Prefecture of China

From Academic Kids

This article is part
of the series:
Political divisions of China
Province level
Autonomous regions
Special Administrative Regions
Prefecture level
Autonomous prefectures
Prefecture-level cities
(incl. Sub-provincial cities)
County level
Autonomous counties
County-level cities
(incl. Sub-prefecture-level cities)
Autonomous banners
Township level
Ethnic townships
Ethnic sumu
District public offices

Prefecture, in the context of China, is used to refer to several unrelated political divisions in both ancient and modern China.

In a modern context, prefecture-level (地区级, abbreviated 地级, "region") is used to refer to a level of division between the province and county levels. The prefecture level is the second level in the administrative hierarchy of the People's Republic of China. There are four kinds of prefecture-level divisions: prefectures, prefecture-level cities, autonomous prefectures, and leagues.

The modern Chinese prefecture is a relatively recent creation. When the word "prefecture" is encountered in literature referring to ancient China, it refers to either the xian or the zhou, which are two other types of administrative division.



Prefectures (地区 pinyin: dqū) are governed by administrative offices (行政公署 xngzhnggōngshǔ), led by a head of office (行政首长 xngzhngshǒuzhǎng) appointed by the province.

At one point, prefectures were the most common type of prefecture-level division. Today they have been mostly converted into prefecture-level cities, and the trend is still ongoing.

There are 17 prefectures remaining in mainland China, mostly in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Prefecture-level city

Main article: Prefecture-level city

Prefecture-level cities (地级市 pinyin: djshī) are cities that are given prefecture status and the right to govern surrounding counties. In practice, prefecture-level cities are so large that they are just like any other administrative division, and not cities in the traditional sense of the word at all.

Prefecture-level cities are the most common type of prefecture-level division in mainland China today.


Main article: League (Inner Mongolia)

Leagues (盟 pinyin: mng) are the prefectures of Inner Mongolia. The name comes from an ancient Mongolian administrative unit, which were used during the Qing Dynasty in Mongolia. During the ROC rule, the leagues had status equivalent to provinces. Leagues contain banners, equivalent to counties.

Just like prefectures, most leagues have been replaced by prefecture-level cities. There are only 3 leagues remaining in Inner Mongolia.

Autonomous prefecture

Main article: Autonomous prefecture

Autonomous prefectures (自治州 pinyin: zzhzhōu) either have over 50% of the population with ethnic minorities or are historically resided by significant minorities. All autonomous prefectures are mostly dominated, in population, by the Han Chinese. The official name of an autonomous prefecture includes the most dominant minority in that region, sometimes two, rarely three. For example, a Kazakh (Kazak in official naming system) prefecture may be called Kazak Zizhizhou.

Like all other prefecture-level divisions, autonomous prefectures are divided into county-level divisions. There is one exception: Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture contains two prefectures of its own.

Under the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, autonomous prefectures cannot be abolished.

Development zone

Development zones (开发区 pinyin: kāifāqū) were temporary prefecture-level divisions. Chongqing was a development zone before it became a municipality, and two development zones were set up within Chongqing immediately after it became a municipality. These divisions were temporary and no longer exist.

Legal status

The constitution of the People's Republic of China does not endorse any prefecture-level division, except for autonomous prefectures. Prefectures and leagues are not at all mentioned; provinces are explicitly stated to be divided directly into counties.

The constitution does not explicit endorse the existence of prefecture-level cities; but it does mention that "large cities" are divided into counties and districts. Since these "large cities" are obviously not province-level (if they were, they would be called municipalities), and they are not county-level either (since that is the level explicitly stated to be below them), this statement can be seen as an implicit endorsement of prefecture-level cities — though likely not the sort that currently covers vast areas, both urban and rural, all across China, and comes as a very real level of administration between provinces and counties.

Ancient sense

In the history of the political divisions of China, the word "prefecture" has been applied onto two unrelated types of division: the xian and the zhou. In general the word "prefecture" is applied onto xian for the period before the Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty; for the period after, xian are called "districts" or "counties", while "prefectures" now refer to zhou.


Xian (县/縣) were first established during the Warring States Period, and have existed continuously ever since. Today, they continue to form an important part of the political divisions of China.

Xian has been translated using several English language terms. In the context of ancient history, "district" and "prefecture" are the most commonly used terms, while "county" is generally used for more contemporary contexts.

See County of China for more information.


Zhou (州) were first established during the Han Dynasty, and were abolished only with the establishment of the Republic of China.

Zhou is generally translated as "province" or "region" for the period before the Sui Dynasty, and "prefecture" for the period from the Sui Dynasty onwards.

The People's Republic of China has revived the word zhou as part of the term "zizhizhou" (自治州), which is translated as "autonomous prefectures", as described above.

See Zhou (political division) for more information.



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