We sought to detect the temporal change (1958-1999) in land use patterns and its relationship to physical landscape parameters in a small catchment in the semi-arid hilly area of the Chinese Loess Plateau. Degree of slope and soil type were selected as stable discriminating parameters that might constrain land use. With the help of GIS and canonical correspondence analysis, the relationship between rural land use distribution or transformation and the selected physical parameters was examined. The land use had undergone a general shift from farmland to woodland or grassland. Canonical correspondence analyses (CCA) indicated that a relationship between land use and the selected physical parameters was evident, farmland coincided with favorable conditions of fertile soil and gentle slope, while grassland and woodland were associated with conditions of poorer soil and steep slope. In the more favorable conditions the main land use change process was the intensification of fanning, while in the less favourable conditions it was the abandonment of farmland. A thorough understanding of the relationship between land use temporal or spatial patterns and landscape physical parameters in the Loess Plateau of China, like degree of slope and soil type, will enhance our capability to predict landscape dynamics and lead to more sound and effective land use management strategies. (C) 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.