International Relations scholars concerned with explaining status-seeking behavior in the international system draw heavily from social comparison theory and its observations that individuals judge their worth, and accordingly derive self-esteem, through social comparisons with others. This article challenges these assumptions by noting, as psychology has acknowledged for some time, that individuals use both social and temporal forms of comparison when engaging in self-evaluation. Where social comparisons cause actors to ask “How do I rank relative to my peers?” temporal comparisons cause actors to evaluate how they have improved or declined over time. This article advances a temporal comparison theory of status-seeking behavior, suggesting that many of the signaling problems associated with status insecurity emerge from basic differences in how states evaluate their status, and whether they privilege temporal over social comparisons. The implications are explored through China’s contemporary struggle for status recognition, situating this struggle within the context of China’s civilizational past and ongoing dispute over Taiwan.