District, in the context of China, is used to refer to several unrelated political divisions in both ancient and modern China.
In the modern context, districts (Simplified Chinese: 区; Traditional Chinese: 區; pinyin: qū) refer to two types of divisions in the People's Republic of China: districts at county level, and districts at township level (also known as district public offices). Districts can also refer to a type of division in the Republic of China on Taiwan.
District at county level
A district at the county level (市辖区, pinyin: shìxiáqū, lit. a district of a city) is a subdivision of a municipality or a prefecture-level city. These have status equal to a county, and are hence called "county level".
Before the 1980s, cities in the People's Republic of China were administrative divisions containing mostly urban, built-up areas, with very little farmland, except for the immediate suburbs in order to ensure a large supply of food or raw materials. As a result, districts were also mostly urban or suburban in nature.
After the 1980s, prefectures began to be replaced with prefecture-level cities. From then on, "cities" in mainland China became just like any other administrative division, containing urban areas, towns, villages, and farmland. These cities are subdivided into districts, counties, autonomous counties, and county-level cities. At the same time, counties and county-level cities began to be replaced with districts, especially after 1990. From then onwards, districts were no longer just urban entities — some districts today are just like counties, with towns and townships under them governing rural areas.
District at township level
A district at the township level, also known as a district public office (区公所), was once an important subdivision of a county all over China from 1950s to 1990s. It was common for there to be about 5 to 10 districts in a county, then about 3 to 5 towns and townships in a district. The status of such a district was technically the same or just above that of the township level. After the 1990s, township-level districts began to be phased out, and their role was taken over by larger towns and townships created by merging smaller ones.
In 2002, there are just 26 township-level districts left in China, with 1 in Hebei, 8 in Hunan, 6 in Gansu and 11 in Xinjiang.
See Political divisions of China for how these two types of districts fit into the general administrative hierarchy of mainland China.
District in the Republic of China on Taiwan
In the Republic of China on Taiwan, districts are the only subdivision of municipalities and provincial cities. Unlike districts in mainland China, districts in Taiwan are predominantly urban and suburban, and do not usually contain rural areas.
See Political divisions of the Republic of China for more information.
If the word "district" is encountered in the context of ancient Chinese history, then the word is a translation for xian, another type of administrative division in China.
Xian has been translated using several English language terms. In the context of ancient history, "district" and "prefecture" are commonly used, while "county" is used for more contemporary contexts.
See County of China for more information on the xian of China.