The Chang’e-3 mission blasted off from Xichang in the south at 01:30 Monday local time (17:30 GMT Sunday).
The Long March rocket’s payload includes a landing module and a six-wheeled robotic rover called Yutu (or Jade Rabbit).
The mission should land in the Moon’s northern hemisphere in mid-December.
Chinese state TV carried live pictures of the launch of the Chinese-developed Long March 3B rocket carrying the lunar probe.
This will be the third rover mission to land on the lunar surface, but the Chinese vehicle carries a more sophisticated payload, including ground-penetrating radar which will gather measurements of the lunar soil and crust.
The 120kg (260lb) Jade Rabbit rover can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200m (660ft) per hour, according to its designer the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute.
Its name – chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters – derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living on the moon as the pet of the lunar goddess Chang’e.
Last week, Prof Ouyang Ziyuan told the BBC’s science editor David Shukman that the mission would test key technology and carry out science, adding: “In terms of the talents, China needs its own intellectual team who can explore the whole lunar and solar system – that is also our main purpose.”
The lander’s target is Sinus Iridum (Latin for Bay of Rainbows) a flat volcanic plain thought to be relatively clear of large rocks. It is part of a larger feature known as Mare Imbrium that forms the right eye of the “Man in the Moon”.
Other details of the mission are sketchy; the rover and lander are powered by solar panels but other sources suggest they also carry radioisotope heating units (RHUs) containing plutonium-238 to keep them warm during the cold lunar night.
If successful, the mission, aimed at exploring the Moon’s surface and looking for natural resources such as rare metals, will be a milestone in China’s long-term space exploration programme, which includes establishing a permanent space station in Earth orbit.