BackgroundChina has made great progress in ecological restoration. However, there have been no analyses on ecological restoration for specific terrestrial ecosystems. This study identified the important knowledge gaps and advances related to terrestrial ecological restoration in China.Results7973 papers published between 1978 and 2020 were investigated and about 962 articles were used in this analysis after manually screening. Since the first large national ecological restoration project in 1978, the most frequently studied ecosystem has shifted from farmland ecosystems in 1978–2000 to forest ecosystems after 2000. Forests were the most common ecosystem type investigated, while less attention was paid to wetlands and riparian systems. Meanwhile, the most common ecological issue shifted from environmental pollution in 1978–2000 to the declining resource-carrying capacity of ecosystems after 2000. Studies of ecoregions on the Loess Plateau catchment accounted for more than 40% of papers reviewed in this study, with predominant emphasis on soil and water conservation functionality. Besides, revegetation and afforestation characterized most ecological restoration projects in China, but the natural restoration was relatively less adopted. Additionally, the important tool of reference ecosystem was only used in four studies.ConclusionsEcological restoration has made significant progress in China. We investigated how the ecological restoration can be implemented more effectively. More projects should be implemented for restorative work in wetlands and riparian systems in future. The tradeoff between restorative activities, water resources, and carbon sink needs further research efforts. More emphasis on biodiversity conservation is warranted. Newly developed theory (e.g., stepwise ecological restoration) and the recently issued Chinese National Guidelines for Ecological Restoration Projects should be more effectively implemented in future restorative works. This study provides essential information for future restorative work in China. It also provides insights into the development of policy relevant to restoration and adaptive management during the U.N. restoration decade.