Our purpose was to explore potential genetic models for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and analyze genetic epidemiologic characteristics of SLE in a Chinese population. Data for 695 patients with SLE were obtained by using a uniform questionnaire. Patients, clinical characteristics and their family history were analyzed using software. A complex segregation analysis was conducted to propose potential genetic models for SLE. The mean +/- SD age of onset were 30.2 +/- 10.5 years and mean time to progression to SLE was 32.5 +/- 44.4 months. The most frequent initial manifestations were malar rash (61.3%). During the evolution of the disease, the main clinical features were arthritis in 73.6% of our patients, followed by malar rash (68.1%), and renal involvement (56.7%). As the first symptom, the late-onset group (onset of disease beyond the age of 50 years) less often showed malar rash (45% vs. 63.4% in the early-onset group; p = 0.001). There were no significant differences in the other cumulative clinical symptoms between late-onset and early-onset group, except for a lower prevalence of malar rash, photosensitivity and alopecia and a higher prevalence of mucosal ulcers in the late-onset group. A positive family history of SLE was obtained in 50 patients (7.2%). There were no statistical differences in clinical characteristics between familial SLE and sporadic SLE patients. The heritability of SLE was 43.6%, the genetic model of SLE could be polygenetic model and major gene mode is the best fitted one. SLE could be a multifactorial disease with polygenetic model.