The Communist Party says it wants to better control its size and promote quality rather than quantity when recruiting new members.
A statement from the General Office of the party's Central Committee said it aimed to "control the overall size, optimise its structure, promote quality and to observe standards and strict procedures" to improve recruitment.
The new guidelines were aimed at building a party "with a proper size, reasonable structure, fine quality, strict discipline and prominent role", the statement said. Annual growth in the number of party members should be moderate, it said.
The guidelines were adopted as part of President Xi Jinping's instructions on how to build the party.
Analysts said Xi was trying to rebuild the party's reputation, which has been tarnished by widespread corruption and abuses of power by its members.
"It's Xi's effort to save the party, whose image could not be worse," said Zhang Lifan , a Beijing-based political analyst.
Ma Guoxian , a professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, said the party had to adapt to reflect changes in Chinese society.
"China's social structure has changed with the rise of the middle class resulting from a booming economy," Ma said. "The ruling party has to adjust to represent this shift."
The new guidelines replace rules issued in 1990, now said to be out of date.
The previous guidelines "could not meet the needs of the current situation as many new circumstances and new problems have emerged in the enlisting of new members", the statement said.
Despite the worldwide collapse of communist rule in 1990s, China's Communist Party has expanded rapidly in recent years, with many on the mainland believing that party membership brings significant privileges.
The party had 85.1 million members by the end of 2012, an increase of over two million on the previous year, according to data released by the party's Organisation Department.
The number of party grass-roots organisations totalled 4.2 million.
Under former president Jiang Zemin the party also broadened its membership to bring entrepreneurs into its ranks.
Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui