What is China's Largest Province? (hint: the answer is tricky)

What is the Largest Province in China?

July 3 | 3 Comments

What is China’s largest province? You might be surprised to learn that the answer isn’t as simple as it seems. Let me explain with you what a “province” is in China and share with you the answer to this question.

What is the largest province in China?

When I first started researching the answer to this question about the largest province in China, I inadvertantly opened a whole can of worms I didn’t know about. I found that – to be fair – this is a trick question.

The answer lies in your understanding that not all parts of China are created equally.  I just finished taking a crash course in Chinese Political Geography 101, and I’m lending you my notes to copy.

Understanding Chinese Political Divisions

While in the U.S. all subdivisions are referred to as “states” (well, I guess we do have territories), China has actually divided its ‘state-like’ divisions into 4 different levels:

  1. Provinces (ex: Sichuan, Shaanxi)
  2. Autonomous Regions (ex: Xinjiang, Tibet)
  3. Municipalities (ex: Beijing, Shanghai)
  4. Special Administrative Regions or SAR’s (ex: Hong Kong, Macau)

It could also be argued that there is a 5th, that of a “claimed territory” such as Taiwan, but since that’s really the only one in that category I’ll just leave that as a special classification.  Each of these divisions has minor differences in governmental setup, however all ultimately report to the central government in Beijing.

Chinese Provinces

There are 22 different provinces that make up the majority of Chinese territory.  These are usually led by a person referred to as a “secretary”.

Strictly speaking, if we’re dealing with only provinces, China’s largest province is Qinghai (#4 on the left) covering a total of 721,000 km2 (278,000 sq mi).

All maps and square footage facts taken from Wikipedia.

China’s “Autonomous Regions”

There are 5 Autonomous regions in China designated as such because of the large population of a particular minority group.  While they retain the right to appoint their own minority governor, the head of this region is the Party Secretary who is always Han Chinese.

A map of China's Autonomous Regions

Among the autonomous regions, Xinjiang (#1 on the top left) is the largest in China covering 1,660,001 km2 (640,930 sq mi).

China’s Municipalities

A Municipality is basically a huge city that has the same rights as provinces.  These areas usually cover an area much larger than the actual city and are governed by a mayor. 

China's Municipalities

The largest municipality is Chongqing (#3 dead center) with an area of 82,300 km2 (31,776.2 sq mi) which, by the way, is bigger than the smallest province of Hainan.

China’s Special Administrative Regions

There are only two SAR’s: Hong Kong and Macau. They’re basically a self-governing nation that report directly to the central government on all issues of foreign policy or national defense, among other things. 

The largest of the two SARs is Hong Kong.

So…What is China’s Largest Province?

Now that we have an understanding of the political divisions within China, it will be much easier to answer the question I asked at the beginning.

I’ve already found out that Qinghai is the largest actual province in China, but I think it goes without saying that most people outside of China (and many inside as well) won’t recognize or understand these political subdivisions.

Therefore, the best way to answer the question would be to restate it:

What is the biggest (political) subdivision of China?

The answer to that, of course, is Xinjiang.

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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  1. Ah! Interesting trivia! But if we want to split hairs, one can say there are only 46 states in the USA, with four Commonwealths (KY, PA, MA, and VA). There’s also the DISTRICT of Columbia; and Native reservations are also technically autonomous (and some would claim sovereign).

    [Reply]

    Josh on March 12th, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Ha! I love it, Rich. Thanks for the trivia about the US that I never knew :)

    [Reply]

  2. A couple more technicalities:

    1) As you note, the provinces are headed by a “secretary.” A secretary of what, you ask? Secretary of the provincial branch of the *Chinese Communist Party.* [They also have a governor, but the Party Secretary outranks the Governor.]

    2) Sure, each Autonomous Regions is mainly populated by an ethno-national group that is a “minority” compared with the PRC citizenry country-wide, but should not be really be considered a “minority” in its own homeland — otherwise why would Mao and the CCP have bothered to make it an “autonomous region?” By definition, these regions were in recent centuries populated by a particular non-Chinese national group, not a “minority.”

    3) Useful fact: Rights-seeking Uyghurs and other non-Han peoples like to use the older English term for their homeland.

    4) Another useful fact: The autonomous region of Inner Mongolia was in past centuries referred to as “Southern Mongolia” [Uvu Mongolia] in the local language — hence some activists promoting Mongolian rights like to talk about, for example, “human rights in Southern Mongolia” when they refer to their homeland, rather than “Inner Mongolia.”

    [Reply]




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