This article outlines the problems in translating and understanding the Chinese 市 ('city/municipality/prefecture), and suggests a consistent translation to resolve the dilemma.

What passes for a city in the PRC, the 市, is not a city in the true sense of the word, but an administrative unit consisting of an urban core and a surrounding rural area, which may or may not include further subordinate ‘cities’ , along with the usual towns and villages. Despite this, the character 市, especially when found in words such as 地级市 (”prefecture –level city”), and 市政府(”city government”) is commonly found translated in most authorities as ‘city’. It is also often translated as ‘municipality’, and occasionally ‘prefecture’. All of these translations can also refer to concepts other than the 市, and the inconsistency of their use causes enormous confusion to the English reader. On my first trip to China, upon hearing my destination ‘city’ had a population of over 2 million, I signed my work contract imagining I was going to a bustling metropolis, only to find an overgrown town with less than 500,000 people, the rest presumably being distributed over the surrounding countryside.
The English word ‘municipality’ varies in meaning according to the country where it is located, although it is often associated in the West with an urban area, rather than a largely rural district. In mainland China however, this word is now properly understood as a translation for 直辖市, the highest-ranked ‘cities’ in China, of which at this stage there are only four, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Tianjin. Unfortunately, using forms of the word ‘municipality’ to refer to other lower ‘cities’, usually in relation to “prefecture-level cities”, is widespread and easily leads to confusion for the layman. The word ‘prefecture’ is now sometimes used to refer to an entire 市, to distinguish it from the urban core, but is already in use for a different administrative unit, the 地区, (often found in Xinjiang), which further complicates the situation.
It is clear that there is a need for a more accurate and reliable translation of 市, but what should it be? I believe a feasible solution is to consistently adopt the word ‘municipality’, and the adjective ‘municipal’, where this ‘municipality’ can be understood to be any administrative unit comprising a city and surrounding area. This definition is in keeping with the concept of a municipality as a political unit. 直辖市 is then translated more literally (as it sometimes is already) as ‘directly-administered municipality’, 地级市 becomes a prefecture-level municipality, and县级市 a county-level municipality; 北京市 becomes ‘Beijing municipality’.
This translation neatly eliminates the ambiguity that currently exists between the urban area of a 市, and the entire 市. Hence we could talk about Dalian city as meaning just the urban area, and Dalian municipality as the entire administrative zone. If consistently used, Western audiences would quickly become familiar with this Chinese form of municipality, and the word ‘city’ could be reserved for referring to actual cities, rather than huge regions of up to 20,000 square kilometers.

Copyright, 1999-2006. All rights reserved. -
The concept of a Chinese ‘city’ and the translation of ‘市’
Author: Hamish Young
New Zealand
Chinese to English translator
Platinum since May 4, 2010 
By Hamish Young
Published on 06/15/2010
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