High frequency seasonal drought in purple soils (Regosols in FAO taxonomy) of the hilly upland areas of Sichuan basin, China, is one of the key restrictive factors for crop production. In order to manage irrigation and fertilizer application in these soils effectively, the soil water content in a sloped plot with 60 cm soil depth was measured by neutron probe devices to investigate the soil moisture regime during the 1998 rainy season after various amounts of rainfall events. The results showed that variation of soil moisture along the slope positions was highest in the top soil layer during the period of sporadic rainfall that did not induce any runoff. The coefficients of variation of soil moisture at various slope positions (upper, middle, and lower) are 17·36%, 8·95%, 10·25%, 8·58%, 8·05% and 9·21% at the 10 cm, 20 cm, 30 cm, 40 cm, 50 cm and 60 cm soil depths respectively. When surface runoff occurred, the soil moisture dynamics at various positions on the plot were then very different. Soil water content decreased more rapidly on the upper slope than on the middle and lower slope positions. When both surface runoff and throughflow occurred, the soil moisture dynamics in the various layers showed a stable period (soil water content is near constant as time elapses) that lasted about 1 week. Also, the pattern of moisture dynamics is ‘decreasing–stabilization–decreasing’. Thus, irrigation and fertilization management according to the spatial and temporal features of soil moisture dynamics on sloped land can increase the water and fertilizer utilization efficacy by reducing their losses during the stable period. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.