The China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS) is a nationally representative longitudinal survey of persons in China 45 years of age or older and their spouses, including assessments of social, economic, and health circumstances of community-residents. CHARLS examines health and economic adjustments to rapid ageing of the population in China. The national baseline survey for the study was conducted between June 2011 and March 2012 and involved 17 708 respondents. CHARLS respondents are followed every 2 years, using a face-to-face computer-assisted personal interview (CAPI). Physical measurements are made at every 2-year follow-up, and blood sample collection is done once in every two follow-up periods. A pilot survey for CHARLS was conducted in two provinces of China in 2008, on 2685 individuals, who were resurveyed in 2012. To ensure the adoption of best practices and international comparability of results, CHARLS was harmonized with leading international research studies in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) model. Requests for collaborations should be directed to Dr Yaohui Zhao (firstname.lastname@example.org). All data in CHARLS are maintained at the National School of Development of Peking University and will be accessible to researchers around the world at the study website. The 2008 pilot data for CHARLS are available at: http://charls.ccer.edu.cn/charls/. National baseline data for the study are expected to be released in January 2013.