Social policy development in China is closely related to the generation and diffusion of social knowledge through which political and social elites define social problems and elaborate policy solutions. Drawing on theoretical insights from the ideational institutionalism, this paper seeks to trace the origin and evolution of the social ideas in order to map common threads spanning different phases of modern Chinese history. It argues that the ＂social＂ idea has been essentially shaped by the continuous desire for national resurgence in response to China's perceived existential crisis triggered by Western imperialism at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Starting from the late Qing dynasty, the majority of the Chinese intelligentsia advocated for the restraint of individual rights in the service of promoting a strong statehood able to pursue commonweal and restore national pride. Social policy and social rights appeared more as a means to achieve other elevated goals than as an end in itself. In this light, the contemporary People s Republic of China represents political undertakings that initially addressed the ＂national question＂ using a socialist approach, and later switched to market economic reforms. In various phases, the social ideas have been constantly reframed to accommodate changing political and economic circumstances with profound implications for social welfare developments with a clear disposition in favor of the statist approach.