Abstract During the Mesozoic era, the South China Sea and its environs were located at the south-eastern margin of the Eurasian continent. There has been hot debate on the influences of Tethyan and Paleo-Pacific tectonics to the Mesozoic evolution of the area. This paper compiles lithofacies maps of six time slices and discusses the paleogeographic and tectonic evolution of the area based on this compilation and other data on structural deformation and magmatism. In the Early Triassic, the Paleotethys Ocean extended eastward to the study area through the Song Da passage. Then a significant east–west differential evolution began. In the Late Triassic, the western area uplifted as a result of the collision between the Indosinian and South China blocks during the Indosinian orogeny, and the Song Da passage has closed since then. Meanwhile, a transgression of Paleo-Pacific waters occurred in the eastern and south-eastern portions of the area, forming the ‘East Guangdong–North-west Borneo Sea’. In the Early Jurassic, seawater transgression was even more pronounced, resulting into the connection of this sea with the Mesotethys Ocean to the west. Large quantities of Tethyan water carrying Tethyan organisms entered the area. In the Middle Jurassic, a short-lived transgression occurred in the eastern Mesotethys and resulted in the formation of the ‘Yunnan–Burma Sea’. The Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous was the climax of the subduction of both the Mesotethys and Paleo-Pacific towards the Eurasian continent. This led to the formation of the great ‘Circum South-east Asia Subduction–Accretion Zone’ in the Middle or Late Cretaceous. This paper also presents various lines of evidence for a newly recognized segment of this Mesozoic subduction–accretion zone buried under Cenozoic sediments in the north-eastern South China Sea.