In order to improve understanding of spatial and temporal variations of stable isotopes in atmospheric precipitation, snow cover and glacier meltwater in different regions of China, samples were collected for isotopic analysis in four areas: Yulong mountain, Yunnan Himalaya (temperate-glacier area); Samdain Kangsang mountain, Nyainqêntanglha Shan (subpolar-glacier area); the headwater area of the Ürümqi river, Tien Shan (subpolar-glacier area); and Muztag mountain, Pamirs (polar-glacier area). Sampling was undertaken in both summer and winter between 2000 and 2003. The δ18O values show a ‘temperature–altitude effect’ in new winter snow on Yulong mountain, reflecting the condensation and fractionation processes associated with the winter monsoon, but a different, more complex pattern in residual snow deposited during the summer monsoon; this old snow is influenced by the ‘precipitation amount effect’, solar radiation and evaporation, and the water content of the snowpack. The summer precipitation at Samdain Kangsang mountain is associated with the summer monsoon. There is a marked precipitation amount effect during the long passage of the southwest/India monsoon from the distant moisture source to Samdain Kangsang mountain, and the summer precipitation is strongly depleted of the heavy isotope. Above 6000 m, the high radiation flux causes much evaporation from the snow surface. The associated 1 8O enrichment of the snow is reflected in a ‘reverse altitude effect’. The δ18O values in the summer snowpack of the Tien Shan and Muztag mountain decrease with increasing altitude and decreasing air temperature, indicating a temperature–altitude effect. Post-depositional processes cause isotopic changes during the transformation of snow/firn/ice to meltwater; the effects are much stronger at temperate than at polar glaciers. Moreover, changes in the isotopic signal at both temperate and polar glaciers can result from evaporation, sublimation, ablation and drifting.