Three species of otters are known from China; the Eurasian otter Lutra lutra is widespread throughout the country and the smooth-coated Lutrogale perspicillata and Asian small-clawed otters Aonyx cinereus occur in tropical and subtropical regions. We summarize the past status and distribution of otters in China, and provide an update based on a literature review, interviews and field surveys. Otter populations have undergone a dramatic countrywide decline, and are extirpated over much of their former ranges. Relict populations persist, however, in well-protected nature reserves, in sparsely populated headwaters of the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau, at remote sites along international borders, and in densely populated deltas and floodplains. Recent records were mostly of the Eurasian otter, and we could find no confirmed recent record of the smooth-coated otter. The otters that survive in certain well-protected sites could act as source populations for recolonization if adequate conservation interventions are implemented. Urgent, focused action is needed to protect the remaining populations, and to study the taxonomy and ecology of China's otters.