Studies of the end-Permian mass extinction have suggested a variety of patterns from a single catastrophic event to multiple phases. But most of these analyses have been based on fossil distributions from single localities. Although single sections may simplify the interpretation of species diversity, they are susceptible to bias from stratigraphic incompleteness and facies control of preservation. Here we use a data set of 1450 species from 18 fossiliferous sections in different paleoenvironmental settings across South China and the northern peri-Gondwanan region, and integrate it with high-precision geochronologic data to evaluate the rapidity of the largest Phanerozoic mass extinction. To reduce the Signor-Lipps effect, we applied constrained optimization (CONOP) to search for an optimal sequence of first and last occurrence datums for all species and generate a composite biodiversity pattern based on multiple sections. This analysis indicates that an abrupt extinction of 62% of species took place within 200 Kyr. The onset of the sudden extinction is around 252.3 Ma, just below Bed 25 at the Meishan section. Taxon turnover and diversification rates suggest a deterioration of the living conditions nearly 1.2 Myr before the sudden extinction. The magnitude of the extinction was such that there was no immediate biotic recovery. Prior suggestions of highly variable, multi-phased extinction patterns reflect the impact of the Signor-Lipps effect and facies-dependent occurrences, and are not supported following appropriate statistical treatment of this larger data set.