By 1996, 2898 patients with pathologically proven hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) had been treated at the Liver Cancer Institute of Shanghai Medical University. The 5 year survival in the entire series was 36.2%, being increased from 4.8% in 1958-70, 12.2% in 1971-83, to 50.5% in 1984-96 and 274 patients had survived more than 5 years. The increase in the survival rate could be attributed to the decreasing mean tumour diameter (11.7, 10.5 and 9.5 cm, respectively) and multimodality treatment. In addition to small HCC resection (5 year survival 64.9%, n = 735) and large HCC resection (5 year survival 37.4%, n = 1050), the following deserves to be mentioned. First, the 5 year survival of unresectable HCC treated by palliative surgery increased from 0% to 7.2% to 20.0%, which was related to the increase in use of multimodality treatment, particularly in those followed by second-stage resection. Second, cytoreduction and sequential resection is a new field with a significant potential in the treatment of localized unresectable HCC in a cirrhotic liver. Cytoreduction can be achieved by surgery, such as hepatic artery ligation, cannulation, cryosurgery and their combination, and followed by intrahepatic arterial chemoembolization, targeting therapy or regional radiotherapy. Ninety of 647 patients with unresectable HCC so treated had marked shrinkage of tumour and received second-stage resection; the 5 year survival was 71.4%. Third, non-surgical cytoreduction was mainly achieved by transcatheter arterial chemoembolization (TACE); for 70 patients with second-stage resection following TACE, the 5 year survival was 56.0%. Finally, re-resection of subclinical recurrence of tumour after curative HCC resection was performed in 155 patients; the 5 year survival calculated from the first resection was 50.9%, which played an important role in increasing the 5 year survival in the resection group (from 13.0% to 29.5% to 56.2%). It is concluded that multimodality treatment with combined and sequential use of different modalities and repeated use of some modalities is of substantial benefit for localized unresectable HCC.