This article reviews the literature on Chinese non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society and argues that to understand the transformative potential of Chinese NGOs we need to consider beyond macro-level political change. By looking at the tactics and strategies of engagement between NGOs and the state, it becomes clear that Chinese NGOs are capable of affecting communities and change at the local level. Furthermore, to fully understand the capacity of Chinese NGOs, this article argues that we cannot insist on a state–society separation as we would in other jurisdictions because it would not lead to fruitful analysis. The state of the field is assessed through an interdisciplinary lens, characterised by four major themes: the linkage between the rise of NGOs and the expansion of civil society; the rise of NGOs as a reflection of state–society relations; NGO sectoral development; and, to a lesser extent, the development of theory and frameworks.