Abstract Peatland of the eastern Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau lies at the convergence of the East Asian and Indian monsoon systems in eastern Asia. To understand the evolution of this peatland and its potential to provide new insights into the Holocene evolution of the East Asian monsoon a 6 m peat core was collected from the undisturbed central part of a peat deposit near Hongyuan. The age-depth profile was determined using 16 14C-AMS age dates, the peat analysed for a range of environmental variables including carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen concentration, bulk density, δ 13C and the associated spring water analysed for hydrogen and oxygen isotopes. The age-depth profile of the recovered peat sequence covers the period from 9.6 to 0.3 kyr BP and is linear indicating that the conditions governing productivity and decay varied little over the Holocene. Using changes in carbon density, organic carbon content and its δ 13C, cold dry periods of permafrost characterised by low density and impeded surface drainage were identified. The low δ 18O and δD values of the spring water emanating around the peat deposit, down to −13.8 and −102‰ (VSMOW), respectively, with an inverse relationship between electrical conductivity and isotopic composition indicate precipitation under colder and drier conditions relative to the present day. In view of the current annual mean air temperature of 1 °C this suggests conditions in the past have been conducive to permafrost. Inferred periods of permafrost correspond to independently recognised cold periods in other Holocene records from across China at 8.6, 8.2–7.8, 5.6–4.2, 3.1 and 1.8–1.5 kyr BP. The transition to a cold dry climate appears to be more rapid than the subsequent recovery and cold dry periods at Hongyuan are of longer duration than equivalent cold dry periods over central and eastern China. Light–dark banding peat on a scale of 15–30 years from 9.6 to 5.5 kyr BP may indicate a strong influence of decadal oscillations possibly the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and a potential link between near simultaneous climatic changes in the northwest Pacific, ENSO, movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone and the East Asian Monsoon.