In arid zones, strong solar radiation has important consequences for ecosystem processes. To better understand carbon and nutrient dynamics, it is important to know the contribution of solar radiation to leaf litter decomposition of different arid-zone species. Here we investigated: (1) whether such contribution varies among plant species at given irradiance regime, (2) whether interspecific variation in such contribution correlates with interspecific variation in the decomposition rate under shade; and (3) whether this correlation can be explained by leaf traits. We conducted a factorial experiment to determine the effects of solar radiation and environmental moisture for the mass loss and the decomposition constant k-values of 13 species litters collected in Northern China. The contribution of solar radiation to leaf litter decomposition varied significantly among species. Solar radiation accelerated decomposition in particular in the species that already decompose quickly under shade. Functional traits, notably specific leaf area, might predict the interspecific variation in that contribution. Our results provide the first empirical evidence for how the effect of solar radiation on decomposition varies among multiple species. Thus, the effect of solar radiation on the carbon flux between biosphere and atmosphere may depend on the species composition of the vegetation.