This paper examines the composition and density of soil seed banks under a mature seasonal rain forest (>150 years old), three secondary forests (4 yr Trema orientalis forest, 9 yr Macaranga denticulata forest and 25 yr Mallotus paniculatus forest) and in a slash-and-burn field of Xishuangbanna, southwest China. Seeds in the secondary forests germinated most rapidly in the first week, while the seeds of the seasonal rain forest and the slash-and-burn field soils germinated slowly over the first 6 weeks and peaked in the seventh and eighth weeks. Seed densities were 4585–65,665 seeds m−2 for forest sites and 1130 seeds m−2 for the slash-and-burn field in the top 10 cm of the soils. The seed density decreased with soil depth in the forest sites and tended to decline during succession. Herbs accounted for the largest proportion of seeds at all five sites. The importance of woody species, however, increased as forests became older. Slash and burn eliminated a large number of seeds in the upper soil and, consequently, reversed the vertical distribution of seeds in the soil and had a negative impact on family, genus and species richness of the soil seed bank as well.