© 2015 Elsevier B.V. Background Bipolar disorder (BD) is often misdiagnosed as major depressive disorder (MDD). This study tested the psychometric properties and the accuracy of the Chinese version of the 33-item Hypomania Checklist (HCL-33) to identify BD in Chinese clinical settings. Methods A total of 350 depressed patients were consecutively interviewed in a major psychiatric hospital in China. The patients' socio-demographic and clinical characteristics were recorded using standardized protocol and data collection procedures. The HCL-33 was completed by patients to detect symptoms characteristic of mania and hypomania. DSM-IV diagnoses were established using the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview (MINI). Results The HCL-33 showed high internal consistency with two-factorial dimensions. The optimal cut-off point on the HCL-33 to differentiate BD from MDD was 15, while cut-off points of 14 and 13 differentiated BD-I and BD-II from MDD, respectively. The maximum sensitivity was 0.62, 0.67 and 0.72 for differentiating BD, BD-I and BD-II from MDD, respectively. Conclusions The HCL-33 is a useful tool for screening for BD in Chinese depressed patients. The routine clinical use of the HCL-33 as a screening instrument for BD in Chinese patients is recommended.