BACKGROUND: With the recent surging economic and social development in China, midwifery has undergone transformation. AIM: A narrative review of literature relating to midwifery in mainland China was undertaken to examine the characteristics of midwifery’s potential development within relevant historical, economic and sociopolitical contexts. The aim was to assist future planning and the setting of strategic directions in policy in China. METHODS: Online bibliographic databases from 2000 to 2015 were searched including MEDLINE, WanFang Data and Chinese National Knowledge Infrastructure. A process of narrative synthesis was used to analyse the selected papers and major issues were identified. RESULTS: Twenty-one papers were included in the review. Two overarching issues were identified in relation to midwifery in mainland China: the history and status of midwifery education; and the practice and regulation of the midwifery profession. In recent decades, midwifery education, regulation and practice have occurred within systems that view midwifery as a specialisation of nursing. This means that there continues to be little opportunity for midwives to practise according to the international definition and scope of practice of the midwife. CONCLUSION: Midwifery in China must continue to develop in parallel with international trends. Investment in midwifery education alone will not suffice; it will have to operate within strong government policy regarding regulation, effective human resources management, visibility of the role of the midwife and development of the service delivery environment in which future midwives will work in China.