Rapid industrialization and urbanization in developing countries has led to an increase in air pollution, along a similar trajectory to that previously experienced by the developed nations1. In China, particulate pollution is a serious environmental problem that is influencing air quality, regional and global climates, and human health2, 3. In response to the extremely severe and persistent haze pollution experienced by about 800 million people during the first quarter of 2013 (refs 4, 5), the Chinese State Council announced its aim to reduce concentrations of PM2.5 (particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 micrometres) by up to 25 per cent relative to 2012 levels by 2017 (ref. 6). Such efforts however require elucidation of the factors governing the abundance and composition of PM2.5, which remain poorly constrained in China3, 7, 8. Here we combine a comprehensive set of novel and state-of-the-art offline analytical approaches and statistical techniques to investigate the chemical nature and sources of particulate matter at urban locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an during January 2013. We find that the severe haze pollution event was driven to a large extent by secondary aerosol formation, which contributed 30–77 per cent and 44–71 per cent (average for all four cities) of PM2.5 and of organic aerosol, respectively. On average, the contribution of secondary organic aerosol (SOA) and secondary inorganic aerosol (SIA) are found to be of similar importance (SOA/SIA ratios range from 0.6 to 1.4). Our results suggest that, in addition to mitigating primary particulate emissions, reducing the emissions of secondary aerosol precursors from, for example, fossil fuel combustion and biomass burning is likely to be important for controlling China’s PM2.5 levels and for reducing the environmental, economic and health impacts resulting from particulate pollution.