Extending phenological records into the past is essential for the understanding of past ecological change and evaluating the effects of climate change on ecosystems. A growing body of historical phenological information is now available for Europe, North America, and Asia. In East Asia, long-term phenological series are still relatively scarce. This study extracted plant phenological observations from old diaries in the period 1834–1962. A spring phenology index (SPI) for the modern period (1963–2009) was defined as the mean flowering time of three shrubs (first flowering of Amygdalus davidiana and Cercis chinensis, 50% of full flowering of Paeonia suffruticosa) according to the data availability. Applying calibrated transfer functions from the modern period to the historical data, we reconstructed a continuous SPI time series across eastern China from 1834 to 2009. In the recent 30 years, the SPI is 2.1–6.3 days earlier than during any other consecutive 30 year period before 1970. A moving linear trend analysis shows that the advancing trend of SPI over the past three decades reaches upward of 4.1 d/decade, which exceeds all previously observed trends in the past 30 year period. In addition, the SPI series correlates significantly with spring (February to April) temperatures in the study area, with an increase in spring temperature of 1°C inducing an earlier SPI by 3.1 days. These shifts of SPI provide important information regarding regional vegetation-climate relationships, and they are helpful to assess long term of climate change impacts on biophysical systems and biodiversity.