Provincial emergency response officials said 11,227 others were injured and 24 people were missing, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
The quake hit just after 8 a.m. local time and was followed by about 1,165 aftershocks, the strongest measured at 5.8-magnitude, the Chinese seismological center said.
The temblor was measured at 6.6 by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The quake occurred on the same fault as the massive 2008 earthquake that killed almost 90,000 people, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"Comparatively speaking, the scale of the disaster is not as extensive as in 2008, although there are still multiple locations effected," Meimei Leung, emergency response director for World Vision's China office, told the newspaper.
The quake was centered in Ya'an, The New York Times said. The quake's center was 7.5 miles below the surface, a relatively shallow depth that usually indicates a potential for extensive damage.
President Xi Jinping ordered the army to assist in rescue and recovery efforts, Xinhua reported.
Residents of the affected area are without power, water and communications, and in some places 90 percent of the buildings were reported destroyed.
"Now the houses on both sides of the street have become dangerous buildings," a survivor, Zhang Linpeng, told the Sichuan news service. "I've seen people trapped in the ruins, and some people died. Many of the injured have been pulled out."
Prime Minister Li Keqiang flew to Sichuan with some of his senior officials, the New York Times said.
"The current most urgent issue is grasping the first 24 hours after the quake's occurrence, the golden time for saving lives, to take scientific rescue measures and save people's lives," Li told Xinhua.
Landslides made the task of rescue more difficult. A truck carrying soldiers to the area went off a road into a river, killing one of those aboard and seriously injuring three of his comrades, the Los Angeles Times said.