This paper first provides an overview of the topics featured in China's Educational Journal in the period 1909-1948, in order to sketch briefly the history of that country's pattern of selection from among various modes of foreign educational thought. It becomes clear that, in each case, China absorbed from outside only those ideas that could fit with its own traditional forms of educational thinking, and that for this reason it tended to oscillate between turning toward the outside world for new ideas and drawing back into itself to reflect on its own educational culture, policies and institutions. The paper then interprets this dynamic in terms of Niklas Luhmann's theory of self-reference. In Luhmann's social systems theory, any system defines, identifies or constitutes itself at each (in this case historical) moment in relation to another system by absorbing from that other system only what it perceives as being compatible with its own inner organisation, or (as Luhmann puts it) by always absorbing the difference between what already lies within it (e.g. traditional Chinese culture, values and ideas) and what lies outside it (e.g. the culture, values and ideas of the West, with which China found itself already inevitably interconnected).