Many analysts contend that participation in the Sichuan earthquake relief efforts strengthened Chinese civil society. I examine these claims based on interviews with civil society organizations, academics and local officials in Sichuan, and argue that participation in relief efforts has strengthened civil society through increased capacity, publicity and interaction with local government. Conversely, relief efforts also reveal weaknesses in civil society and their governing institutions which inhibit further development, such as the trust and capacity deficit of these organizations. Participation in relief efforts served as a learning process whereby government, society and civil society groups learned how to work together effectively. However, in order to consolidate these gains and further strengthen civil society, there must be greater institutionalization of these groups' roles, increased capacity building, and greater trust between society, groups and the local state.