The association between dietary Cu intake and mortality risk remains uncertain. We aimed to investigate the relationship of dietary Cu intake with all-cause mortality among Chinese adults. A total of 17 310 participants from the China Health and Nutrition Survey, a national ongoing open cohort of Chinese participants, were included in the analysis. Dietary intake was measured by three consecutive 24-h dietary recalls in combination with a weighing inventory over the same 3 d. The average intakes of the 3-d dietary macronutrients and micronutrients were calculated. The study outcome was all-cause mortality. During a median follow-up of 9·0 years, 1324 (7·6 %) participants died. After adjusting for sex, age, BMI, ever alcohol drinking, ever smoking, education levels, occupations, urban or rural residents, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and the intakes of fat, protein and carbohydrate, the association between dietary Cu intake and all-cause mortality followed a J-shape (Pfor nonlinearity = 0·047). When dietary Cu intake was assessed as quartiles, compared with those in the first quartile (<1·60 mg/d), the adjusted hazard ratios for all-cause mortality were 0·87 (95 % CI (0·71, 1·07)), 0·98 (95 % CI (0·79, 1·21)) and 1·49 (95 % CI (1·19, 1·86)), respectively, in participants in the second (1·60–<1·83 mg/d), third (1·83–<2·09 mg/d) and fourth (≥2·09 mg/d) quartiles. A series of subgroup analyses and sensitivity analyses showed similar results. Overall, our findings emphasised the importance of maintaining optimal dietary Cu intake levels for prevention of premature death.