The Chinese were sautéing and pan-frying by Han times (206 bc-ad 220), even though it may not have been exactly the same as modern sautéing or shallow pan-frying.
Related to deep-frying and stir-frying, panfrying is nevertheless distinctively different from them. In deep-frying, so much oil is used that the pieces of food being deep-fried can actually swim in it, but in sautéing and pan-frying a comparatively small amount of oil is needed to cook the ingredients. True to its name, the motion of stirring is essential to the stir-frying and the ingredients are cut up into fairly small morsels; in sautéing, the ingredients may be kept in large pieces and fried in situ, turning halfway through the cooking time. If speed is called for in stir-frying, then patience is the secret of success in pan-frying. The food is fried slowly over a modest heat until its surface gradually turns the golden brown color it should be.
While the French sauté pans, deep with a flat bottom, are excellent, the Chinese wok, with its quick and even distribution of heat, comes up to the mark as well. Do not hesitate to tilt the wok to this side or that in order to concentrate on frying a particular section of a large ingredient. The Chinese would pan-fry a whole fish, with head and tail, in the wok. Naturally, the flame is concentrated in the center so the only way to get the fish evenly brown is to use the tilting method.
Start pan-frying with about half the oil and dribble in more oil around the ingredients as you go along or when you turn the food over. To add to the fragrance, you can splash in some rice wine or medium-dry sherry towards the end of the cooking time, just as you would for stir-frying.