This is a brief outline of the history of interpreting in China. It describes and analyses the status, roles, and identities of interpreters in the diplomatic history of China up to the early 20 th century. The article aims to give a general introduction of the subject and to highlight points of interest for further enquiry, in a Chinese as well as other national contexts in which conditions may be different. Interpreting is far more intangible than translation, which can always refer to written records. Its history is therefore obscure. This is ironic: at important cross-roads in history, internationally and cross-culturally, there have always been interpreters. They have usually been anonymous, but their presence is sometimes mentioned in the records of a given nation and they have participated in making and, at the same time, have been witnesses to history. Since the earliest Chinese records, when junior interpreters had the title of ‘Tongue Men’, the status and acknowledgement of interpreters have developed tremendously. Some of the earliest historical records of meetings between Chinese and foreigners are dialogues, which, under scrutiny, suggests not only that interpreters were present for diplomatic exchanges, but also that they might have been used for recording history.