Abstract The hydrophobic components of soil organic matter (SOM) are reckoned to play an important role in the stabilization of soil organic carbon (SOC). The contribution of hydrophobic substances to SOC sequestration was evaluated in four different paddy soils in the South of China, following a 6-month incubation experiment with maize straw amendments. Soil samples included: a well developed paddy soil (TP) derived from clayey lacustrine deposits in the Tai Lake plain of Jiangsu; an acid clayey paddy soil (RP) derived from red earth in the rolling red soil area of Jiangxi; a weakly developed neutral paddy soil (PP) formed on Jurassic purple shale from Chongq; and a calcic Fluvisol (MS) derived from riverine sediments from a wetland along the Yangtze valley of Anhui, China. The SOC molecular composition after 30 and 180days of incubation, was determined by off-line thermochemolysis followed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis. Lignin, lipids and carbohydrates were the predominant thermochemolysis products released from the treated soils. A selective preservation of hydrophobic OM, including lignin and lipids, was shown in maize amended soils with prolonged incubation. The decomposition of lignin and lipids was significantly slower in the TP and RP soils characterized by a larger content of extractable iron oxyhydrates (Fed) and lower pH. The overall increase in hydrophobic substances in maize incubated samples was correlated, positively, with total content of clay and Fed, and, negatively, with soil pH. Moreover, yields of both lignin and lipid components showed a significant relationship with SOC increase after incubation. These findings showed that the larger the lipid and lignin content of SOM, the greater was the stability of SOC, thereby suggesting that OM hydrophobic components may have an essential role in controlling the processes of OC sequestration in paddy soils of South China.