In agrarian China, 80 to 90 percent of the population lived in rural areas, most of them in nucleated villages concentrated in plains and valleys. In less productive areas of northern China and in mountainous areas in the south, villages rarely exceeded a few hundred in population; in more productive rice areas in eastern and southern China, a village could contain two thousand or more people. (In much of Sichuan and a few other areas, isolated farmsteads predominated.) Before the advent of modern transport, each village was within walking distance of a standard market town, a basic-level urban center with a periodic market and one or more commercial streets with small stores and teahouses. From the standard market town, with a thousand or a few thousand people, up to the largest cities, containing several hundred thousand each, there was a hierarchy of commercial and administrative centers, each level with a larger population, more commercial activities, and more services available.
Traditional rural housing was built of tamped mud or sun-dried mud bricks in most areas, or of fired bricks for those who could afford them. House styles vary regionally; the most common general variants are houses built on two, three, or four sides of an enclosed courtyard, usually with peaked thatch, tile, or slate roofs, and multistory houses (usually of brick and often with flat roofs) built in rows along a street, with courtyards in front or in back. Both types, in higher-density arrangements, were also found in traditional cities; courtyard housing predominated in primarily residential areas and row housing, often with the store downstairs and the family quarters upstairs, in commercial areas. Wealthier families built larger and more elaborate structures on the same principles.
In recent times all these styles are still found, but in large cities most housing built since 1949 on the mainland has consisted of four-to-six story (and more recently much taller) concrete apartment blocks in which families are allocated one or more rooms. In Taiwan urban housing is also of the apartment-block type, but apartments are much larger and better appointed. Over the past 40 years or so, rural housing of mud has gradually been replaced by more substantial brick and/or concrete structures; mud houses disappeared in Taiwan in the 1970s and in some parts of the mainland in the 1980s, but in more remote and poorer parts of mainland China people are still building new mud housing.