Following his career-best 63 in the second round, Howell shot a 6-under 66 on Saturday to reach 23-under-par 193 for the tournament -- seven strokes better than the previous low score of 200 set last year by Chawalit Plaphol, Paul Casey and Colin Montgomerie.
More impressively, though, was that Howell equaled the 54-hole record on the European and Asian Tours -- both co-sponsors -- established by Ernie Els at the 2003 Johnnie Walker Classic.
Howell's 66 was his highest score so far this week. But he has not been alone in putting up big red numbers at Yalong Bay Golf Club.
Australian Andrew Buckle made up a stroke on Howell with a 7-under 65 Saturday, remaining in second place at 22-under-par 194. Johan Edfors of Sweden had the round of the day, a 9-under 63, to pull into third place at 21-under-par.
England's Nick Dougherty moved up nine spots into fourth place with a 64, which put him at 19 under. Indian Jeev Milkha Singh (66) is fifth at minus-18, and co-first round leader Edward Loar (68) of the United States is one stroke further back in sixth.
In all, there are 15 players at 15-under-par or better -- including defending champion Paul Casey, who shot a 68 to reach minus-15.
While only the top six players are likely to challenge for the title Sunday, the low scores being fired in ideal conditions here mean that pretty much anything can happen.
As for Howell -- the European Tour Order of Merit leader -- he will be looking to go 2-for-2 in China after winning the HSBC Champions tournament in November.
His bogey-free round began with a birdie at the 579-yard, par-5 first. After six straight pars, Howell added another birdie at the par-4 eighth to get to minus-19 around the turn.
Howell eagled the par-513th -- moving to 4 under on the hole through three rounds by rolling in a 40-foot putt. He then birdied 16 and 17 to remain in the lead.
'It was a little hard work to be honest,' Howell said. 'I just didn't get going. But I said to myself 'The first two days had been so easy, really, [so] just stay patient and try and shoot 67.' And I managed to beat that by one in the end so delighted with a 66.'
Unless he shoots a 73 or worse on Sunday, Howell will break the tournament record of 266 set by Casey and Paul McGinley last year.
More amazing would be another mark: If Howell can shoot a 7-under 65 or better, he would become the first player ever to reach minus-30 in European Tour history.
'My caddie and I thought about what we would need yesterday and thought 30 under would be near the number,' said Howell. 'That was my goal starting this morning, not only to have a chance to win the tournament but that is a pretty meteoric number to get for four rounds of golf.
'You are not going to many opportunities in life to do that, so I think 65 tomorrow would give me a chance of winning the tournament with a stylish number.'