The Central Asian Orogenic Belt, as the largest accretionary orogen on Earth, is an ideal candidate to study the geodynamics of convergent plate boundaries through a prolonged period. The evolution of this orogen has been explained by different tectonic models, which incorporated one, or a combination, of the following mechanisms: lateral stacking of arc systems along major shear zones, arc amalgamation, oroclinal bending, and trench migration. Here we elucidate major mechanisms responsible for the tectonic evolution of the Central Asian Orogenic Belt, focusing on the Chinese Tianshan Orogen in the southern Central Asian Orogenic Belt. Structural observations from the ∼50-km-long Gangou section show evidence of polyphase deformation. The earliest episode of orogen-parallel sinistral shearing, constrained to the Early Devonian (ca. 399 Ma) by syn-deformational intrusions, was possibly controlled by oblique subduction. This was followed by an episode of ∼NE–SW contractional deformation, dated at ca. 356 Ma (40Ar/39Ar age of syn-deformational hornblende), and likely associated with an episode of trench advance. The third stages of deformation during the latest Carboniferous and Permian involved ∼NE-SW contraction, orogen-parallel extension, and dextral transpression. Our new geochronological data constrain the timing of orogen-parallel extension to ca. 303–293 Ma, and confirm that dextral activation along shear zones occurred during the Permian. The results highlight the role of trench migration, oblique tectonics, and syn-collisional orogen-parallel extension in the build-up of the Central Asian Orogenic Belt, and contribute to the pre-collisional reconstruction of this orogenic system.