A major challenge in understanding radiative forcing of aerosols is accurately monitoring the light absorbing components and clarifying the main reasons of their spatial and temporal variations. In this study, the optical properties of light-absorbing carbon (LAC) in aerosols were measured over one year and the impacts from various emission sources and other influencing factors were analyzed at three sites (suburban (NJU), urban (PAES) and industrial (NUIST) in Nanjing, a typical polluted city in eastern China. With an improved method that combines online and offline techniques, we revised the multiple scattering correction factors and significantly reduced the uncertainty in measurement of absorption coefficients of black carbon (BC). The result reveals the necessity of developing the regional dependent factor for estimation of BC absorption. Relatively large mass absorption efficiency (MAE) of BC was found in summer and industrial region (NUIST), and the mixing state and coating relevant with secondary aerosol formation were the main reasons for such seasonal and site dependent variations. Distinct seasonal variations existed in the MAE of brown carbon (BrC) at NJU. In the winter, BrC from primary emissions such as diesel vehicles had a stronger absorption ability than that from secondary aerosol formation. The lowest MAE values of BrC appeared in summer, reflecting the formation of the non-absorbing biogenic secondary organic aerosol, and the effect of photobleaching. At the urban site PAES, BrC was expected to be mainly from gasoline vehicles and transport of biomass burning emissions, and had a stronger light absorbing ability than the other two sites. The results of simultaneous observations at NJU and PAES indicated that the formation of fresh secondary organic aerosol enhanced the optical absorption of BC but reduced that of BrC. The impacts of various influencing factors on LAC provided effective ways to alleviate their regional radiative forcing at the city scale.