OBJECTIVES:To determine the prevalence of workplace violence that Chinese nurses have encountered, identify risk factors and provide a basis for future targeted interventions. SETTING:Heilongjiang, a province in northeast China. METHODS:A cross-sectional survey. PARTICIPANTS:A total of 588 nurses provided data. There were also in-depth interviews with 12 nurses, 7 hospital administrators and 6 health officials. RESULTS:A total of 7.8% of the nurses reported physically violent experiences and 71.9% reported non-physically violent experiences in the preceding year. Perpetrators were patients or their relatives (93.5% and 82%, respectively), and 24% of nurses experienced non-physical violence that involved Yi Nao (gangs specifically targeting hospitals). Inexperienced nurses were more likely to report physical (13.2%) or non-physical (89.5%) violence compared with experienced nurses. Graduate-level nurses were more likely to perceive and report non-physical violence (84.6%). Nurses who worked rotating shifts were 3.668 times (95% CI 1.275 to 10.554) more likely to experience physical violence, and 1.771 times (95% CI 1.123 to 2.792) more likely to experience non-physical violence compared with nurses who worked fixed day shifts. Higher anxiety levels about workplace violence and work types were associated with violence. Interviewees perceived financial burdens, unsatisfactory treatment outcomes and miscommunications as influencing factors for workplace violence. CONCLUSIONS:Preplacement education should focus on high-risk groups to reduce workplace violence. Increased awareness from the public and policymakers is necessary to develop effective control strategies at individual, hospital and national levels.