Five Underrated Cities to Teach English In China

teach english in china

Most people, when you tell them that you lived in China for 3 years say” Oh, Beijing or Shanghai?” Well for your information there is a lot more to China than those two cities. In fact, there is a wealth of fascinating places in China, and even if you want to be in a big city, you still have many options available. Recently I saw a post by someone wanting to teach English in China and she wrote:” Well I want to work in a big city, so I guess that will be Beijing or Shanghai”. Wrong. Those are not big cities, those are MEGA cities. I mean humungous. Beijing was home to about 11 million in 2000 but is put to pass 23 million by the year 2020. Shanghai is the most populous city in the world and was set at 23.9 million this year, 2015. Since I am from the UK those numbers are really hard to grasp. For me, a city like Hangzhou, 6 million or Nanjng, going on 4 million, is still massive. So let’s look at other options for teachers looking to relocate and teach English in China. I assure you, there are many other great places.

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Only 2.5 hours west of Shanghai by train Hangzhou is a great place. With its famous scenic West Lake, pagodas and temples, and cool downtown vibe of coffee houses and clubs, this is a good choice for people who want to experience China but don’t want to be isolated from other Westerners and home comforts. There are lots of shopping malls and places to buy “Western foods” as well as a huge variety of different places to teach from kindy right up to University. In fact the famous Zhejiang University has several different colleges dotted around the city, which are always looking for new foreign teachers.

Don’t forget to check on the expats forums Hangzhou Expat and the More Hangzhou  (in English) which can be picked up for free at various coffee bars and restaurants around town. There is now a new Hangzhou metro line in the city which makes getting around a bit easier, although the traffic is still pretty horrendous.

For more about working and living in China, read Teach English in China: The Essential Lowdown


Another famous historic town, Nanjing, previously known as Nanking is located in Jiangsu province, and has a population of around 4 million. It is a little further north and therefore colder in winter than Hangzhou. It also has a mix of old and new, ancient historic sites such as the tomb of Sun Yat Sen, and the Confucious Temple ,as well as  lovely scenic areas such as the park around Purple Mountain. It has a cheap, clean and modern subway system and lots of different areas to explore and places where expats hang out, the 1912 district which has plenty of bars and restaurants. Just check out when you apply for a job where it is located, because many of the universities are located way out in the sticks. The forum for expats is called the Nanjinger Nanjing Expat and it has lots of helpful info and a place to ask questions of old-timers. It’s a good place to start if you are looking to teach English in Nanjing.


If you feel a bit more adventurous you can head out West. Just remember that the further away from Shanghai you go, the more likely you are to be in an environment where there are fewer Westerners and more of the “authentic “ China. However, the town of Chengdu in Sichuan province is very popular with Westerners.It has a distinctive style of cuisine  (read “spicy”) , lots of relaxing tea houses, an old and a very different feel from the cities of the East. It has the advantage of being near to some stunning scenery great for exploring if you are into trekking and nature (Pandas!) , but the city of Chengdu, population around 5 million, also has lots of modern shopping malls, a good transportation system  including two new metro lines, and one of the most famous universities in China, Sichuan University. Downtown Tianfu Square has a massive statue of Mao and a cute synchronized light and water show every noon and evening. Of course, you can find loads of places to visit whether you are into shopping, nature or history, and many foreigners claim that it is THE place to be. Like all cities in China, you can take your pick of ESL schools from Kindy through University. For more info check out the expats site Go Chengdu .


I tried really hard to get a job in Shenzhen, in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province-  but since I only wanted a job at Uni, and there is only one University there, I didn’t find one. But if teaching kids, or teaching at a training school (ie teaching different age groups) is your thing, you will probably manage to land a job there. And here’s why it’s a great place to be… it’s just across the border from Hong Kong. Plus, it’s a massive booming metropolis with lots to see and do. Yes, Shenzhen pretty much has it all – easy access to Hong Kong and Macau, as well as beaches, shopping galore, restaurants, night life, and much more.Shenzhen had a population of 7 million in 2000 but that number must me much higher by now, as the general trend in China is for people to migrate from the villages to the cities, and many are moving to Shenzhen because today it is the “factory of the world”. That isn’t to say that the whole city is some kind of industrial factory. Far from it, it is in fact pretty clean and has lots of parks and squares and fun places to go.It is also close to Guangzhou, where there are also many cultural and historic attractions. Shenzhen itself is often accused of having little history- if you are looking for “authentic “ China maybe this is not your place.But if you like large modern fast-paced places it might be for you. There is a great area called the OCT which has a whole lot of theme parks such as Splendid China and Window of the World, as well as art galleries and a whole artists’ village where they will paint you your own Van Gogh or Rembrandt, or just your portrait! The Shekou port area, where many foreigners live, has a great restaurant and entertainment district. Getting around on the squeaky clean subway is cheap and easy. For more info head over to Shenzhen Party


And now for my personal favourite, and my home for the last 2.5 years, Xiamen, located  on the seaside in Fujian province. Just across the Straits of Taiwan on the East coast, 4 hours by fast train (and I mean FAST)  from Hong Kong and 8 hours ride from Shanghai, Xiamen, known in Marco Polo’s time as Amoy, is a great place. The actual city is on an island connected to the mainland by several  long bridges, and it has a crazy mixture of traditional and modern. It has quite a lot of foreigners but still feels Chinese. The people speak Minnan dialect, which you will not understand a word of, even if your Mandarin Chinese is very good. It has tons of seafood, miles of sandy beaches and many shopping malls and parks. The air is relatively clean, especially in comparison to the megalopolises of Shanghai and Beijing. The population is around 3.5 million, and sometimes the traffic is crazy, because they are still constructing the metro system which will eventually release the congestion. Lots of rich “returning Chinese” businessmen live there, and therefore, lots of people are looking to learn English. The weather is sub- tropical – hot and humid in summer and cool and damp in winter. You will find lots to amuse you downtown on the island- the Nanputuo Buddhist temple, the Piano Island of Gulangyu, reached by taking a 5 minute ferry ride, the boardwalk. If you like you can take a ferry over to Taiwan!  Xiamen has a unique feel to it, and is a very sought after location by foreigners, particularly those who want to experience China while still maintaining  the comforts of Western living. Most of the Universities are actually located on the mainland in an area called Jimei, and not on the island. The only one on the island is the renowned Xiamen University, which is very close to an “Ivy league” kind of place, with its gorgeous campus which is a tourist attraction for the many visitors who come to Xiamen on vacation. One of the highlights of the calendar in Xiamen is the Dragon Boat Race held in June, when different teams of rowers compete annually in the pools near the University district of Jimei. For more details on this city head over to Whats On Xiamen

Honourable Mentions to teach English in China

Other cities I sincerely recommend investigating are Ningbo and Qingdao, both on the East coast  and both pleasant places to live, Guangzhou (near to Shenzhen) and Huizhou, which I heard great things about but didn’t manage to visit. And remember, there are many more places you can check out- just do your research and ask yourself  and others lots of questions before you run off and buy some guide on how to teach English in China.

About Ruth Sheffer 6 Articles
Born in the UK,Ruth accidentally ended up in the Middle East at the age of 24. She began teaching English as a Foreign Language in a High school in Jerusalem,where she met her husband and got stuck for the next 30 odd years,during which her wanderlust was confined to two week bursts during school holidays. After raising her family, the wanderlust that had started brewing in her youth took hold again,and she and hubby took early retirement and set off to discover Asia, amongst other places. She has visited Korea, Taiwan, China, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, and many places in Europe.She blogs at