Environmental non-governmental organizations are becoming increasingly visible players in China's environmental politics. Adopting a field perspective, this article shows how the rise of environmental NGOs has taken place in interactions with four institutional fields. They not only respond to political conditions, but also to opportunities offered by the media, the internet and international NGOs. In this process, organizational entrepreneurs play a crucial role in mobilizing resources while other individuals participate in search of self-fulfilment or social experience. These arguments underscore the multi-institutional dynamics of civil society development without underestimating state-centred and market-centred explanations. In conclusion, the article discusses how environmental NGOs can serve as both sites and agents of democratic social change in China.