Sexual transmission has become the primary route of HIV transmission in China. Therefore, a comprehensive overview of HIV-1 subtype distribution is necessary for the prevention and control of the HIV epidemic. The present study aimed to provide a comprehensive prevalence estimate of different HIV-1 subtypes in sexual transmission in China. We conducted a systematic literature review for studies of HIV-1 subtypes in English and Chinese through several databases. Eligible articles were screened and selected by two authors independently. Random-effects model were applied to calculate the pooled prevalence of different HIV-1 subtypes, and subgroup analyses examined prevalence estimates across time, locations, and populations. A total of 130 eligible studies were identified, including 18 752 successfully genotyped samples. The pooled prevalence of CRF01_AE, subtype B, CRF07_BC, CRF08_BC, and subtype C were 44·54% (95% CI 40·81–48·30), 18·31% (95% CI 14·71–22·17), 16·45% (95% CI 13·82–19·25), 2·55% (95% CI 1·56–3·73), 0·37% (95% CI 0·11–0·72), respectively. The prevalence of subtype B in sexual transmission decreased, while the prevalence of CRF01_AE and CRF07_BC in sexual transmission, and CRF08_BC in heterosexual transmission increased. There is significant variation in HIV-1 subtype distribution between regions. The distribution of HIV-1 subtypes and circulating recombinant forms have changed significantly. The high genetic variability of HIV-1 poses a significant challenge for disease control and surveillance in China.