To examine if the cultivation process has reduced the genetic variation of modern cultivars of the traditional Chinese medicinal plant, Coptis chinensis, the levels and distribution of genetic variation was investigated using ISSR markers. A total of 214 C. chinensis individuals from seven wild and three cultivated populations were included in the study. Seven ISSR primers were used and a total of 91 DNA fragments were scored. The levels of genetic diversity in cultivated populations were similar as those in wild populations (mean PPL = 65.2%versus PPL = 52.4%, mean H = 0.159 versus H = 0.153 and mean I = 0.255 versus I = 0.237), suggesting that cultivation did not seriously influence genetic variation of present-day cultivated populations. Neighbour-joining cluster analysis showed that wild populations and cultivated populations were not separated into two groups. The coefficient of genetic differentiation between a cultivar and its wild progenitor was 0.066 (Gst), which was in good accordance with the result by amova analysis (10.9% of total genetic variation resided on the two groups), indicating that cultivated populations were not genetically differentiated from wild progenitors. For the seven wild populations, a significant genetic differentiation among populations was found using amova analysis (45.9% of total genetic variation resided among populations). A number of causes, including genetic drift and inbreeding in the small and isolated wild populations, the relative limited gene flow between wild populations (Nm = 0.590), and high gene flow between cultivars and their wild progenitors (Nm = 7.116), might have led to the observed genetic profiles of C. chinensis.