Objectives: To describe the dental caries and periodontal status of 12-year-old children in rural Qinghai and to compare the oral health status between the Han and ethnic minority children. Method: Children aged 12-years in three primary schools in Hexi Townships, Guide County, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous State, Qinghai Province, China, were invited to participate in the survey conducted during July 2001. Each child was interviewed and clinically examined in the schools, using portable equipment. World Health Organization (WHO) examination procedures and diagnostic criteria were used. SPSS 11.0 was used for data compilation and statistical analysis. Results: All 196 12-year-olds (118 Han and 78 from ethnic minorities, i.e. Muslims and Tibetans) were surveyed. 48% of the children reported never brushing their teeth, while 12% brushed only every 2–3 days. Over ninety per cent (n=182) of the children had never visited a dentist. The DMFT scores in Han and in minority groups were found to be 0.12 and 0.23 respectively. A larger proportion of children in Han group (94%) had no caries experience (DMFT = 0) than that of Muslim and Tibetan (82%) groups (p<0.01). None of the children had healthy gingiva (i.e. highest CPI score=0) and 85% had calculus. Conclusion: The prevalence of caries experience in Han children is significantly lower than that in Muslim and Tibetan children in rural Qinghai. Dental caries and caries treatment needs of Han and minority rural schoolchildren in Qinghai are low but their periodontal health status is unsatisfactory. Basic dental health care and preventive education for the children in this part of China is needed.