Limited information is available on the prevalence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) in the general population in China. A community-based epidemiological study was conducted in three counties in eastern China. A total of 149 175 individuals were investigated in 60 communities in three counties in Jiangsu province, eastern China, of whom 1175 subjects [0·79%, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0·74–0·83] were HCV antibody positive. The prevalence was low in children (0·09%, 95% CI 0·04–0·17), but increased progressively from adolescents (0·20%, 95% CI 0·15–0·28) to adults aged ⩾21 years (95% CI 0·15–1·64). Women had a higher prevalence of HCV infection than men in most age groups. In a multilevel regression analysis, age, sex, education, occupation, blood transfusion [odds ratio (OR) 2·91, 95% CI 1·09–5·37], invasive testing (OR 1·28, 95% CI 1·14–1·61), and dental therapy (OR 2·27, 95% CI 1·41–3·42) were associated with HCV infection. In conclusion, although the prevalence of HCV in this population was lower than reported from national levels, the total reservoir of infection is significant and warrants public health measures, such as health education to limit the magnitude of the problem.