Forests are critical ecosystems to understand the global carbon budget, due to their carbon sequestration potential in both above- and belowground compartments, especially in species-rich forests. Soil carbon sequestration is strongly linked to soil microbial communities, and this link is mediated by the tree community, likely due to modifications of micro-environmental conditions (i.e., biotic conditions, soil properties, and microclimate). We studied soil carbon concentration and the soil microbial biomass of 180 local neighborhoods along a gradient of tree species richness ranging from 1 to 16 tree species per plot in a Chinese subtropical forest experiment (BEF-China). Tree productivity and different tree functional traits were measured at the neighborhood level. We tested the effects of tree productivity, functional trait identity and dissimilarity on soil carbon concentrations, and their mediation by the soil microbial biomass and micro-environmental conditions. Our analyses showed a strong positive correlation between soil microbial biomass and soil carbon concentrations. Besides, soil carbon concentration increased with tree productivity and tree root diameter while it decreased with litterfall C:N content. Moreover, tree productivity and tree functional traits (e.g. root fungal association and litterfall C:N ratio) modulated micro-environmental conditions with substantial consequences for soil microbial biomass. We also showed that soil history and topography should be considered in future experiments and tree plantations, as soil carbon concentrations were higher where historical (i.e., at the beginning of the experiment) carbon concentrations were high, themselves being strongly affected by the topography. Altogether, these results imply that the quantification of the different soil carbon pools is critical for understanding microbial community–soil carbon stock relationships and their dependence on tree diversity and micro-environmental conditions. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.