Emodin is a cell arrest and apoptosis-inducing compound that is widely distributed in different plants (rhubarb, aloe), lichens and terrestrial fungi, and also isolated from marine-derived fungi and marine sponge-associated fungi. In this study, we designed and synthesized a novel series of emodin derivatives by binding emodin to an amino acid using linkers of varying lengths and composition, and evaluated their anti-proliferative activities using HepG2 cells (human hepatic carcinoma), MCF-7 cells (human breast cancer) and human normal liver L02 cells. Most of these derivatives showed moderate to potent anti-proliferative activities. Notably, compound 7a exhibited potent anti-proliferative activity against HepG2 cells with the half maximal inhibitory concentration (IC 50) value of 4.95 µM, which was enhanced 8.8-fold compared to the parent compound emodin (IC 50 = 43.87 µM), and it also exhibited better selective anti-proliferative activity and specificity than emodin. Moreover, further experiments demonstrated that compound 7a displayed a significant efficacy of inducing apoptosis through mitochondrial pathway via release of cytochrome c from mitochondria and subsequent activation of caspase-9 and caspase-3, inducing cell arrest at G0/G1 phase, as well as suppression of cell migration of tumor cells. The preliminary results suggested that compound 7a could be a promising lead compound for the discovery of novel anti-tumor drugs and has the potential for further investigations as an anti-cancer drug.