This song review is an excerpt from Mikes Grateful Dead Blog

China Doll is a moody ballad with one of the most beautiful transitions from minor to major in rock music that I’ve ever heard. This song was originally released on the From the Mars Hotelalbum in 1974 and featured harpsichord.
China Doll is very much revered but is still underrated. China Doll should be an even more high profile Grateful Dead classic than it currently is. I am sure the song is virtually unknown outside of Deadheads so it earns the distinction of being For Deadheads Only.

This song is so deep, eerie, and mysterious it disappoints me that more people aren’t exposed to it. It is a very slow melancholy dirge and another thing that might detract from it’s popularity amongst Deadheads and the public at large is that the lyrics are very vague. I am not even sure what the plot of the song is or if the dialogue is a one person monologue or between two people, etc. The opening lines are vague:

A pistol shot at 5 o’clock
The bells of heaven ring
“Tell me what you done it for”
“No I won’t tell you a thing”

It has been written in the books that (per Robert Hunter) the opening shot refers to a suicide but without that 3rd party information I wouldn’t have known that. This fact of the vague lyrics does not bother me at all because I love China Doll so much but I am just conjecturing that the unclear storyline and lack of identifiable characters (ie no “Black Peter” in this one) might have caused the song not to receive the fanfare I think it deserves.
The song goes on with cryptic lyrics until the unbelievable tension release before the final lines:

Take up your china doll
it’s only fractured
just a little nervous from the fall

This transition from minor to major is chillingly effective and really a compositional triumph on Jerry’s part. This part gives me goosebumps pretty much every time I hear it. Also I must mention that Jerry always played an anguished, minimal, and soulful solo on China Doll in a “slowhand” style with lots of bent notes that was not his typical style.