On the basis of daily precipitation records at 76 meteorological stations in the arid region, northwest of China, the spatial and temporal distribution of mean precipitation and extremes were analysed during 1960–2010. The Mann–Kendall trend test and linear least square method were utilized to detect monotonic trends and magnitudes in annual and seasonal mean precipitation and extremes. The results obtained indicate that both the mean precipitation and the extremes have increased except in consecutive dry days, which showed the opposite trend. The changes in amplitude of both mean precipitation and extremes show seasonal variability. On an annual basis, the number of rain days (R0.1) has significantly increased. Meanwhile, the precipitation intensity as reflected by simple daily intensity index (SDII), number of heavy precipitation days (R10), very wet days (R95p), max 1-day precipitation amount (RX1day) and max 5-day precipitation amount (RX5day) has also significantly increased. This suggests that the precipitation increase in the arid region is due to the increase in both precipitation frequency and intensity. Trends in extremes are very highly correlated with mean trends of precipitation. The spatial correlation between trends in extremes and trends in the mean is stronger for winter (DJF) than for annual and other seasons. The regional annual and seasonal precipitation and extremes are observed the step jump in mean in the late 1980s. Overall, the results of this study are good indicators of local climate change, which will definitely enhance human mitigation to natural hazards caused by precipitation extremes. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.