Water bodies (WBs) - lakes, ponds, and impoundments, provide essential ecosystem services for human society, yet their characteristics and changes over large areas remain elusive. Here we used unprecedented data layers derived from all Landsat images available between 1984 and 2015 to understand the overall characteristics and changes of WBs between two epochs (i.e., 1984-1999 and 2000-2015) in China. Results show that the abundance estimate of WBs greater than 1 km2 34 and the total WB surface area were 0.3-1.5 times and 0.2-0.5 times more than the previous estimates, respectively. The size-abundance and shoreline-area relationships of WBs in China conformed to the classic power scaling law, in contradiction to most previous studies. WB changes with various occurrence probabilities show widespread co-existence of disappearance of existent and emergence of new WBs across China driven primarily by human activities and climate change. Our results highlight the importance of using appropriate long-term satellite data to reveal the true properties and dynamics of WBs over large areas, which is essential for developing scaling theories and understanding the relative impacts of human activities and climate change on water resources in the world.