Background In observational studies from western countries childhood emotional adversity is usually associated with adult cardiovascular disease. These findings are open to contextual biases making evidence from other settings valuable. We examined the association of a potential marker of childhood emotional adversity with cardiovascular disease risk factors in a developing country. Methods We used multivariable regression in cross-sectional analysis of older (≥50 years) men (n = 7,885) and women (n = 20,886) from the Guangzhou Biobank Cohort Study (2003–8) to examine the adjusted association of early life (<18 years) parental death (none, one or two deaths) with blood pressure, fasting glucose, LDL-cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, body mass index (BMI), waist-hip ratio (WHR) and white blood cell count (WBC). We used seated height and delayed 10-word recall to assess content validity of parental death as a measure of childhood emotional adversity. We also examined whether associations varied by sex. Results Early life parental death was associated with shorter age- and sex-adjusted seated height. It was also associated with lower 10-word recall score adjusted for age, sex, socio-economic position, leg length and lifestyle. Similarly, adjusted early life parental death was not associated with blood pressure, fasting glucose, LDL-cholesterol or HDL-cholesterol but was associated with lower BMI (−0.40, 95% confidence interval (CI) −0.62 to −0.19 for 2 compared with no early life parental deaths) and triglycerides. Associations varied by sex for WHR and WBC. Among men only, early life parental death was associated with lower WHR (−0.008, 95% CI −0.015 to −0.001) and WBC (−0.35 109/L, 95% CI −0.56 to −0.13). Conclusions In a non-western population from a developing country, childhood emotional adversity was negatively associated with some cardiovascular risk factors, particularly among men. Our study suggests that some of the observed associations in western populations may be socially rather than biologically based or may be population specific.