Abstract Soil nematode communities can provide important information about soil food web structure and function. However, how soil nematode communities and their metabolic footprints change over time in temperate forests is not well known. We examined the changes in the composition, diversity and metabolic footprints of soil nematode communities in three differently-aged (young, mid and old) forests of the Changbai Mountains, China. Carbon flows through different nematode trophic groups were also quantified based on nematode biomasses. The results showed that the highest abundance and diversity of total nematodes was found in the mid forest. Nematode communities were characterized by the replenishment in abundance but not the replacement of dominant genera. A low enrichment footprint in the young forest suggests a decline in available prey, while a high enrichment footprint in the mid forest indicates an increase in resource entry into soil food web. The relationship between the carbon flows of omnivores-predators and fungivores was stronger than that among other trophic groups. Our study shows that bottom-up effects of the vegetation, the soil environment and the connectedness of nematode trophic groups are all important driving forces for nematode community structure in temperate forests.