The ambiguous relationship between politics and society in China and the English language – the tongue of military aggressors, barbarians, imperialists and virulent anti–Communists, as well as of trade partners, academics, technical experts, advisers, tourists and popular culture – historically has created tensions that have been manifested in social upheavals and swings in education policy. In this paper, the shifting role and status of the English language within social, economic and political contexts in China are examined from a historical perspective in order to understand and explain state educational policy regarding the language. The paper argues that, since the mid–nineteenth century, the government of China has avoided the potential pitfalls of cultural transfer by adopting a strategy of selective appropriation under state control. The evidence for this assertion is drawn mainly from official policy documents, policy actions and policy debates. At times, assimilation was very limited for political reasons, at others the process has been freer. In the former cases, English has not been ascribed a significant role in state policy; in the latter cases, the language has been promoted, most notably in the curriculum of schools, colleges and universities. Copyright © 2002 Blackwell Publishers Ltd.