Changes in the intensity of the East Asian summer monsoon (EASM) are critical for regulating the regional hydrology, ecology, and human civilization, especially in the vicinity of the summer monsoon limit (SML). However, the detailed spatial variations of the SML in mainland China over the past 2000 years are uncertain due to the lack of high-resolution paleoclimate archives. As a result, the accurate location of the SML during the transition from the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) to the Little Ice Age (LIA), as well as its impacts on ecology and society, are poorly understood. Here, we report a potential location of the SML during the late Holocene by combining data from a lake sedimentary record and a compilation of paleoclimate records from arid northern China. We find that EASM intensity was strong during the MWP and that the SML in arid northern China was roughly located along the Yinshan Mountains, Yabulai Mountains, and north of Lake Qinghai. EASM intensity dramatically weakened during the MWP-LIA transition, and the SML retreated southeastward significantly, which may have primarily but nonlinearly been a response to the reduction in solar irradiance and its associated changes in atmospheric circulation (e.g., El Niño–Southern Oscillation and Siberian High) and could have had profound impacts on hydrology, ecology, and human civilization across northern monsoonal Asia.