The Cooperative Medical Scheme (CMS) was popular in rural China in the 1960s and 1970s, having garnered praise from the World Bank and World Health Organization as an unprecedented example of a successful health care model in a low-income developing country. However, the CMS almost collapsed in the 1980s. Based on its historical origins and main activities, we think the CMS functioned as a health cooperative rather than a health insurance scheme. Perhaps, however, the importance to the CMS of cooperation between institutions has been overestimated. Overlooked, yet equally important, has been the cooperation between health workers and farmers to target health-related risk factors associated with agricultural work and ways of life. The ‘cooperative’ character of the CMS includes two aspects: cooperative institutions and cooperative behaviour. Although the CMS collapsed in China, similar schemes are flourishing elsewhere in the world. In the future, in-depth analysis of these schemes is required.