The health care system in the People's Republic of China (PRC) is undergoing a major transition that has made the government revise its approach to how medicine is taught and practiced. Family medicine, which provides a generalist approach to medical care, is at the forefront of this transition. This article reviews the recent history of medical education in the PRC, including the establishment of the discipline of family medicine in the mid 1980s, and factors promoting development of family medicine. These include the movement away from government-subsidized health care in hospital settings, the aging population, increased urbanization, increasing incidence of infectious diseases, and rising health care costs. We conclude from observations made in the PRC and from a review of secondary sources that family medicine in China is in its infancy. The value of understanding the role that family medicine plays within China's changing health care system is that we gain a broader perspective of the variety and growing international importance of family practice as a profession.