With the increasing demand for higher gene carrier performance, a multifunctional vector could immensely simplify gene delivery for disease treatment; nevertheless, the current non- viral vectors lack self-tracking ability. Here, a type of novel, dual-functional cationic carbon dots (CDs), produced through one-step, microwave-assisted pyrolysis of arginine and glucose, have been utilized as both a self-imaging agent and a non-viral gene vector for chondrogenesis from fibroblasts. The cationic CDs could condense the model gene plasmid SOX9 (pSOX9) to form ultra-small (10-30 nm) nanoparticles which possessed several favorable properties, including high solubility, tunable fluorescence, high yield, low cytotoxicity and outstanding biocompatibility. The MTT assay indicated that CDs/pSOX9 nanoparticles had little cytotoxicity against mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) compared to Lipofectamine2000 and PEI (25 kDa). Importantly, the CDs/pSOX9 nanoparticles with tunable fluorescence not only enabled the intracellular tracking of the nanoparticles, but also could successfully deliver the pSOX9 into MEFs with significantly high efficiency. Furthermore, the CDs/pSOX9 nanoparticles-mediated transfection of MEFs showed obvious chondrogenic differentiation. Altogether, these findings demonstrated that the CDs prepared in this study could serve as a paradigmatic example of the dual-functional reagent for both self-imaging and effective non-viral gene delivery.