A strong earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale struck an area of south-western China's Yunnan province early Sunday, destroying houses, killing at least three people and injuring nearly 300.

The epicentre of the quake at 5:34 a.m. (2134 GMT Saturday) was at 23.0 degrees north and 101.1 degrees east in Yunnan's Ning'er county, near the border with Myanmar, the China Earthquake Administration said.

Heavy damage and casualties were reported in the old town of Pu'er, and emergency teams planned to evacuate 120,000 local residents to safer areas, the administration said..

Local officials had confirmed three people dead and 290 injured, at least 15 of them seriously, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Dozens of aftershocks followed the first earthquake, including 55 that measured up to 4.0 on the Richter scale recorded before 8 a.m.

One aftershock measuring 5.1 shook the area at 10:49 a.m., the agency said.

Rescue teams were sent to the affected area to assess the damage and prepare initial emergency supplies including bedding, clothes and 5,000 tents.

The US Geological Survey said the quake struck at a depth of 10 kilometres, but Chinese seismologists estimated the depth at only 5 kilometres.

The earthquake was the strongest to hit Yunnan province since a quake of 7.0 magnitude destroyed much of the old town of Lijiang in 1996.

Nine previous earthquakes measuring at least 5.0 have been recorded within a 50-kilometre radius of Pu'er, including a 6.8-magnitude quake in March 1979.