It is a medium-sized to large deciduous tree, growing up to 20-25 ft tall. It is upright and grows rapidly, but has a short lifespan. The leaves are narrow, light green, around 4-10 cm long and 1-2 cm broad. The flowers are catkins produced early in the spring; it is dioecious, with the male and female catkins on separate trees.
Many botanists, notably the Russian willow expert Alexei Konstantinovich Skvortsov, treat Salix matsudana as a synonym of the Peking Willow Salix babylonica, which, despite its botanical name, is also native to northern China. The only reported difference between the two is that S. matsudana has two nectaries in each female flower, whereas S. babylonica has only one; however this character is variable in many willows (e.g. Crack Willow Salix fragilis can have either one or two), so even this difference may mean nothing.
Another cultivar of hybrid origin between Chinese Willow and White Willow is 'Austree'; this is an exceptionally fast-growing cultivar with straight (not contorted) branches, sold for screening and fast tree cover. However it too is very prone to cankers and other diseases, making it very short-lived and unsuitable for most of the purposes for which it is sold.