One significant change of terrestrial landscapes in response to past climate change has been the transformation between activity and stability of extensively distributed wind-blown sand dunes. The relations between the dynamics of the aeolian landscape and its drivers are not yet completely understood, however. Evidence of aeolian sand deposition during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) is scarce in many mid-latitude dune fields, whereas abundant evidence exists for aeolian sand accumulation during the deglaciation, i.e. after about 15 ka. Whether this contrast actually reflects changes in dune activity is still unclear, making paleoclimatic interpretation uncertain. Comprehensive field investigation and luminescence dating in the Mu Us dune field, north-central China, demonstrates that aeolian sands deposited during the LGM are preserved as fills in periglacial sand wedges and beneath loess deposits near the downwind dune field margin. The scarcity of LGM dune sand elsewhere in the dune field is interpreted as the result of intensive aeolian activity without substantial net sand accumulation. Increasing sand accumulation after 15 ka, reflected by much more extensive preservation, signals a change in sand supply relative to sand transportation through the dune field. Reduced wind strength and other environmental changes including regional permafrost degradation after 15 ka transformed the dune field state from net erosion to net accumulation; the dunes, however, remained largely mobile as they were in the LGM. Similar diverging patterns of dune sand accumulation and preservation before and after 15 ka in many mid-latitude dune fields imply broad climatic controls linked to the changes in high-northern-latitude forcing.