The roles of straining and dissipation in controlling stratification are derived analytically using a vertical salinity variance method. Stratification is produced by converting horizontal variance to vertical variance via straining, that is, differential advection of horizontal salinity gradients, and stratification is destroyed by the dissipation of vertical variance through turbulent mixing. A numerical model is applied to the Changjiang estuary in order to demonstrate the salinity variance balance and how it reveals the factors controlling stratification. The variance analysis reveals that dissipation reaches its maximum during spring tide in the Changjiang estuary, leading to the lowest stratification. Stratification increases from spring tide to neap tide because of the increasing excess of straining over dissipation. Throughout the spring–neap tidal cycle, straining is almost always larger than dissipation, indicating a net excess of production of vertical variance relative to dissipation. This excess is balanced on average by advection, which exports vertical variance out of the estuarine region into the plume. During neap tide, tidal straining shows a general tendency of destratification during the flood tide and restratification during ebb, consistent with the one-dimensional theory of tidal straining. During spring tide, however, positive straining occurs during flood because of the strong baroclinicity induced by the intensified horizontal salinity gradient. These results indicate that the salinity variance method provides a valuable approach for examining the spatial and temporal variability of stratification in estuaries and coastal environments.