Abstract We investigate the large-fluctuation dynamics in financial markets, based on the minute-to-minute and daily data of the Chinese Indices and the German DAX. The dynamic relaxation both before and after the large fluctuations is characterized by a power law, and the exponents p± usually vary with the strength of the large fluctuations. The large-fluctuation dynamics is time-reversal symmetric at the time scale in minutes, while asymmetric at the daily time scale. Careful analysis reveals that the time-reversal asymmetry is mainly induced by external forces. It is also the external forces which drive the financial system to a non-stationary state. Different characteristics of the Chinese and German stock markets are uncovered.