Mud volcanoes have provided much meaningful information about the deep Earth and the recent crustal and neotectonic movements in an area for over 200 years. However, the triggering mechanisms have puzzled geologists for a long time. This study investigated the factors controlling mud volcano activity and the triggering mechanisms of mud volcano eruptions on the southern margin of the Junggar Basin, NW China. The Baiyanggou, Aiqigou and Dushanzi mud volcanoes are all located along the Dushanzi Anticline, which belongs to the third anticline belt on the southern margin of the basin. The extensive, thick mudstone at depth provides a wealth of material for the formation of mud volcanoes. Simultaneously, the overpressure serves as the driving force for the eruption of the mud volcanoes. The torsional–compressional stress field created by the collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates not only enhanced the abnormal formational pressure in the region but also lead to the development of extensional faults in the core of the Dushanzi Anticline, which served as the conduits for the mud volcanoes. The continuous collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates and the regional torsional–compressional stress field may largely control the cyclical activity of the mud volcanoes and serve as their primary trigger mechanism. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.