January exports easily exceeded analysts' expectations, rising 7.9 percent from a year earlier, while imports rose by 16.7 percent, also topping forecasts, preliminary data showed on Friday.
That left the country with a trade surplus of $51.35 billion for the month, the General Administration of Customs said.
But China watchers caution that trends in January and February can be distorted by the long Lunar New Year holidays, with business slowing down weeks ahead of time and many firms scaling back operations or closing. The holiday fell on January 28 this year, 11 days earlier than last year.
Customs is due to release the final data for trade on Feb. 23.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected January shipments from the world's largest exporter to have risen 3.3 percent, after a dismal 2016 that saw exports slump 7.7 percent as China lagged an export rebound enjoyed by some of its North Asian neighbours.
Imports had been forecast to rise 10.0 percent, accelerating from 3.1 percent growth in December.
Analysts were expecting China's trade surplus to have risen to $47.90 billion in January, versus December's $40.71 billion, with growing attention on its large trade surplus with the United States as new U.S. President Donald Trump ramps up his protectionist rhetoric.
China's trade surplus with the United States fell to $21.37 billion in January from $21.73 billion in December 2016, preliminary data from customs showed on Friday.
China, the world's largest trading nation, could be heavily exposed to protectionist measures this year if U.S. President-elect Donald Trump follows through on campaign pledges to brand it a currency manipulator and impose heavy tariffs on imports of Chinese goods.