The origin of the Tertiary ‘red clay’ underlying the Pleistocene loess in the Chinese Loess Plateau remains controversial, although several lines of evidence have suggested a wind-blown origin. This study examines the particle-size parameters of the late Miocene and Pliocene ‘red clay’ by comparing it with those of the late Pleistocene loess. The particle-size distribution of a total of 15 339 loess and 6394 ‘red clay’ samples taken from 12 loess sections along a north–south transect and two ‘red clay’ sequences at Lingtai and Jingchuan was systematically analysed. The median grain size, skewness and kurtosis of the late Pleistocene loess all show a systematic southward change and are principally influenced by distance from source region. The spatial and temporal differentiation of dust deposits is expressed in a skewness–kurtosis–median grain size ternary diagram, from which the distance to the source region can be inferred. The particle-size characteristics of the Tertiary ‘red clay’ sediments are very similar to those of the palaeosols within the late Pleistocene loess deposits, suggesting an aeolian origin for the ‘red clay’. Based on the comparison of ‘red clay’ and loess in the ternary diagrams, it is inferred that the source–sink distance was greater in the Neogene than in the last and penultimate interglacials, and that the dust source region in north-western China underwent a progressive expansion during the period from at least 7·0 Ma to the present.