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Understanding how patterns of biodiversity vary among taxonomic levels can provide insights into the mechanisms that regulate the assembly of ecological communities. In this study, we examined the scale and environmental dependence of the relationship between number of species and number of genera/families in woody plant communities to investigate the influences of species pool and local ecological processes on the taxonomic structures of local communities. The data we used are based on a large number of forest plots collected across the eastern part of China and the globe. The results showed that the ratio of the number of genera/families:species and the taxonomic exponents, i.e. the exponents of the genus/family–species relationship, were generally lower than null expectations based on the regional species pool, suggesting that abiotic filtering (e.g. environmental filtering and dispersal limitation) is more important than interspecific competition in shaping local communities. The extent of species pool and the area sampled for local communities both influenced our ability to infer whether local ecological processes were important. In particular, the deviation of the taxonomic ratios and exponents between empirical and null patterns increased as the extent of species pool increased, and the taxonomic exponents declined as area of the local community increased, due partly to the reduced effect of interspecific competition. We conclude that regional species pools and local processes both influenced the taxonomic structure of local woody plant communities, but their effects vary substantially among spatial scales.