• carbon balance;
  • China;
  • forests;
  • land-use change;
  • sources and sinks of carbon;
  • terrestrial ecosystems

[1] Changes in land use contribute to the current terrestrial carbon sink in most regions of the northern midlatitudes but are poorly documented for China, the world's third largest country. We attempted to reconstruct the last 300 years of land-use change in China, emphasizing changes in the area of forests. Changes in the area of croplands were inadequate for reconstruction of forest loss because the long-term loss of forest area was more than twice the current area of croplands. We used historical information to reconstruct changes in forest area over time and the ecological literature to estimate the carbon stocks of the major natural ecosystems (vegetation and soil). We used a bookkeeping model to calculate the flux of carbon to or from living vegetation, dead vegetation, soils, and wood products under different types of land use. According to the data and assumptions, 180 (range: 80–200) × 106 ha of forest were lost, and 17–33 PgC were released to the atmosphere between 1700 and 2000. About 25% of the loss was from soils. The accelerated clearing and logging of forests in northeastern and southwestern China led to emissions of carbon that reached peaks of 0.2–0.5 PgC yr−1 from the late 1950s through the 1970s. Lower rates of deforestation since then, as well as expanding areas of tree plantations, reversed the net flux of carbon from a source to a sink during the 1990s.