Abstract A variety of biological and social factors govern schistosomiasis japonica in China. Social factors include those at a national and regional level, such as policies and patterns of development, which impact on local economic activities, and affect community, household and personal risk factors of infection. Drawing on research conducted in China, we illustrate how social structural and related factors influence individual risk and prevalence of infection. At a macro-level, political changes have occurred resulting in the shift from collective to family-based production, leading to clustering of infection in families. Industrialization and urbanization, and associated increased population mobility, have also influenced patterns of transmission and infection. Types of activities and local production patterns determine the exposure of individuals to schistosome-infested water sources. Fishermen have the most frequent water contact, aquatic workers the second and farmers the third; the relative risk of Schistosoma japonicum infection follows the same order. Among farmers, human infection is significantly related to agricultural production in rice fields infested with the intermediate host snail, and to rates of the infection in livestock. Risk of S. japonicum infection is also influenced by the domestic environment, including both the location of the house in relation to snail-colonized water sources, access to safe water, and improved sanitation. Household wealth and income determine family ability to provide and maintain safe water and sanitation, while determining or interacting with other variables. At an individual level, sex, age, educational level and ethnicity are all associated with different patterns of water use and water contact behaviour thereby affecting infection rates. Schistosomiasis impairs the growth and nutrition of children and the physical work capacity of adults, and so affects economic development. Given this, we note the importance of further research and social and contextual aspects of schistosomiasis infection in order to develop and sustain sound control strategies.