The relation between dietary vitamin C intake and pulmonary function was investigated in a cross-sectional study carried out in 69 counties in rural China in 1989. Within each of the 69 counties, 120 subjects aged 35-64 years were identified using a three-stage random clustering procedure. Each subject underwent pulmonary function testing, completed a detailed questionnaire, and provided a blood sample. Dietary vitamin C intakes were estimated among half of the subjects using a 3-day weighed record of household food intake. Plasma vitamin C was measured in sex-specific blood pools created from individual samples in each geographic area. Among the 3,085 subjects for whom there were complete data, dietary intake of vitamin C (151 mg/day (standard deviation, 111)) was significantly related to forced expiratory volume in the first second (FEV1) and forced vital capacity after adjustment for sex, age, height, weight, total caloric intake, tobacco smoking, and education. An increase of 100 mg/day in vitamin C intake was associated with an increase of 21.6 ml (95% confidence interval -0.4 to 43.5) in FEV1 and an increase of 24.9 ml (95% confidence interval 0.2 to 49.6) in forced vital capacity. No significant interaction with smoking status was observed. A significant positive association was also observed at the geographic level, between county-pooled plasma vitamin C and mean FEV1. These data support the hypothesis that dietary vitamin C may protect against the loss of pulmonary function.