The hydroclimate over Asia has undergone important changes over the Holocene with spatially asynchronous trends. Proxy-based evidence shows that North Asia was markedly drier than today during the early Holocene, whereas East Asia, influenced by the monsoon system, was substantially wetter. Yet, the causes behind this contrast are only partly understood due to a lack of overview of the most important factors. Here we explore a combination of climate proxies and multiple climate-model simulations to show that the strong contrast between the dry North Asia and wet (mid-latitude) East Asia is explained by a complex interplay between the effects of remnant ice sheets and orbital forcing. In North Asia, the climate was dry due a weakening of the westerlies and reduced atmospheric humidity, linked to the ice sheets in North America and Fennoscandia. In East Asia, contrarily, the orbitally-forced enhancement of the summer monsoons caused the early Holocene climate to be much wetter than during the present-day. These results indicate that the sensitivity of the hydroclimate in Asia to climate-forcings is spatially different, with important implications for the interpretation of past and future climate changes in this region.