The general shape of the tree is conical with tiered, horizontal branches that are often somewhat pendulous toward the tips. In vernacular use, it is most often known as Cunninghamia, but is also sometimes called "China-fir".
The cones are small and inconspicuous at pollination in late winter, the pollen cones in clusters of 10--30 together, the female cones singly or 2-3 together.
The seed cones mature in 7-8 months to 2.5-4.5 cm long, ovoid to globose, with spirally arranged scales; each scale bears 3-5 seeds. They are often proliferous (with a vegetative shoot growing on beyond the tip of the cone) on cultivated trees; this is rare in wild trees, and may be a cultivar selected for easy vegetative propagation for use in forestry plantations.
As the tree grows its trunk tends to sucker around the base, particularly following damage to the stem or roots, and it then may grow in a multi-trunked form. Brown bark of mature trees peels off in strips to reveal reddish-brown inner bark. Older specimens often look ragged, as the old needles may cling to stems for up to 5 years.
This tree can be mistaken for the rare Torreya taxifolia, one visible difference being the Cunninghamia's bronze autumn branches which are shed and pile beneath it, as well as the propensity for this tree to have more than one trunk. The Torreya is known as "Florida's gopher wood," as well as "stinking cedar" and the crushed leaves some say smell like tomato, whereas the Cunninghamia leaves do not smell.