The ‘Tanaka-Kaiyong Line’ (TKL) is a major phytogeographic boundary in Southwest China, separating East Asia's Sino-Himalayan and Sino-Japanese Floras. However, little is known about the importance of this boundary in promoting intraspecific phylogeographic subdivision and divergence. Using chloroplast (cpDNA) and nuclear-intron (nDNA) sequence data, we reconstructed the population history of Sophora davidii, a drought-tolerant riparian shrub widely distributed on either side of the TKL. Specifically, we aimed at testing two long-standing explanations for possible vicariant events across the TKL: (i) Late Pliocene (c. 3 Ma) geological uplift of the eastern Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP) or (ii) a sharp environmental gradient associated with the establishment of different monsoon regimes on either side of the TKL during the (Late) Pleistocene. Our genealogical analyses detected a major west–east split in cpDNA, geographically largely consistent with the TKL, and dated to c. 1.28 Ma (95% HPD: 0.21–2.96 Ma), hence postdating the latest phase of eastern QTP uplift. Furthermore, integrating cpDNA phylogeographic patterns with mismatch analyses, we found multiple refugial isolation and long-term demographic stability of populations in the west (Hengduan Mountain Range) compared with extensive range expansions in the east, possibly during the last glacial period(s) and followed by differentiation into regional sublineages (southeast: Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau vs. northeast: Qinling Mts./Loess Plateau). Although nuclear differentiation was less marked, the geographical pattern of nDNA haplotypes provided some further indication of the species' eastward expansion, possibly from source populations located just east of the TKL (lower Jinshajiang region). Overall, the present data reject the geological (tectonic) explanation for the TKL and, instead, provide supportive evidence for its role as a climatically driven barrier to present-day plant dispersal. In addition, our study highlights changing temperatures and vegetation types during the last glacial period(s), along with aspects of regional topography, to be important determinants of the glacial eastward expansion of S. davidii. In consequence, our study lends support to a ‘glacial out-of-Hengduan Mts’. hypothesis for the xerophytic-riparian flora of Southwest China, which in turn is inconsistent with the traditional view of the TKL as a ‘classical’ vicariant-biogeographic boundary.