Two previous reconstructions of palaeovegetation across the whole of China were performed using a simple classification of plant functional types (PFTs). Now a more explicit, global PFT classification scheme has been developed, and a substantial number of additional pollen records have become available. Here we apply the global scheme of PFTs to a comprehensive set of pollen records available from China to test the applicability of the global scheme of PFTs in China, and to obtain a well-founded reconstruction of changing palaeovegetation patterns. A total of 806 pollen surface samples, 188 mid-Holocene (MH, 6000 ¹⁴C yr BP) and 50 last glacial maximum (LGM, 18,000 ¹⁴C yr BP) pollen records were used to reconstruct vegetation patterns in China, based on a new global classification system of PFTs and a standard numerical technique for biome assignment (biomization). The biome reconstruction based on pollen surface samples showed convincing agreement with present potential natural vegetation. Coherent patterns of change in biome distribution between MH, LGM and present are observed. In the MH, cold and cool-temperate evergreen needleleaf forests and mixed forests, temperate deciduous broadleaf forest, and warm-temperate evergreen broadleaf and mixed forest in eastern China were shifted northward by 200–500 km. Cold-deciduous forest in northeastern China was replaced by cold evergreen needleleaf forest while in central northern China, cold-deciduous forest was present at some sites now occupied by temperate grassland and desert. The forest–grassland boundary was 200–300 km west of its present position. Temperate xerophytic shrubland, temperate grassland and desert covered a large area on the Tibetan Plateau, but the area of tundra was reduced. Treeline was 300–500 m higher than present in Tibet. These changes imply generally warmer winters, longer growing seasons and more precipitation during the MH. Westward shifts of the forest–shrubland–grassland and grassland–desert boundaries imply greater moisture availability in the MH, consistent with a stronger summer monsoon. During the LGM, in contrast, cold-deciduous forest, cool-temperate evergreen needleleaf forest, cool mixed forests, warm-temperate evergreen broadleaf and mixed forest in eastern China were displaced to the south by 300–1000 km, while temperate deciduous broadleaf forest, pure warm-temperate evergreen forest, tropical semi-evergreen and evergreen broadleaf forests were restricted or absent from the mainland of southern China, implying colder winters than present. Strong shifts of temperate xerophytic shrubland, temperate grassland and desert to the south and east in northern and western China and on the Tibetan Plateau imply drier conditions than present.