To investigate the prevalence of, and risk factors for, cervical infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) in the rural province of Shanxi, People's Republic of China, which has relatively high cervical cancer mortality rates, we interviewed and obtained cervical cell samples from 662 women aged 15-59 years. A total of 24 different HPV types were identified using a GP5+/6+-based PCR assay able to detect 44 different HPV types. Human papillomavirus prevalence was 14.8% overall and 9.6% among women without cervical abnormalities (14.2 and 8.9%, respectively, age standardised to the world standard population). Multiple-type infections accounted for 30.6% of all infections. By far the most commonly found type was HPV16 (5.7% of all women and 38.8% of HPV-positive women), followed by HPV 58, 52, 33 and 18. Unlike most previous studies published, HPV prevalence was lower among women younger than 35 years (8.7%) than those older than 35 years (17.8%). High-risk HPV types predominated in all age groups. Although low-risk HPV types were rare in young women, they became more common with increasing age. 92.3% of women with cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 3 were infected with high-risk HPV types, but none with low-risk types only. No significant difference in HPV positivity was observed by educational level, sexual habits, reproductive history or use of contraceptive methods in this rural low-income Chinese population.