Evapotranspiration is an important flux term in the water cycle that integrates atmospheric demand and surface conditions. Using the FAO Penman–Monteith method, we calculated monthly reference evapotranspiration (ET0) for 119 stations during 1961–2004 over Yunnan Province (YP), southwest China. Linear trend analysis shows that area-averaged annual and seasonal ET0 rates declined, with most remarkable decreases during pre-monsoon (−1.5 mm decade−1, Mar–May) and monsoon (−0.6 mm decade−1, Jun–Aug) seasons. Most of the stations with negative trends were concentrated in the eastern and northern parts of YP. Over the 44–year period, wind speed (WS), relative sunshine duration (SD) and relative humidity (RH) all showed decreasing trends, whereas maximum temperature (TMX) increased slightly. Multivariate regression analysis indicated that the variability of ET0 rates is most sensitive to the variations of SD, followed by RH, TMX and WS. The temporal evolution of these contributing factors was not stable during the study period, with an increasing contribution of SD and a decreasing contribution of TMX after the 1970s. Temporally changing contributions of climatic variables to ET0 should be taken into account when evapotranspiration rates are calculated with equations that rely on parameterization of climatic variables. Linking the changing contributions of climatic variables to ET0 rates to circulation features may help to better understand how ET0 responds to regional climatic change. ©2012 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.