This paper investigates effects of cropping abandonment and perennial grass growing on soil organic C and N pools and aggregate stability, by comparing soils under native grassland, crop cultivation, perennial grass growing and cropping abandonment, in degraded cropland at a sub-alpine site in north-western China. The pools of total and particulate organic C (115 and 37 Mg ha−1) in the 0–30 cm soil layer of native grassland were reduced by 31 and 54% after 30 years of crop cultivation. After 4 years of conversion from cropland to perennial grass growing total and particulate organic C pools were increased by 29 and 56%, whereas 4 year cropping abandonment increased particulate organic C by 36%. Rapid increases in total and particulate N were also found in perennial grass growing and cropping abandonment soils. The native grassland soil and soils of cropping abandonment and perennial grass growing had higher carbohydrate C concentrations in the 0–10 cm layer than the cropped soil. The rapid recovery of particulate organic fraction and carbohydrates in the re-vegetated soils were probably due to higher plant biomass inputs and lower organic matter decomposition compared with those in the cropped soil. Aggregate stability of the 0–30 cm soil layer was significantly decreased by crop cultivation but showed a good recovery after 4 year re-vegetations. This study suggests that reduction of soil organic matter and aggregate stability under crop cultivation may be remedied by cropping abandonment or perennial grass growing. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.