An earthquake has struck a moderately populated part of western China, causing three deaths but apparently not significant damage, the state news agency reports.

The tremor, measuring magnitude 5.9, hit near the city of Dingxi in Gansu province, a region of mountains, desert and pastureland with a population of 26 million, early on Monday morning.

The three deaths were reported in Min County in the rural southern part of Dingxi municipality, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Residents described shaking windows and swinging lights but little major damage and little panic. Shaking was felt in the provincial capital of Lanzhou 177km north, and as far away as Xi'an, 400km to the east.

"You could see the chandeliers wobble and the windows vibrating and making noise, but there aren't any cracks in the walls. Shop assistants all poured out onto the streets when the shaking began," said a front desk clerk at the Wuyang Hotel in the Zhang County seat about 40km from the epicentre. The clerk, surnamed Bao, refrained from identifying herself further.

The US Geological Survey, which monitors such events, said the initial 5.9 magnitude quake hit at 7:45am (23:45 GMT on Sunday), with its epicentre 151km west of Beidao in Gansu province at a depth of just 9.8km.

A second 5.6 magnitude tremor hit the same region at 01:12 GMT at a depth of 10.1 kilometres, the USGS said.

Source: Agencies