The aim of this study was to explore the epidemiological and molecular characteristics of Streptococcus pyogenes in children from different cities in mainland China who were diagnosed with scarlet fever, impetigo and pharyngitis, as well as to detect asymptomatic carriers, between 2005 and 2008, and to compare the results with isolates from rural Chinese children with acute glomerulonephritis in 2005 and in the 1990s. Susceptibility tests to determine MICs and analysis of the presence of erythromycin-resistant genes (mefA, ermB and ermA) and emm gene typing were performed on 466 S. pyogenes isolates from Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Shenzhen. Superantigen genes (speA and speC) were examined by performing PCR on isolates with the most prevalent emm genotype. All isolates were sensitive to penicillin, cefradine and ofloxacin. The highest rate of resistance was against clarithromycin (98.1 %), followed by erythromycin (97.6 %), azithromycin and clindamycin (both 97.2 %), and tetracycline (94.0 %). Among the 466 isolates, 421 (90.3 %) harboured the ermB gene, 145 (31.1 %) were speA-positive and 273 (58.6 %) were speC-positive. The speA gene was common in emm1.0 (88.8 %) and emm6.5 (83.3 %) genotypes. The speC gene was frequently observed in emm4.0 (90.0 %), emm12.0 (69.6 %), emm18.0 (66.7 %), emm22.0 (75.9 %) and emm80.0 (80.0 %) genotypes. The most prevalent emm genotypes in mainland China in recent years were emm1.0 and emm12.0. All isolates remained sensitive to β-lactams and quinolone.