China's millennial quest for harmony between nature and humanity is as important today as it has always been. Today's challenges are momentous; but at the same time, China's capacity to cope with them is strengthening rapidly. We analyse China's freshwaters using the social-ecological systems approach in a novel way. Quantitative, globally-scaled indicators for freshwater vulnerability, adaptive capacity (AC) and resilience, and their temporal evolution from 1990-2015, are analysed spatially. China's AC (governance, economy and human development) represents heterogeneity, levelling close to the global range's mean level. Coastal areas are somewhat better off than other parts. In turn, ecological vulnerability (EV) (environmental footprint, natural hazards, water scarcity) shows more pronounced contrasts across China. The human footprint and natural hazards are greatest in the east and the lowest in the west, whereas water-scarcity woes stand out in the North China Plain and Xinjiang. The North China Plain (above all the Huang basin) is particularly challenging, yet the AC there has grown fast and therefore resilience has started to grow. Nevertheless, China's capacity is now growing rapidly, allowing improvements in resilience in large parts of the country. It may provide an opportunity for changing the tide in the most challenging areas, too, but requires continuous and massive commitment. Yet China still showed a polarizing development in the years 1990-2015 in terms of spatial development in AC, EV and resilience, meaning that the diversity and heterogeneity of the country have continued to grow.