For students wanting to perfect their Mandarin skills while studying abroad in China, you will inevitably have to make a decision about which city you prefer to call "home" for your semester away. Most international students opt to head to one of China's largest cities: the political capital, Beijing, or the financial capital, Shanghai.
People who have spent time in both cities have experienced differences that could not be more obvious. Whether we are talking about the city itself, its looks and atmosphere, or the people and their lifestyles, you will soon find things are not the same. Even the accents of the local people are different - in Beijing, you will find more speakers of er hua, or the nation's standard dialect. The southern accent found in Shanghai is much different, so you will find fewer opportunities to practice your Mandarin outside of the classroom.
As a student, which Chinese city should you choose to study in? We recommend considering the following factors when coming to your decision.
Population, Climate, and Location
Beijing, the cultural and political center of China for centuries, known for its beautiful ancient temples, gardens, distinguished museums, and exhibition centers, has a population of about 21.5 million people. Beijing is home to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, making it a popular destination for tourists from all over the world. Still, it has kept the atmosphere of an ancient capital where traditions and values play a major role.
Shanghai is the most populated city in the world with around 26.3 million people calling it home. In this city, you'll feel an international spirit immediately; many people even refer to Shanghai as the ‘Paris of the East.’ Foreigners often claim to feel more comfortable in Shanghai than in Beijing.
Surrounded by wide mountain ranges, Beijing has dry, frigid winters and hot summers. Shanghai, situated further south (next to the East China Sea), has a longer summer with more humidity. The winds and rain brought by the neighboring sea are essential for clearing the oft-polluted air: Shanghai will have bluer skies than Beijing. It should be noted that even though Beijing has colder temperatures in the winter, it does have a central heating system - so it actually feels warmer indoors there than in Shanghai. Be sure to bring extra blankets and warm coats when studying in either city!
The best time to visit Beijing is September and October, when fall paints the leaves gold. In Shanghai, both spring and fall are great, as these seasons are typically mild and pleasant. Visiting either city during the summertime is not recommended because both tend to be crowded with tourists, and the stifling hot air can be exhausting.
Both cities are well connected via train and plane to other cities around China. Shanghai's central location makes it a more convenient option for traveling overland, as Beijing is situated in the far north. Shanghai is a quick train away from Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, and other great cities, whereas Beijing's nearest ally is Tianjin. Luckily, the high-speed train connects both Beijing and Shanghai, so regardless of where you choose to study, be sure to take advantage of the 5-hour ride to experience a bit of both!
Universities in China
Although both cities are centers of higher education, there are more prestigious universities in Beijing than in Shanghai. Both cities offer national and municipal universities, as well as private institutions to international and local students. There is a wide range of subjects you can study, starting from technical disciplines to financial and political issues and social studies. Some of the universities, such as Tsinghua in Beijing, gladly welcome exchange students and teach many graduate-level courses in English.
Private schools are a great option to consider if you want to focus your studies on language acquisition. Though relatively few of these types of schools exist, it will be a cheaper option with more Mandarin-intensive courses.
Beijing is the academic hub for nationals, with distinguished universities such as Peking and Beijing Language and Culture University. Shanghai, conversely, boasts Fudan and Jiaotong Universities, both very popular among international students. The universities in Beijing are set in the northwest corner of the city, about a 40-minute subway ride from downtown, whereas Shanghai's universities are more integrated into the city life.
Cost of Living
Generally speaking, living in Shanghai is more expensive than living in Beijing. Rent is higher in Shanghai's city center versus Beijing's, although prices are more or less equal in the suburbs of both cities. A one-bedroom apartment inside Shanghai city limits costs around $1350 while the same property will run you around $1,100 in Beijing. However, outside of both cities, a one-bedroom costs about $630.
Regardless, living in both cities can still be less expensive compared to many other countries and cities in the world, so don’t go pinching your kuai just yet! A quick indicator of the differences in the cost of living can be found on the McDonalds menu: a combo meal in Shanghai will cost you $6.20, while in Beijing it will be $5.40. For the record, you’d most likely be paying somewhere around $9 in New York City! Both cities offer a variety of cheap and expensive restaurants and activities.
The most important means of transport in each metropolis is the subway, with more than 2 billion rides per year. Beijing’s quickly-growing subway current operates 24 lines whereas Shanghai has 18. With a flat fare of just 65 cents in Beijing and Shanghai, the metro is not only convenient but also very affordable! It should be noted that Beijing is much more sprawling and therefore less convenient to get around.
Another fast and cheap way to get from point A to point B are the cities’ bus systems. Compared to New York, which offers about 300 bus routes, Beijing boasts more than 800 bus lines and Shanghai more than 1000. Both bus systems offer flat rates, which means you will never pay more than around 30 cents in Beijing and Shanghai when you need to get around in the city.
Things To Do
While many people usually consider Beijing to have more famous sights, Shanghai shouldn’t be ignored. A student seeking highlights of ancient Chinese culture, including intricate temples, lavish gardens, and magnificent pagodas will love studying in Beijing. Shanghai, on the other hand, showcases China’s vibrant recent past and optimistic future. Here, more modern buildings congregate, including a hoard of infamous skyscrapers: Pearl Tower, Financial Center, Jinmao Tower and Shanghai Tower.
While the nightlife in Beijing is basically limited to Sanlitun, Wudaokou, and Houhai, bars and clubs can be found all over Shanghai. In terms of price, you can sip on locally made Tsingdao Beer for around $1.50 in both Beijing and Shanghai. For those interested in more cultural activities, Beijing is home to the Peking Opera, which is a great performance to observe after a nice feast of Peking Duck. If refined meals aren’t your thing, take a walk down the Wangfujing street market in Beijing, full of bizarre and adventurous snacks (scorpions, starfish, and cockroaches, oh my!) For those in Shanghai, take advantage of the wonderfully cheap and delicious kebab stalls that pop up on street corners in the evening hours. Additionally, Shanghai's Bund will always remain the most beautiful skyline in all of China (especially when lit up at night)!
Beijing vs. Shanghai: You Decide!
In the end, each student must decide independently which city they prefer to live in and which city they prefer to visit. Generally speaking, Shanghai is more cosmopolitan, trendy, and expensive. whereas Beijing is more traditional, cultural, and further afield. In the end. both are pretty sweet options, so you're in luck - no matter where you go, you're bound to have the adventure of a lifetime.
If the big city isn't really your thing, consider instead studying abroad in Kunming or Chengdu. Situated further inland, these cities don't compromise convenience but can offer a more immersive experience.