Black or elemental carbon (EC), including soot and char, are byproducts of anthropogenic fossil-fuel and biomass burning, and also of wildfires. EC, and particularly soot, strongly affects atmospheric chemistry and physics and thus radiative forcing; it can also alter regional climate and precipitation. Pre-industrial variations in EC as well as its source areas and controls however, are poorly known. Here we use a lake-sediment EC record from China to reconstruct Holocene variations in soot (combustion emissions formed via gas-to-particle conversion processes) and char (combustion residues from pyrolysis) measured with a thermal/optical method. Comparisons with sedimentary charcoal records (i.e., particles measured microscopically), climate and population data are used to infer variations in biomass burning and its controls. During the Holocene, positive correlations are observed between EC and an independent index of regional biomass burning. Negative correlations are observed between EC and monsoon intensity, and tree cover inferred from arboreal pollen percentages. Abrupt declines in temperature are also linked with widespread declines in fire. Our results 1) confirm the robustness of a relatively new method for reconstructing variations in EC; 2) document variations in regional biomass burning; 3) support a strong climatic control of biomass burning throughout the Holocene; and 4) indicate that char levels are higher today than at any time during the Holocene.