High-resolution sampling of more than 10,000 microfossils from seven Late Permian−Middle Triassic paleoequatorial sections in south China refutes claims for a 5 m.y. recovery delay after the end-Permian mass extinction. We show that level-bottom seafloor diversity began to recover in the early Smithian, little more than 1 m.y. after the mass extinction, while recovery of reef-building metazoans began 4 m.y. later, in the Anisian. A further mass extinction in the late Smithian, identified in the pelagic fossil record, is weakly manifest as a temporary pause in diversification among benthic communities. In the Early Triassic of south China, the offshore diversity increase began before then, in shallower settings. The recovery from the end-Permian mass extinction in south China was therefore significantly more rapid and environmentally more complex than hitherto known.