In the context of Political divisions of China, county is the standard English translation of 县 (xi n). In the People's Republic of China, counties are found in the third level of the administrative hierarchy, a level that is known as "county-level" and also contains autonomous counties, county-level cities, banners, autonomous banners, and districts. There are 1467 counties in mainland China out of a total of 2861 county-level divisions.
In the Republic of China, counties (縣) are found in the second level, though the streamlining of Taiwan Province has effectively made the county the first-level governmental level below the Republic of China central government. There are 18 counties administered by the Republic of China.
See Political divisions of China and Political divisions of the Republic of China for how counties fit into the Chinese administrative hierarchy.
Autonomous counties (自治县 pinyin: z n) are a special class of counties in mainland China reserved for non-Han Chinese ethnic minorities. Autonomous counties are found all over China, and are given, by law, more legislative power than regular counties.
There are 117 autonomous counties in mainland China.
As the CPC is the central governmental institution in all of Mainland China, every level of administrative division has a local CPC Committee. A county's is called the CPC County Committee (中共县委) and the head called the Secretary (中共县委书记), the real first-in-charge of the county. Further, there is the People's Government of the county, and its head is called the County Governor (县长). The governor is sometimes also one of the Deputy Secretaries in the CPC Committee.
Xian have existed since the Warring States Period, and were set up nation-wide by the Qin Dynasty. The term xian is usually translated as "districts" or "prefectures" when put in the context of Chinese history. This article, however, will try to keep the terminology consistent with the modern translation, and use the term "county" throughout. Note that this is not conventional practice in Sinology literature.
The number of counties in China proper gradually increased from dynasty to dynasty. As Qin Shi Huang reorganized the counties after his unification, there were about 1000. Under the Eastern Han Dynasty, the number of counties increased to above 1000. About 1400 existed when the Sui dynasty abolished the commandery level (郡 j n), which was the level just above counties, and demoted some commanderies to counties. The current number of counties mostly resembled that of the later years of Qing Dynasty. Changes of location and names of counties in Chinese history have been a major field of research in Chinese historical geography, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s.
In Imperial China, the county was a significant administrative unit because it marked the lowest level of the imperial bureaucratic structure — in other words, it was the lowest level that the government reached. Government below the county level was often undertaken through informal non-bureaucratic means, varying between dynasties. The head of a county was the magistrate, who oversaw both the day-to-day operations of the county as well as civil and criminal cases.