Climate warming will cause differences in precipitation distribution and changes in hydrological cycle both at regional and global scales. Arid lands of Central Asia (ALCA), one of the largest arid regions at the middle latitudes in the world, is likely to be strongly influenced by climate warming. Understanding the precipitation variations in the past is an important prerequisite for predicting future precipitation trends and thus managing regional water resources in such an arid region. In this study, we used run theory, displacement, extreme deviation theory, precipitation concentration index (PCI), Mann-Kendall rank correlation and climatic trend coefficient methods to analyze the precipitation in wet and dry years, changes in precipitation over multiple-time scales, variability of precipitation and its rate of change based on the monthly precipitation data during 1950–2000 from 344 meteorological stations in the ALCA. The occurrence probability of a single year with abundant precipitation was higher than that of a single year with less precipitation. The average duration of extreme drought in the entire area was 5 years, with an average annual water deficit of 34.6 mm (accounting for 11.2% of the average annual precipitation over the duration). The occurrence probability of a single wet year was slightly higher than that of a single dry year. The occurrence probability of more than 5 consecutive wet years was 5.8%, while the occurrence probability of more than 5 consecutive dry years was 6.2%. In the center of the study area, the distribution of precipitation was stable at an intra-annual timescale, with small changes at an inter-annual timescale. In the western part of the study area, the monthly variation of precipitation was high at an inter-annual timescale. There were clear seasonal changes in precipitation (PCI=12–36) in the ALCA. Precipitation in spring and winter accounted for 37.7% and 24.4% of the annual precipitation, respectively. There was a significant inter-annual change in precipitation in the arid Northwest China (PCI=24–34). Annual precipitation increased significantly (P=0.05) in 17.4% of all the meteorological stations over the study period. The probability of an increase in annual precipitation was 75.6%, with this increase being significant (P=0.05) at 34.0% of all the meteorological stations. The average increasing rate in annual precipitation was 3.9 mm/10a (P=0.01) in the ALCA. There were significant increasing trends (P=0.01) in precipitation in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with rates of 2.6, 3.1 and 3.7 mm/10a, respectively.