Investigations of the relationships between climate and human history often place more emphasis on the science of climate change than on understanding human socio-economic processes, and therefore suffer from superficial results and an unbalanced perspective. This is partly due to the lack of high-resolution data concerning long-term socio-economic processes. Here, we base our study of climate and society on a series of 2130-yr-long economic proxy data from China with decadal resolution. The economy was associated significantly with temperature and precipitation at the two predominant bands of 100 and 320 yr. The phase transition of economic states was influenced positively by long-term temperature change combined with triggering effects of short-term changes in precipitation. However, climatic impact on economy should not be recognized as simple causality but some driving-response relation coupled with meditation by human agency at multiple scales. A model of ‘adaptive cycles’ implies, in relative to the developing phases, climate–economy relationship during the declining phases was more easily moderated by slower processes like rigidity and faster processes like unrest. From a more-macro perspective, climatic driving for the macro-economic cycles was moderated by larger and slower processes like social memory, spatial shifting of key economic areas, and social–technical advance.