On a highway in Shenzhen recently, I spied a mud-splattered car that had perhaps travelled more than 3,000km from Jilin province. In any case, I could tell from its licence plate that the vehicle was registered in China’s northeast.
China is divided into 33 “first-level administrative divisions”, consisting of 22 provinces; four municipalities (Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin); five autonomous regions (Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang) and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). In addition to these is Taiwan, governed by the nominal Republic of China, which Beijing considers a renegade territory that has yet to be reunified with the Chinese nation.
In the same way that American states are abbreviated to two letters in postcodes (TX for Texas, for example), each of China’s administrative divisions has a single-character name that is a short form of its longer name. It is this character that indicates on the licence plates of civilian vehicles the place of their registration.