Modelling results and seismic interpretation illustrate that the Cenozoic evolution of the Bohai Bay Basin (BBB) can be divided into different stages. A transtensional phase during Paleocene – early Oligocene time created NE-trending strike-slip faults and E–W-trending normal faults which were driven roughly by N–S–extension, making an angle of 25° with the strike-slip faults. Seismic data interpretation yields evidence that inversion phases occurred within the NE Xialiaohe Depression of the greater Bohai Bay Basin. This inversion phase is attributed to rotation and partial inversion that occurred during late Oligocene time, leading to formation of inversion structures along the NE part of Tanlu Fault. This episode is attributed to an anticlockwise rotation of the eastern part of the BBB driven by the convergence between the Pacific and Eurasian plates. The tectonic scenario described was simulated in scaled analogue models, which were extended by pulling two basement plates away from each other. Partial inversion was simulated by rotation of one of the plates relative to the other. Model results show many of the features observed in the BBB. Our model results are used to argue that, unlike the two-episode extension and whole-basin inversion models previously proposed for the BBB, a single N–S-aligned extension followed by anticlockwise rotation accounts for the Cenozoic evolution of the BBB and produces some of the structural complexities observed in the basin.