Dietary phospholipid (PL) supplementation has been shown to reduce lipid accumulation in the tissues of farmed fish; however, the mechanisms underlying this effect are largely unknown. Thus, the present study was conducted to evaluate the potential impacts of PL on hepatic lipid metabolism both in vivo and in vitro. For in vivo study, four experimental diets – low lipid and low PL diet, as control diet (LL-LP diet, containing 12 % lipid and 1·5 % PL), low-lipid and high-PL diet (containing 12 % lipid and 8 % PL), high-lipid and low-PL diet (HL-LP diet, containing 20 % lipid and 1·5 % PL) and high-lipid and high-PL diet (HL-HP diet, containing 20 % lipid and 8 % PL) – were randomly allocated to four groups of large yellow croaker (Larimichthys crocea) (three cages per group) with similar initial body weight (approximately 8 g). For in vitro study, primary hepatocytes isolated from large yellow croaker were incubated either with graded levels of phosphatidylcholine (PC) (0–250 μm) or small interfering RNA (siRNA) for CTP: choline phosphate cytidylyltranferase α (CCTα) (siRNA-CCTα). Results showed that survival was independent of dietary treatments (P>0·05). Weight gain and feed efficiency in the HL-HP group were significantly higher than in the LL-LP and HL-LP groups (P<0·05). High level of dietary PL could markedly reduce abnormal hepatic lipid accumulation induced by the HL-LP diet (P<0·05). Similarly, compared with the corresponding controls, a significant decrease/increase in lipid content was observed in primary hepatocytes incubated with PC/siRNA-CCTα (P<0·05). High level of dietary PL reversed the HL-LP diet-induced increased levels of mRNA of fatty acid uptake and lipid synthesis related genes (P<0·05). In addition, High level of dietary PL markedly down-regulated the transcript levels of fatty acid oxidation-related genes and enhanced the transcript levels of VLDL assembly-related genes regardless of dietary lipid levels (P<0·05). Compared with corresponding controls, primary hepatocytes treated with PC showed significantly higher mRNA expression of lipid synthesis and VLDL assembly-related genes and lower mRNA expression of fatty acid oxidation-related genes, with hepatocytes treated with siRNA-CCTα exhibiting the opposite trend (P<0·05). In summary, these results demonstrated that high level of dietary PL might reverse the HL-LP diet-induced abnormal lipid accumulation in the liver through inhibiting fatty acid uptake and lipid synthesis, together with promoting the lipid export at the transcriptional level. Lipid export-promoting effect of PC was confirmed by in vitro studies. The present study showed for the first time that PL or PC could influence various metabolic pathways to regulate hepatic lipid deposition in fish at least at the transcriptional level.