In the present study, we aimed to identify the changes or stability in the structure of dietary patterns and tracking, trends and factors related to the adherence to these dietary patterns in China from 1991 to 2009. We analysed dietary data collected during seven waves of the China Health and Nutrition Survey and included 9253 adults with complete dietary data for three or more waves. Dietary intake assessment was carried out over a 3 d period with 24 h recalls and a household food inventory. Using factor analysis in each wave, we found that the structure of the two dietary patterns identified remained stable over the studied period. The traditional southern dietary pattern was characterised by high intakes of rice, fresh leafy vegetables, low-fat red meat, pork, organ meats, poultry and fish/seafood and low intakes of wheat flour and maize/coarse grains and the modern high-wheat dietary pattern was characterised by high intakes of wheat buns/breads, cakes/cookies/pastries, deep-fried wheat, nuts/seeds, starchy root/tuber products, fruits, eggs/egg products, soya milk, animal-based milk and instant noodles/frozen dumplings. Temporal tracking (maintenance of a relative position over time) was higher for the traditional southern dietary pattern, whereas adherence to the modern high-wheat dietary pattern had an upward trend over time. Higher income, education and urbanicity levels were positively associated with both the dietary patterns, but the association became weaker in the later years. These results suggest that even in the context of rapid economic changes in China, the way people chose to combine their foods remained relatively stable. However, the increasing popularity of the modern high-wheat dietary pattern, a pattern associated with several energy-dense foods, is a cause of concern.