The concept of sustainable development concerns not only the natural environment but also human societies and economies. The method of economy‐wide materials flow accounting and analysis (EW‐MFA) is internationally recognized as a valuable tool for studying the physical dimensions of economies. EW‐MFA has been carried out in many industrialized countries, but very little work has been done for developing China; this article can be regarded as one of the first attempts to study China's economy in terms of materials flows. In this article we have compiled materials flow accounts for China during the time series 1990 to 2002 and derived indicators associated with international comparison. Results show that the annual material consumption of China's economy continuously increased except for a slump around 1998, whereas the material efficiency exhibited a three‐phase trend reflecting different macropolicies of the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Five‐Year Plans implemented by the central government. Based on this experience with EW‐MFA for China, suggestions for methodology development and further research are given for improving EW‐MFA as a more effective tool for environmental management.