China is experiencing a rapid increase in overweight and related conditions. This study describes the geographic variation in BMI levels and the prevalence of overweight and underweight in Chinese adults, and assesses their relations with regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita levels. BMI values and the prevalence of overweight and underweight in 143 522 adults from the Chinese National Nutrition and Health Survey (2002) were calculated according to geographic regions in China. Their correlations with GDP were assessed. Linear and logistic regressions were used to adjust for age, sex and city–country composition. BMI and the prevalence of overweight were highest in the Bohai coastal regions while lowest in southern provinces such as Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, Hunan and Fujian. Mean BMI values ranged from 20·72 to 25·48 kg/m2, and the prevalence of overweight ranged from 6·6 to 53·9 %. BMI and the prevalence of overweight were positively correlated with economic development, particularly in the northern regions. However, for regions with similar GDP per capita levels, those in the south had substantially lower BMI and lower prevalence of overweight than those in the north. Interestingly, some southern regions with high GDP per capita had low BMI and low prevalence of overweight. The prevalence of underweight was highest in the south. Substantial geographic variations in the prevalence of overweight and underweight exist in China. Such variations cannot be fully explained by the differences in economic status. China is currently facing challenges of both overweight and underweight but priorities vary in different regions.