Water quality criteria (WQC) form a scientific basis for the development of water quality standards. The study of WQC in China has been insufficient. This mini review introduces the progress that has been made towards the establishment of a WQC system in China. A systematic WQC study has been ongoing in China for several years, mainly referring to the WQC system in the United States. Some important kinds of WQC have been studied, including aquatic life, biological, sediment quality, lake nutrient and human health criteria, focusing on the aquatic life criteria in the present phase. Technical guidelines for deriving the major criteria and their values for some typical pollutants have been preliminarily proposed. The future research needs for WQC development include the screening of priority pollutants, the investigation of aquatic biota distribution, establishment of a toxicity test method and the development of environmental quality criteria database, etc.