Two decades ago, only a handful of NGOs operated legally in China. Today the sector is thriving. Even with the threat of new restrictions under the Xi Jinping government, private social initiative appears poised for even greater expansion in the future. To fully appreciate the significance of these recent developments, this essay presents a wider view of China's long history of civic organisation, comparing the contemporary resurgence of NGOs to the historical development of private charities in the Qing and Republican periods. It finds similarities in the motivations of organisers and donors, as well as in the relationship between civic organisations and the state, but sees other developments, such as the capitalisation of the NGO sector and its ability to mobilise public opinion, as substantively new.