This study examined the frequency of violence on nurses in Chinese psychiatric hospitals and explored its risk factors and impact on nurses' quality of life (QOL). A survey was conducted with 387 frontline psychiatric nurses in China. Information about experience of workplace violence in the past 6 months, type of workplace violence, and demographic characteristics was collected by a questionnaire. Altogether 319 (82.4%) of 387 nurses reported having experienced at least one type of violent event in the past 6 months. The prevalence of sexual assault, physical and verbal harassment was 18.6%, 61.5% and 78.6%, respectively. Compared to those with no exposure to violence, nurses who were exposed to violence had lower QOL in both the physical and mental domains. Significant predictors of violence against nurses are male sex, receiving college level or higher education and working on rotating duty were independently associated with high risk of violence. Workplace violence against psychiatric nurses commonly occurs in China. Considering the deleterious effects of violence, comprehensive strategies from the perspective of nursing education and training, organizational policy, patient care and staff support are recommended to promote occupational safety in psychiatric settings in China. © 2013 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.