Chinese metropolitan areas blanketing the earth

One of the fascinating insights from When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order is that since economic development occurred so rapidly in East Asia its cities lack the historic charm of European urban areas. The reason being that the organic accrual of construction and history over more than a century of economic development simply did not occur in much of East Asia. The modern nation-state of China is the most extreme case of this (of course one issue is that historically East Asians have used more perishable materials in construction, and not emphasized the importance of the permanence of great public buildings).

A photo essay in The Guardian, The great leap upward: China’s Pearl River Delta, then and now, illustrates this with images of rapid change in urban areas. But that reminded me to do something I’d been meaning to get to: compare the size of urban areas in China to those in the United States and Europe.

Below is a table I constructed of metropolitan regions. The data are from Wikipedia and I selected the administrative classifications which seemed the most equivalent. Using a cut-off of 5 million inhabitants you can see China has many more metropolitan areas than the United States already. I know an decent amount of Chinese geography for a foreigner, but I don’t even recognize 7 of the 22 metropolitan areas!

China   USA   Europe  
  population   population   population
Shanghai 24500000 New York City 20153634 Ruhr 13400000
Beijing 21500000 Los Angles 13310447 Istanbul 11400000
Guangzhou 20800654 Chicago 9512999 Paris 11200000
Chongqing 18384000 Dallas-Forth Worth 7233323 Milan 8247125
Chengdu 17677122 Houston 6772470 London 8200000
Tianjin 15500000 Washington DC 6131977 Amsterdam 7500000
Shenzhen 12357938 Philadelphia 6070500 Munich 6100000
Harbin 12000000 Miami 6066387 Berlin 6000000
Wuhan 10670000 Atlanta 5789700 Madrid 5600000
Suzhou 10349090     Frankfurt 5600000
Hangzhou 9018000        
Xi’an 8627500        
Shenyang 8255921        
Dongguan 8220937        
Nanjing 8216000        
Foshan 7197394        
Jinan 7067900        
Wenzhou 6642592        
Qingdao 6188100        
Quanzhou 6107475        
Shantou 5346708        
Changsha 5288800      

7 thoughts on “Chinese metropolitan areas blanketing the earth

  1. Of the Chinese cities I have been to, probably the most attractive, and surprisingly cosmopolitan, is Tianjin. They have done a good job of preserving the Qing era old city centre. Walking around some of the university campuses, foreign students were very much in evidence and looked completely comfortable and adapted. Pity the air is unbreathable (which applies to pretty much all large Chinese cities, but some more than others, and in Tianjin it’s awful).

    Some other cities have been able to retain some heritage sites and older buildings, e.g. Shanghai and Qingdao, but nothing like European cities. Hong Kong has done an awful job of preserving heritage sites; it’s a hot issue now, but it has come too late – too much of genuine architectural merit has already been lost.

    Shenzhen seems weird because literally everything is recent – 30 years ago it didn’t exist; it wasn’t even a village, it was just agricultural fields and duck ponds. It has the same feel as Tangshan, which doesn’t have a single building over 31 years old because every single building in the whole city was destroyed in the 1976 earthquake.

  2. Meant to add, Macau has done a much better job of preserving heritage sites, and it had a much longer history of European occupation than Hong Kong, of course. But just a couple of weeks ago it got smashed by an intense typhoon with a pretty big storm surge, and the hardest hit area was the old inner harbour area, which was one of the most historically interesting, so I don’t know what sort of shape it is in now.

  3. East Asians have used more perishable materials in construction

    Yes, indeed. I wonder how much of this has to do with repeated experiences of natural disasters (earthquakes and typhoons in particular). Outwardly “flimsy” wooden construction was favored, for example, in Japan, because it was much more earthquake-safe and easier to repair.

    For whatever reason, this tendency has become quite culturally-ingrained among East Asians, so that they tend to constantly engage in demolish-and-rebuild cycles even with modern residential structures (e.g. apartments). On top of that, East Asians hate “used,” so new builds command hefty premiums. Indeed, it’s only in the very recent decades that some East Asians are beginning to appreciate their traditions and associated architecture/artifacts (in the 80’s and 90’s, for example, I saw East Asians throwing away traditional furniture they inherited in favor of Ikea-type furniture!). For a long time, “traditional” (including in architecture) was associated with backward and dirty in East Asia.

    not emphasized the importance of the permanence of great public buildings)

    I think the key operative word there is “public.” The West developed the conception of res publica rather than simply the domain and symbols of a ruling family. Perhaps related is the fact that West also had public works of great religious, that is, Christian, value (e.g. cathedrals) which were central to the society.

    In East Asia, the only buildings of prominence were traditionally associated with the ruling families (palaces, fortresses, courts, city gates) and little else, if any, of prominence was tolerated. Meanwhile, religion was frequently suppressed and never significantly developed centers of worship in urban areas (and even in rural areas, they were ruthlessly crushed if they got a bit too big for their breeches and dared to assert some form of independence or power). So, one finds many beautiful Buddhist temples and monasteries in the countryside (especially in mountains), but little in the cities that come close to anything like the awe-inspiring cathedrals of the West.

  4. By the way, I read in a biography of Deng Xiaoping ( that in the early phase of the cultural revolution, when the campaign against “The four olds” ( was launched, the young people of China enthusiastically and viciously demolished every old building and wall they could lay their hands on, but the old city wall of Nanjing was preserved because Deng was in charge of the region and managed to protect that particular wall. It is thus the ONLY old city wall that still survives mostly intact. The book indicated that large sections of Ching-era walls were present in Beijing and many other cities before that campaign. So one reason Chinese cities have little old architecture is because so much of it was systematically destroyed by the Red Guards.

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