Aims Our objective was to investigate the responses of maize photosynthesis and growth to repeated drought.Methods Maize seedlings were exposed to different soil water deficit for three weeks, then rewatering for one week, and again to different water deficit for three weeks, to examine the effects of repeated drought on photosynthesis and growth.Important findings After the first water deficit treatments, under severe drought, plant height, total leaf area of individual plant, shoot and root biomass declined significantly, also transpiration rate (Tr), stomatal conductance (Gs), intercellular CO2 concentration (Ci), net photosynthetic rate (Pn), maximum net photosynthetic rate (Amax), but light compensation point and dark respiration rate increased significantly. Under medium drought, plant height, leaf area, and shoot biomass decreased significantly, but root biomass did not vary, hence, the ratio of roots to shoots (R/S) increased. Moreover, plants did not show significant differences in photosynthetic parameters. After rewatering, photosynthesis and growth rate of plants previously exposed to water deficit could recover to the levels of well-watered plants, but plant height and leaf area did not recover to the levels of the control. When maize were subjected to recurrent drought, plants pre-exposed to medium drought showed no significant difference in plant height, biomass, and photosynthetic parameters, but a significant decrease in leaf area, compared to plants only exposed to second medium drought. Plants pre-exposed to severe drought had significantly higher Tr, Gs, Ci, Pn, Amax, and, apparent quantum yield but significantly lower plant height, leaf area, and biomass than plants without previous exposure. These results indicated that the first severe drought significantly reduced photosynthetic capacity and maize growth, rewatering could recover photosynthesis and growth rate to the levels of well-watered plants, but could not eliminate the adverse influence of the first drought on growth. The first medium drought could stimulate the growth of maize root system and significantly increased R/S, which can enhance maize drought resistance to subsequent repeated drought, and maintain the total biomass in the control level; the first severe drought could enhance maize drought resistance to subsequent repeated drought in the aspect of photosynthesis, but could not compensate for the adverse effect of early drought on plant growth. Hence, in practice, drought hardening should be limited in the level of medium drought, and avoiding severe drought.