The East China Sea (ECS) responds to changes in the strength of the Kuroshio and East Asian monsoon activity. Multidecadal resolution records of the palaeotemperature indices and from core KY07-04 PC-1 show that the hydrology of the ECS responded to variability in the East Asian winter monsoon. Unlike Mg/Ca-derived sea surface temperatures, which show neither warming nor cooling trends during the Holocene, the record showed a general warming trend at a rate of 0.2°C ka−1. This warming was attributable to shrinkage of the Yellow Sea Central Cold Water and/or weaker winter cooling of the surface water. The record indicated a centennial-scale variability with an ∼1°C amplitude superimposed on the warming trend that reflected changes in the East Asian winter monsoon and/or the Kuroshio. Temperature minima appeared at ca. 3.0, 4.7, 6.2, 7.9 and 9.0 ka, and spectral analysis of the last 7 ka revealed significant peaks with periodicities of approximately 210, 250, and 440 years that were close to those observed in solar radiation. The reconstructed winter monsoon variability is consistent with Chinese documentary records for the last two millennia. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.