PURPOSE The purpose of this study was to explore meaning and components of quality of life (QOL) perceived by Chinese adults with a spinal cord injury (SCI) and to examine the frame of reference that this population used to assess quality of their life. METHOD A qualitative research approach was used. Six focus group interviews were conducted with 40 adults with SCI from a northeastern city in China. A content analysis was conducted on interview data to determine meaning and components of QOL perceived by the participants. RESULTS Participants defined QOL as satisfaction with one's life, which might vary from person to person and change when the circumstance changed. They identified 18 QOL components that could be grouped into five domains: physical, psychological, economic, social well-being, and a least restrictive environment. When assessing quality of their life, participants used both internal (comparing with oneself) and external (comparing with others) comparisons. CONCLUSIONS The results of this study contribute to the understanding of dimensions of QOL for people with SCI in China. Although several domains of QOL identified in the present study were similar to those found in previous studies conducted elsewhere, several unique components of QOL, such as relationship with extended family and neighbours, government support, peace in the world and the nation, were identified by the participants. These components appeared to be related to the Chinese culture and socioeconomic system. Specific QOL measurements that address these unique components are needed when assessing QOL of this population.