This study investigated the reasons for continued high rates of home births in rural Shanxi Province, northern China, despite a national programme designed to encourage hospital deliveries. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 home-birthing women in five rural counties and drew on hospital audit data, observations and interviews with local health workers from a larger study. Multiple barriers were identified, including economic and geographic factors and poor quality of maternity care. Women's main reasons for not having institutional births were financial difficulties (n=26); poor quality of antenatal care (n=13); transport problems (n=11); dissatisfaction with hospital care expressed as fear of being in hospital (n=10); convenience of being at home and continuity of care provided by traditional birth attendants (TBAs) (n=10); and belief that the birth would be normal (n=6). These barriers must all be overcome to improve access to and acceptability of hospital birth. To ensure that the national policy of improving the hospital birth rate is implemented effectively, the government needs to improve the quality of antenatal and delivery care, increase financial subsidies to reduce out-of-pocket payments, remove transport barriers, and where hospital birth is not available in remote areas, consider allowing skilled attendance at home on an outreach basis and integrate TBAs into the health system.