Wind-blown sands were mobile at many sites along the desert margin in northern China during the early Holocene (11.5–8 ka ago), based on extensive new numerical dating. This mobility implies low effective moisture at the desert margin, in contrast to growing evidence for greater than modern monsoon precipitation at the same time in central and southern China. Dry conditions in the early Holocene at the desert margin can be explained through a dynamic link between enhanced diabatic heating in the core region of the strengthened monsoon and increased subsidence in drylands to the north, combined with high evapotranspiration rates due to high summer temperatures. After 8 ka ago, as the monsoon weakened and lower temperatures reduced evapotranspiration, eolian sands were stabilized by vegetation. Aridity and dune mobility at the desert margin and a strengthened monsoon can both be explained as responses to high summer insolation in the early Holocene.