Globally, the prevalence of oesophageal cancer cases is particularly high in China. Since 1982, oncogenic human papillomavirus (HPV) has been hypothesized as a risk factor for oesophageal cancer, but no firm evidence of HPV infection in oesophageal cancer has been established to date. We aimed to conduct a meta-analysis to estimate the high-risk HPV-18 prevalence of oesophageal cancer in the Chinese population. Eligible studies published from 1 January 2005 to 12 July 2014 were retrieved via computer searches of English and Chinese literature databases (including Medline, EMBASE, Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure and Wanfang Data Knowledge Service Platform). A random-effects model was used to calculate pooled prevalence and corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CIs). A total of 2556 oesophageal cancer cases from 19 studies were included in this meta-analysis. Overall, the pooled HPV-18 prevalence in oesophageal cancer cases was 4·1% (95% CI 2·7–5·5) in China, 6·1% (95% CI 2·9–9·3) in fresh or frozen biopsies and 4·0% (95% CI 2·3–5·8) in paraffin-embedded fixed biopsies, 8·2% (95% CI 4·6–11·7) by the E6/E7 region and 2·2% (95% CI 0·9–3·6) by the L1 region of the HPV gene. This meta-analysis indicated that China has a moderate HPV-18 prevalence of oesophageal cancer compared to cervical cancer, although there is variation between different variables. Further studies are needed to elucidate the role of HPV in oesophagus carcinogenesis with careful consideration of study design and laboratory detection method, providing more accurate assessment of HPV status in oesophageal cancer.