Between 1950 and 1980, China experienced the most rapid sustained increase in life expectancy of any population in documented global history. We know of no study that has quantitatively assessed the relative importance of the various explanations proposed for this gain in survival. We have created and analysed a new, province-level panel data set spanning the decades between 1950 and 1980 by combining historical information from China's public health archives, official provincial yearbooks, and infant and child mortality records contained in the 1988 National Survey of Fertility and Contraception. Although exploratory, our results suggest that gains in school enrolment and public health campaigns together are associated with 55–70 per cent of China's dramatic reductions in infant and under-5 mortality during our study period. These results underscore the importance of non-medical determinants of population health, and suggest that, in some circumstances, general education of the population may amplify the effectiveness of public health interventions.