What determines large-scale patterns of species diversity is a central and controversial topic in biogeography and ecology. In this study, we compared the effects of contemporary environment and historical contingencies on species richness patterns of woody plants in China, using fine-resolution geographic databases of the distributions of 11 405 woody species and climate, topography, and vegetation information. Residuals of species richness-environment generalized linear models were significantly different from 0 in the majority of seven biogeographical regions, and also differed significantly between these regions, indicating significant deviation from the predicted species richness based on contemporary environment. Additionally, species richness of a given biogeographical region deviated substantially from the predictions of species richness-environment models developed for the remaining regions combined. This suggests different richness-environment relationships among regions. These results indicate important historical signals in the species richness patterns of woody plants across China. The signals are especially pronounced in the eastern Himalayas, the Mongolian Plateau, and the Tibetan Plateau, perhaps reflecting their special geological features and history. Nevertheless, partial regression indicated that historical effects were less important relative to contemporary environment. In conclusion, contemporary environment (notably climate) determines the general trend in woody-plant species richness across China, while historical contingencies generate regional deviations from this trend. Our findings imply that both species diversity and regional evolutionary and ecological histories should be taken into account for future nature conservation.