China has long been criticized as the heaven of intellectual property piracy. In mass media as well as in academic discussions, China’s inability or reluctance to protect copyright is often attributed to its cultural tradition which embraces imitation over innovation. But is this the whole story? I use a new conceptual framework to reveal an intertwined history of copyright and piracy in modern China. By shifting the attention from the letter of the law to the actual practices of copyright, it explores how copyright, a seemingly alien concept, was actually received, appropriated, and employed to respond to emerging issues of piracy in China’s local socio-economic contexts, both within and beyond the legal institutions of the state. While Chinese publishers and authors might be labeled as ruthless pirates by their foreign counterparts, they were advocates for domestic copyright in their own ways.