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Beta diversity (i.e. species turnover rate across space) is fundamental for understanding mechanisms controlling large-scale species richness patterns. However, the influences on beta diversity are still a matter of debate. In particular, the relative role of environmental and spatial processes (e.g. environmental niche versus dispersal limitation of species) remains elusive, and the influence of species range size has been poorly tested. Here, using distribution maps of 11 405 woody species in China (ca 9.6 × 106 km2), we investigated 1) the geographical and directional patterns of beta diversity for all woody species and species with different range sizes, and 2) compared the effects of environmental and spatial processes on these patterns. Beta diversity was calculated as the decay of similarity in species composition with increasing distance. Variables representing environmental energy, water availability, climatic seasonality, habitat heterogeneity and human activities were used to evaluate the effects of environmental processes, while spatial distance was used to assess the influence of spatial processes. The results indicated significant directional patterns of beta diversity: the similarity decay along the latitudinal gradient was 1.6–2.3 times faster than that along the longitudinal gradient. Beta diversity also increased with the decrease of species range size. As compared with spatial processes, environmental processes had stronger effects on longitudinal beta diversity and on the beta diversity of widely-ranged species. This was opposite to the larger influence of spatial processes on latitudinal beta diversity and the beta diversity of narrowly-ranged species. These results suggest that the distributions of narrowly-ranged woody species in China may have not reached equilibrium with their environmental niches due to dispersal limitation induced by China's topography and/or their low dispersal ability. The projected rapid climatic changes will likely endanger such species. Species dispersal processes should be taken into account in future conservation strategies in China.