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Abstract Distance education is among the significant fields for the application of educational technology. Distance education in China has gone through three phases, namely: correspondence-based education, radio and TV-based education and online education. This paper was based on educational technology application, and the historical, dialectic and developmental perspectives. It analyses the social and technical background, the history of development, pilot practice of e-learning (task, policy, administration, funding, scale, structure, resource construction, teaching modes and services, etc.) and the current impact of scientific research on distance education in China. Finally, it discusses the achievements, issues and trends of distance education through literature analysis, comparative study, deduction and induction.