The continental margin to the east and south of China comprises an active margin in the East China Sea, a collision mountain belt in Taiwan, and a passive margin in the South China Sea. These three segments were generally regarded as separate tectonic entities and their interrelations have long been the subject of debate. Here we synthesize available information to outline the tectonic and geological background of the China margin, examine the link between Taiwan and the neighbouring China margins, and thereby establish a Cenozoic evolutionary model. The China margin is floored with a pre-Cenozoic continental basement covered with an up to 10-km-thick pile of Cenozoic sedimentary strata. The continental basement has been invariably stretched and moulded into a series of northeast-trending horsts and grabens. Except in the Okinawa Trough of the East China Sea, the Cenozoic sedimentary cover typically exhibits a two-tier tectonostratigraphic structure, with narrow Palaeogene rift basins draped by a blanket-like Neogene-Quaternary sequence. The two-tier structure prevails in the entire inner part of the China margin, including the Taiwan Strait off western Taiwan. In the outer China margin, however, the two-tier structure persists only in the South China Sea, and is in stark contrast with the collisional orogen of Taiwan and the Ryukyu arc of the East China Sea. By untangling the contractional deformation of the northern Taiwan mountain belt, it has been possible to reconstruct a precollisional tectonostratigraphic section with a distinctive two-tier structure shown by a Palaeogene half-graben covered with a Miocene drape sequence. When put together with Palaeogene rift basins of the Taiwan Strait, it becomes clear that the precollisional continental margin of Taiwan resembles that of the South China Sea, characterized by two lines of Palaeogene rift basins. Hence before the collision started in Late Miocene times, Taiwan was part of the passive South China margin that extended northward to the southern Ryukyu area. Ever since the end of the Cretaceous, the China continental margin has been dominated by extensional tectonics, regardless of the presence or absence of subduction zones. In the Early Cenozoic, extensive crustal attenuation resulted in region-wide subsidence and formation of rift basins. Extension in the South China Sea culminated in Late Oligocene times, when part of the outer margin was drifted away by the opening ocean basin. In the East China Sea, the margin remained intact and became separated from the South China Sea margin by a transform fault. From the Miocene onwards, the South China Sea margin has been passively subsiding, sporadically punctuated with basaltic volcanism. In the East China Sea margin, the Okinawa Trough has opened and the Ryukyu volcanic arc thrived. The NE edge of the South China Sea margin was deformed as the Taiwan orogen.