Lake Qinghai, in North China, is the largest interior plateau lake in Central Asia, and is sensitive to climate change and the environmental effects of Tibetan Plateau uplift. We have obtained an almost continuous 626 m long sediment core from an in-filled part of the southern lake basin, which documents both the age of the origin of the lake and the evolution of the East Asian monsoon during the Late Cenozoic. High-resolution magnetostratigraphy provides a chronology back to ca. 5.1 Ma. Analysis of lithofacies and depositional environments reveal that the change from eolian to lacustrine facies occurred at ca. 4.63 Ma, corresponding to a shift from an arid or semi-arid to a more humid climate, which resulted in the origin of Lake Qinghai. Changes in sediment lithology and mean grain size indicate that the lake level fluctuated considerably, superimposed on a long-term trend from higher to lower levels in response to variations in the East Asian Monsoon. This archive is a significant additional source of information on regional and global environmental change, complementing the existing records from north China, which are mainly based on analysis of loess deposits.