The expansion of plants using the C4 photosynthetic pathway is one of the most prominent changes in the global ecosystem during the Cenozoic Era. A significant late Miocene expansion is well documented. However, the existence and cause of subsequent expansions are still not clear, owing in part to the lack of long, continuous climate-vegetation records. Here we present two high-resolution carbon isotope time series, covering the past 7 m.y., derived from eolian deposits on the Chinese Loess Plateau. The data indicate three intervals of significant C4 plant expansions within the semiarid monsoonal region of East Asia (ca. 2.9–2.7 Ma, 1.3–0.9 Ma, and 0.6 Ma–present). These expansions covary with strengthened East Asian summer monsoon circulation. We conclude that in East Asia, large-scale late Miocene C4/C3 vegetation changes in semiarid areas have been primarily driven by warm seasonal precipitation and temperature variations associated with changes in monsoon circulation.