Soil acidification is a major problem in soils of intensive Chinese agricultural systems. We used two nationwide surveys, paired comparisons in numerous individual sites, and several long-term monitoring-field data sets to evaluate changes in soil acidity. Soil pH declined significantly (P < 0.001) from the 1980s to the 2000s in the major Chinese crop-production areas. Processes related to nitrogen cycling released 20 to 221 kilomoles of hydrogen ion (H+) per hectare per year, and base cations uptake contributed a further 15 to 20 kilomoles of H+ per hectare per year to soil acidification in four widespread cropping systems. In comparison, acid deposition (0.4 to 2.0 kilomoles of H+ per hectare per year) made a small contribution to the acidification of agricultural soils across China.