Higher commodity prices and domestic demand were credited with pushing February's imports up 38.1% on a year earlier.China should be in trade deficit, so this is a positive sign even if it is probably an outlier.
But exports unexpectedly fell 1.3%, giving a trade deficit of $9.2bn for the month.
China's monthly imports last exceeded exports in February 2014.
Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast China would have a monthly trade surplus of $25.8bn.
Looking at country level data, imports from some nations are way up. India +63.8; Australia +77.6; Brazil, Russia, South Africa +40; Singapore +59; Indonesia +67 percent. Imports from Hong Kong down 49 percent.