Background Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death and disability in China. High blood pressure caused by excess intake of dietary sodium is widespread and an effective sodium reduction program has potential to improve cardiovascular health. Design This study is a large-scale, cluster-randomized, trial done in five Northern Chinese provinces. Two counties have been selected from each province and 12 townships in each county making a total of 120 clusters. Within each township one village has been selected for participation with 1:1 randomization stratified by county. The sodium reduction intervention comprises community health education and a food supply strategy based upon providing access to salt substitute. Subsidization of the price of salt substitute was done in 30 intervention villages selected at random. Control villages continued usual practices. The primary outcome for the study is dietary sodium intake level estimated from assays of 24-hour urine. Trial status The trial recruited and randomized 120 townships in April 2011. The sodium reduction program was commenced in the 60 intervention villages between May and June of that year with outcome surveys scheduled for October to December 2012. Baseline data collection shows that randomisation achieved good balance across groups. Discussion The establishment of the China Rural Health Initiative has enabled the launch of this large-scale trial designed to identify a novel, scalable strategy for reduction of dietary sodium and control of blood pressure. If proved effective, the intervention could plausibly be implemented at low cost in large parts of China and other countries worldwide.