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May 12th, 2020 by David O Connor

Teach English in China – Understanding the City-Tier System

Teach in China_Shanghai Skyline

The best places to teach English in China are as varied as can be. From bustling megacities to laid-back country towns, teaching destinations in this huge and eclectic country offer the right environment for every kind of teacher. China operates a tiered system to classify its cities and although this classification doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a city, it can paint a very clear picture of what you can expect.

Your choice of teaching destination in China is not something you’ll want to take lightly: the city where you choose to live, and work, can have a huge impact on your overall teaching in China experience and that’s why salary is only one of several considerations you ought to keep in mind.

A short overview of what the China City-Tier System means

China’s 600-odd cities are split into Tier 1, 2 and 3 hubs with 1 being the largest, most populated and also most modern metropolis. This city-tier system is primarily used in the financial sector and is meant to provide a guide to foreign investors. Tiers denote how well a city does financially (by GDP), how good the infrastructure is (Tier 1 cities are home to the best and biggest airports, for example) as well as the city’s location (how convenient it is for trading and travel).

Megacities on the coast, home to huge trading ports, outstanding airports and prime businesses (both local and foreign) will obviously rank higher than smaller cities that are a fair distance from an international airport or aren’t huge producers.

Technically speaking, China classifies its cities in almost 20 tiers yet, when it comes to choosing the best places to teach English, you only ever need to consider Tiers 1 to 3.

As a prospective ESL teacher, the most relatable way to discern these tiered is by population – this can tell you almost everything you need to know about what living there will be like.

  • Tier 1 – 15 million or more
  • Tier 2 – Between 3 and 15 million
  • Tier 3 – Between 150,000 and 3 million
Teach in China_Temple of Heaven_Beijing

Tier 1 Teaching Cities in China

You can safely assume that a city with 15+ million people will boast the best schools, universities and teaching centers in the whole country and a healthy expat population. These are the kind of Chinese teaching hubs that boast fantastic international restaurants, a huge number of attractions, great options for socializing and, overall, a much busier and more exhilarating vibe.

Salaries for ESL teachers here are the highest you’ll find in all of China although competition is stiff and work pressure can be intense. These cities also boast the highest living costs in the country – coupled with the highest standard of living, all things considered.

Tier 1 teaching cities in China are:

Beijing – China’s capital is the second-most populated city in the country yet its undeniable political and cultural center. This city has been evolving for more than 3,000 years and it has all the bells and whistles to prove it: the most famous and unmissable tourist attractions in the country, like the spellbinding Forbidden Palace, as well as the most cosmopolitan and multi-cultural essence. For teachers, this translates to the best-paid jobs in the most prominent world-class universities and schools. The sheer size of the city and insane amount of attractions means a year teaching in Beijing is like 2 months spent teaching anywhere else – simply not enough time to see and do it all. Learn more on our Guide to teaching in Beijing.

Shanghai – If you’re after a teaching experience that’ll blow your mind…welcome to Shanghai, China’s most populated city. This fast-paced hub is an assault on all the senses and can offer the most exciting and memorable teaching experience of all. For some teachers, this is the epitome teaching in China destination. Home to the single largest expat community of any city in China, a plethora of outstanding historical and cultural attractions and offering unrivalled opportunities for easy travels throughout Asia, as well as surprising affordability, Shanghai is unparalleled. If you can manage to hold off excessive spending (a harder task than you may envisage) you’d do quite well in Shanghai as an ESL teacher, especially if you’ve managed to nab a job with one of the city’s premier schools or universities. Read our Guide to teaching in Shanghai to get the low down on this very exciting destination.

Shenzhen – What started as a small fishing village has evolved into one of China’s most enticing Tier 1 options. The city’s southern coastal location and inexpensive shopping attract ESL teachers in droves. Teachers living in Shenzhen boast about the enviable lifestyle and there’s no denying that if socializing, shopping and travelling rate high on your must-have list then this city would suit you to perfection. The constant sea breeze keeps pollution low in Shenzhen, which certainly helps lure foreign teachers and allows them to really enjoy the great outdoors, something for which the city is renowned, being framed by impressive wilderness and boasting almost two dozen great beaches. Learn more about teaching and living here with our Guide to teaching in Shenzhen.

Guangzhou – One of the fastest-growing cities in China and undoubtedly one of the most productive, Guangzhou is a force to be reckoned with. In southern China, this is the place to be, the city strategically positioned on the South China Sea coast just a swim stroke away from Hong Kong and Macau. Surprisingly, Guangzhou is revered for its immense green spaces and its relaxed vibe, especially when compared to its above-mentioned Tier 1 co-members. Heavily influenced by its trading commerce and boasting a lovely European feel, a great stretch of coast, quite idyllic climate and incredible travel opportunities, this is perhaps the most enticing Tier 1 city of all. See our Guide to teaching in Guangzhou to learn more about this fascinating and enjoyable city.

SUMMARY: Teaching in a Tier 1 city in China is not for everyone: the pace of life, daily commute and overall vibe can be overwhelming to the unaccustomed ESL teacher. Yet be that as it may, China’s megacities have a way of getting under one’s skin and becoming addictive places to live. Once you get used to the speed and exhilarating bustle, it can be a hard thing to give up. We find that foreign teachers fall into either a love or hate camp when it comes to teaching in Tier 1 cities – living in a city with more than 15 million people simply eradicates any kind of middle-ground. This is either your lifelong teaching abroad dream OR your biggest nightmare.

Luckily, though, you do have other options…

Teach in China_wangjianglou Park in Chengdu

Tier 2 Teaching Cities in China

Tier 2 cities are regarded by many as the very best places to teach English in China because they can offer all the benefits of Tier 1 cities minus the at-times overwhelming sensory overload. Tier 2 cities are often close enough to Tier 1 cities to make day-visits possible – so you can actually enjoy the best of both worlds. Usually, Western-style luxuries are harder to find here, as are English speaking locals. These ‘slightly smaller’ cities are by no-means boring: no city between 3 and 15 million people could ever be dull, yet you can have many more chances to learn Mandarin, will enjoy shorter and less stressful commutes, will usually have to put up with less pollution and will find your living costs to be drastically reduced.

Ironically enough, Tier 2 cities usually boast smaller expat communities but, because the cities are smaller and more compact, you may find it easier to meet and make friends with fellow foreigners. Overall, teaching in a Tier 2 city can be the ultimate compromise – here are two cities that bring the point home:

Chengdu – China’s panda capital is often regarded as the most enjoyable Tier 2 teaching city in the country. An aesthetically beautiful city with laid-back atmosphere, gorgeous parks, excellent cuisine, exceptionally friendly locals and oodles of attractions, Chengdu can be an absolute dream place to teach English. Modern and bustling enough to not feel like you’re in the back of beyond, Chengdu also offers plenty of glimpses of a more traditional Chinese life and you’ll find this to be an immensely interesting cultural place to call home. Read more about Teaching in Chengdu and you’ll understand why we love the place so much.

Xi’an – Home to the world-famous Terracotta Army and a phenomenal historical destination, Xi’an is a fascinating place to discover at length. This eclectic city showcases a mix of old and new that is intoxicating and offers an abundance of options for those who love to spend their weekends visiting world-class museums or exploring a more rural countryside. With a temperate climate, a great flow of tourists, a central location, one of China’s most diverse foodie scenes and fantastic nearby mountains, Xi’an suits the teacher who’s searching for more than just the neon-lights of the big city.

SUMMARY: Teaching in Tier 2 cities suits those who prefer a friendlier and more welcoming place to call home – not to mention a less stressful lifestyle. You may earn less than in Tier 1 cities but you will also spend less, which means more savings! Another very enticing aspect of teaching in Tier 2 (and 3) cities is that teaching jobs usually see far fewer applicants which can make bagging that first-ever ESL teaching job easier

See our guide to The Best of the Rest to get a more detailed overview of Tier 2 and 3 cities.

Tier 3 Teaching Cities in China

If you’re craving full cultural immersion then a Tier 3 city may be just the kind of teaching destination you need – not to mention the fact that you can rent a 3-bedroom house with a backyard for less than you’d pay for a tiny apartment in a Tier 1 city. This, for teachers who want to move here with their family, is a massive bonus.

Here are the most popular Tier 3 teaching cities in China:

Dalian – Founded by Russians just over a century ago, occupied by Japan or over four decades and just a few strides away from Korea, Dalian is ideal for expats who love a multi-cultural, tight-knit community. In this sense, it is the antipode of Tier 1 cities. Nestled in north-eastern China on the Liaodong Peninsula, Dalian is home to friendly local who are used to sharing their cities with foreigners so if you’re apprehensive about choosing a Tier 3 city because you don’t want to stand out of the crowds, this lovely city will suit you well. With the gorgeous array of seaside leisure spots, gardens, parks and fountains, Dalian stands apart than to the “Green Storm” environmental campaign spearheaded by the city’s former mayor.

Qingdao – Home of the famous Tsingtao Beer and a city that boasts a glorious seaside location right across from South Korea, Qingdao offers a multi-cultural vibe, much like Dalian. A scenic city with amazing and varied architecture, great beaches, a surprisingly European flair (due to German occupation) and outstanding seafood-based cuisine, Qingdao can make for a very rewarding teaching experience. The cost of living here is enviable and you’ll find a wealth of international and prominent teaching establishments that offer competitive salaries. Qingdao was voted one of China’s most livable cities and many foreign teachers certainly agree.

SUMMARY: By and large, Tier 3 cities are seen as cultural hubs and best suit teachers who want to move to China specifically because they’re enamored with the culture. They will usually still end up making a decent living and, more importantly, can enjoy a great lifestyle. Offering fewer Western commodities, attractions and contacts, Tier 3 cities in China can also be ideal if you don’t want to run the risk of living in an ‘expat bubble’, as happens to many people who move to much bigger cities. Of all the tiers, this third class of Chinese city is perhaps the most wide-ranging: there is still a humongous difference between a city of just 150,000 people and one of 3 million, so your experience will really depend on where you go.

China’s City-Tier system is a constantly-evolving classification given the speed at which cities are growing. It’s also worth noting that the Chinese government doesn’t officially classify cities using this kind of hierarchy so no official listing is ever published. Use this as a general point of reference when searching the best places to teach in China, however, and you’ll be one step closer to finding the teaching city that’s just right for you.

If you’d like more personalized advice about teaching destinations in China, or the kind of teaching jobs available, feel free to contact us, anytime.

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David O Connor

David O Connor

David is China by Teaching’s chief contributor. When not offering sage advice about teaching in China, David is a headmaster of a Bilingual kindergarten in Beijing. David is a lover of craft beers, book clubs and super long road trips.

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