Compared with the many studies in western countries, research on the prevalence of and risk factors for loneliness amongst older people in China is sparse. This paper reviews the current cross-national literature on loneliness and, using data from two national surveys undertaken in 1992 and 2000, assesses the prevalence of loneliness amongst older people in China and explores the factors that raise their vulnerability to the negative feeling. The reported prevalence of loneliness was 15.6 per cent in 1992 and 29.6 per cent in 2000. We suggest that part of the differential is accounted for by the differences in the methodologies of the two surveys and in the questions used to assess loneliness. The evidence from both surveys suggests that loneliness was relatively prevalent among those aged 65 or more years, females and those living in rural areas, and that these variations had greater amplitude in 2000. As in western countries, increased age, being widowed or divorced, and poor self-rated health were significantly associated with old-age loneliness in China at the two dates. Two factors positively related to loneliness were found that are specific to the Chinese context, however: living in a rural (as opposed to urban) area, and thinking that one's children are not filial. To develop our understanding of loneliness among older people in China and other non-western countries, it will be necessary to construct more rigorous and comparable measurements of loneliness and to undertake longitudinal studies of social relationships.