai as “European China” or “China Lite.” It’s a great city to live in if you’re slow to warm up to the staggeringly different Chinese lifestyle and don’t like sudden culture shocks. There are modern amenities and good public transportation services, and many people speak English. In fact, I know many expats living in Shanghai who can’t speak any Chinese, and they seem to do just fine. That said, the ones I know who do speak Chinese fare much better.
- Scenery. Shanghai is famous for its skyscrapers. The city is separated into two parts by the Huangpu River, which can be crossed by a cheap and gorgeous ferry ride. The architecture in Shanghai is diverse, ranging from historic temples to some of the most modern looking buildings in the world.
- Opportunities. As China’s largest city, many businesses and entrepreneurs flock to Shanghai to explore the countless opportunities that exist here. Shanghai is home to several major world headquarters, world-class universities and innovative startups targeting both a domestic and international customer base.
What you should know about Fuzhou
- Urban population: 2.7 million.
- Location: Southeast, Fujian province.
- Who should move to Fuzhou: People who want to live in a mid-sized Chinese city.
Why you should live in Fuzhou
- Convenient location. Fujian province is famous for its mountainous landscapes and coastal cities. The area is home to beautiful coastlines and waterfall mountains. Fuzhou is directly across from Taiwan, so the city has a decidedly Taiwanese influence on its culture and lifestyle. Because of its strategic location, Fuzhou is often regarded as a major transportation hub for China.
- Culture. Fuzhou is the capital of the Fujian sub-culture of China, which is rich with historical significance. There are many reminders of its importance in history with centuries-old Buddhist temples, historic downtown areas and an attractive urban lake park. Fuzhou is also notable for its food culture, which typically indulges in the sweeter side of Chinese cuisine.
- Industry and business. As one of the biggest and most important port cities of China, Fuzhou is a major industrial and innovation hub. Many multinational companies have factories and offices in Fuzhou. This translates to opportunities for those that come and are able to assimilate into the culture.
What you should know about Guangzhou
- Urban population: 19.8 million.
- Location: Southeast, Guangdong province.
- Who should move to Guangzhou: Expats who want to experience Cantonese culture.
Why you should live in Guangzhou
- Cantonese culture. The culture of the Canton people is markedly different than that of the rest of mainland Chinese culture. One major difference is that people speak the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, rather than just the Mandarin dialect. Many locals speak both!
The food culture is also very distinct. When I traveled to Guangzhou after living in Beijing, I was immediately struck by the familiarity of the food. Because of the early emigration of Guangdong people, much of the Chinese food we eat in Western countries comes from Cantonese culture.
- Expat-friendly. While the locals do speak Cantonese, most people in Guangzhou will communicate with foreigners in Mandarin or even English. Guangzhou is a major city with well-planned out city streets and a reliable and easy-to-navigate public transportation system. It’s one of the main expat hubs of China and comes with lots of expat-friendly bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
- Easy city life. Guangzhou is a major business and technology hub, but with a substantially cheaper standard of living than nearby Shenzhen. The city is well-maintained and full of city parks, idyllic Buddhist and Daoist temples and interesting historical relics to provide a dramatic counter to the tall buildings and modern cityscape.
What you should know about Lanzhou
- Urban population: 2.5 million.
- Location: Northwest, Gansu province.
- Who should move to Lanzhou: People with a good grasp of Mandarin who want to live in a small city.
Why you should live in Lanzhou
- History and culture. Lanzhou was one of the major stops along the Silk Road. As a result, it holds a lot of important historic and cultural artifacts. It was also one of the major spots where Chinese Buddhism took root and flourished, and the city still has many of its ancient temples. Lanzhou is also internationally famous for its 拉面 (lā miàn) — hand-pulled noodles locals eat all day, every day.
- Diverse landscapes. Located on the Yellow River and in an area surrounded by mountains, Lanzhou is a naturally beautiful place. Walk along the banks of the river or walk across the water on the famed Zhongshan Bridge. If that doesn’t sound interesting enough, you can always take a walk through the caves carved along the side of the mountains.
- Modern and livable city. Lanzhou might be a small city, but it’s by no means remote. It’s still a contemporary city with modern amenities. In fact, many Chinese citizens report it as one of the best places to live in the country. While there are fewer expats here than the other cities on this list, for a foreigner who has a good grasp on the language and a desire to explore the remoteness of the surrounding region, Lanzhou is a great place to live.
Because China’s so big, there’s no shortage of places to live for those brave souls who want to engage with the uniqueness of Chinese culture.
These 10 best places to live in China are a great starting point for those looking to take in the magic and wonder of the Middle Kingdom.
So study some Mandarin, find the perfect job, take that leap of faith and create a new life for yourself in China!
Eric Michelson is a nomadic, philosophizing, peace-minded pluralist. He hopes to help bridge the divide between the diverse factions of the world by exploring various perspectives brought on by personal experience. You can follow Perspective Earth to learn more about him and his work.