Abstract Roles and distributions of various forms of nitrogen in biogeochemical cycling in the southern Yellow Sea surface sediments were investigated. The southern Yellow Sea could be divided into three regions (I, II and III) according to the proportion of fine-grained sediment in >65%, 35–65% and <35%, respectively. The ratios of different forms of nitrogen contents between each two of the three regions indicated that the nitrogen contents increased with the proportion of fine-grained sediment increasing. The quanta of exchangeable forms of nitrogen were similar in the three regions, while their releasing time increased from regions I to III, indicating that the cycle of nitrogen in fine-grained sediments was shorter than that in coarse-grained sediments. Nitrogen burial fluxes were also similar in these regions, while the burial efficiency increased from regions I to III. The highest burial efficiency was 30.21% in region III, indicating that more than 70% of nitrogen in the southern Yellow Sea surface sediments could be released to take part in biogeochemical recycling. When all the four forms of exchangeable nitrogen (nitrogen in ion exchangeable form (IEF-N), nitrogen in weak acid extractable form (WAEF-N), nitrogen in strong alkali extractable form (SAEF-N) and nitrogen in strong oxidant extractable form (SOEF-N)) were released to take part in recycling, their potential contributions were 80% (SOEF-N), 11% (IEF-N), 6% (SAEF-N), 3% (WAEF-N) respectively, which showed that SOEF-N was the predominant one, and its contribution to biogeochemical cycling was the highest.