The concept of fengmao has found wide-spread use and application in urban design and development in China over the past four decades. It is increasingly used as a means of evaluating, maintaining and preserving cultural heritage. However, the common translation as ‘urban character’ in the English language literature fails to convey the complexity and comprehensiveness of the notion. We introduce the concept in its fullness and provide brief history of the evolution of the term over recent decades, linking its rising importance with some of China’s major urban and rural development turns. We illustrate the rural fengmao assessment framework on the case of the national leader in this regard, Anji County (Zhejiang Province, China). Finally, we demonstrate that current fengmao assessment and improvement efforts neglect two areas that are instrumental in sustainable development: the inclusion of (a) local stakeholders and (b) a detailed ecosystems and ecosystem services analysis as part of fengmao evaluation. We propose a more comprehensive conceptualisation and definition of fengmao which is better aligned with the aims and principles of sustainable development and offer concluding remarks.