|Literal meaning||"to roll inwards"|
Neijuan (Chinese: 内卷; pinyin: nèijuǎn; lit. 'to roll inwards' IPA: [nei̯˥˩tɕɥɛn˩˧]) is an English loanword of the Chinese word for involution. Neijuan is made of two characters which mean "inside" and "rolling". Neijuan has disseminated to nearly all works of life in mainland China in the recent few years, due to the uneven distribution of social, economic, and educational resources and ongoing economic malaise, especially in terms of higher education bodies and labour markets. Neijuan reflects a life of being overworked, stressed, anxious and feeling trapped, a lifestyle where many face the negative effects of living a very competitive life for nothing.
Origin and conceptualization
Involution was developed as a sociological concept by American anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser in his 1937 book Anthropology: An Introduction To Primitive Culture. In this work, Goldenweiser identifies involution as a cultural process. That when a society reaches its final form it cannot evolve nor stabilise itself. Instead, it can only complicate its internal elements. Goldenweiser uses Maori decorative art as an example. The development of art was done within the framework of already existing patterns. The final pieces were elaborate and complicated in appearance but fundamentally the same as already existing patterns.
This term was later utilised by fellow American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who popularised the term in his 1963 book Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. In this work, Geertz analysed the rice farming process following Dutch colonial rule. Geertz found that despite the complexity of the process, coupled with the increasing amount of labour being assigned to it, productivity remained stagnant. All these greater efforts to increase productivity yielded little results. All this did was complicate the already existing processes and systems. For Geertz this was involution.
Geertz's concept was introduced into Chinese rural studies by the Indian sinologist Prasenjit Duara and the Chinese historian Philip Huang (黄宗智 Huang Zongzhi), arousing some controversy in Chinese academic circles. Huang explained involution using the economic concept of diminishing returns in his book The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China (Chinese version 华北的小农经济与社会变迁 published in 2000), which has deviated from Geertz's original explanation.
Since 2020, the word "involution" (nèijuǎn) has become an internet slang word in mainland China and could, by extension, refer to a toxic culture in which people are expected to keep ahead of others. It could also have other negative connotations including cut throat competition, race to the bottom, etc, depending on its context. Xiang Biao, an anthropologist, describes the internet slang word "involution" as "a dead loop in which people constantly force themselves" and "a race that participants are not allowed to fail or exit". Some other people described it as a process in which people "gain a slight advantage by exploiting themselves and competing excessively within a group". Influenced by its popularity, the number of academic papers containing the keyword "involution" increased, but the meaning has further deviated from the original sociological sense, leading to some criticisms that the word has been abused.
Dissemination in China
In contemporary China, the concept of neijuan has spread in modern societies through media outlets like newspapers and social media platforms like Weibo.On Weibo, the number of page views of various topics related to Neishu has exceeded 1 billion, and in an election in 2020, Neishu was one of China's "top 10 buzzwords" of the year. Neijuan has become so popular because it has a strong influence on the ways of living for youth and contemporary middle-class parents. The spread of the word neijuan can be tracked in the timeline below.
Tsinghua's Involuted King
In September 2020, a picture of a university student from one of the elite universities, Tsinghua went viral on social media platforms with more than 1 billion views. The picture of the boy working on his laptop while still riding his bike resonated with most millennials or generation Z which includes people born after the 1990s.
This incident sparked others to post more pictures of other hard-working students who became the involuted kings. The likes and reposting of similar pictures made neijuan to be among China’s top 10 buzzwords of the year.
Neijuan in the IT industry
In 2021, the concept of university neijuan translated into China’s hypercompetitive tech industry, which is the preferred destination for most graduates. With an increasing number of graduates with relevant educational qualifications, the job market is becoming very competitive. This leaves many to work in areas they are overqualified for like becoming takeaway drivers. In association with these views, these pictures were popularised.
996 working culture
Many graduated students get involved in a 996 working culture, like takeaway services, after they leave the universities. Some of the picture shows takeaway drivers are trying their best to deliver the food on behalf of Meituan (美团), a high-tech delivery-service corporation, with a high level of competitive business culture. Many workers, including the takeaway drivers, are just like robots. They are working extremely hard, but with no real purpose.
Culture areas associated with neijuan
Parents’ views on education involution
As a result of neijuan, most Chinese middle-class parents no longer see education as a conveyance of upwards social mobility. Parents feel the need to overcompensate just to ensure their Children won’t fall back on the social ladder in the coming years. These intensified efforts are through active involvement and financial spending. Parental involvement is manifested in the following ways. First, parents prefer to familiarise themselves with the content of what is being taught at school, this is to ensure they can teach their children when needed. It has become a common occurrence for parents to buy 3 books in subjects like maths, one book for the student, one for the parents and one to be left at work. Second, compared to their western counterparts, the struggle of choosing the best educational institutions starts as early as daycare and not pre-university. Parents are anxious because of the increasing competition, correspondingly they start getting fully involved in their children’s education from a very young age. As a consequence of neijuan, nurturing competent applicants for elite universities parents must oblige to an established order of doing things, there is no escape. Time has become a significant factor because actions must be taken at the right time otherwise it will be too late
Third, parents now find themselves in positions where they must push their children very hard, and children have little to no say. Pressuring their children is a characteristic that model middle-class parents share. This behaviour has popularised words like ‘jiwa’ (‘chicken child’), ‘tiger mom’, and ‘chicken blood’,[note 1] referring to the ambitious parenting of contemporary Chinese parents. A tiger mom is a controlling mother who does not allow their children any freedom. Examples of Tiger mom behaviour is making primary school children study subjects like chemistry and physics through after-school tutoring even though the syllabus introduces these subjects in the third year of junior secondary school. One parent explained ‘it is not enough to compete just in terms of studies,’ having some sort of talent is now seen as a significant entry requirement to elite universities. As a result, playing the piano and swimming are not valuable talents as they once were, as shown in the valuable skill chains below.
Musical instrument: Organ > harp > cello > violin > flute > saxophone > drums > piano
Physical sports: Equestrian > golf > ice hockey > fencing > baseball/American football > figure skating > tennis > soccer > Taekwondo > badminton > swimming > running.
Moreover, contemporary middle-class Chinese parents are overcompensating for the cost spent on their children’s education. In recent years there has been a trend for parents to relocate to Haidian, a district in Beijing. Haidian is the most famous home for self-sacrificing and education-focused parents, this is because of the strong public institutions found in the area. Schools in Haidian teach programming from a very young age, by the time these children are in high school they are at an advanced level in coding languages like C++ and python. It is the desire of most parents to move to cities with quality public schools like the city of Haidian, regardless of the cost. Therefore, to ensure their children attend esteemed schools, parents pay high real estate prices because of the overpriced markets.
University students’ views on education involution
In university, learning takes a more independent approach, where students become responsible for themselves and are in control of what and when they learn. Though university is thought of as a time to make new friends, explore new interests and even understand oneself better, the reality is different in China. As stated by Li Meng, dean of Yuanpei College, ‘GPA is at the centre, regardless of their educational levels students pay attention to their GPA’. The notion that GPA at the centre is a result of neijuan, there is no escape because ‘no matter what path you take in the future, GPA is the basic insurance’. As a result, there is an increasing number of incidents where students are taking studying to disturbing extremes. One such example is Tsinghua’s involuted king. Behind the above notion is the function of higher-level institutions as agents for elite talent selection therefore, with the depreciating academic qualifications most students feel the need to perform beyond average. The rising generation of ‘involuted’ young students gets involved in an endless cycle of competition and self-flagellation until all knowledge is becoming meaningless.
In China, the work-life of younger social elites is very different from their predecessors. Young people are trapped in hyper-competitive and unhealthy work environments as ‘the new industry standards’. To ensure they stay relevant at work, employees are trapped in the 996 work culture. 996 is the new industry requirement for good-paying industries like finance and tech where employees work from 9 am to 9 pm for 6 days a week. Under 996 employees work more than 60 hours a week, a number that is 1.5 times more than the legalized 44 hours a week as stated in article 36 of the labour law. Moreover, though the labour law requirement asks for workers to be paid 2.275 times their base salary if they work under the 996 schedule, there are reports that workers are rarely compensated. In efforts to highlight their frustration a number of programmers have created websites like 996icu and posted a blacklist of companies that encourage these exploitative work cultures. Some of the most famous companies include 58.com, Youzan, JD.com, Alibaba and TikTok’s parent company ByteDance. However, these efforts are in vain since neijuan has made entry into these jobs very difficult therefore there is no turning back ‘their greatest fear is perhaps losing what they already have,’ there is no escaping. Finally, many workers, including the takeaway drivers, are just like robots. They are working extremely hard, but with no real purpose.
The previous generation came of age during the opening up of China’s economy, who experienced large social mobility and the creation of markets in many sectors. Xiang Biao pointed out that people from the previous generation had a more secure childhood and upward mobility. Now that the markets in many sectors are largely saturated in these sectors and social mobility has stagnated, Gen Z does not enjoy the same kind of abundance of opportunity
The overworking culture that constituted much of the neijuan has engendered an anti-capitalistic sentiment from the overworked population. The Former Chief Editor of Harper’s Bazaar China, Su Mang, called neijuan ‘the gap between desire and indolence’. Su has been lambasted as a ‘typical capitalist’ and forced to apologise. Jack Ma, called 996 a ‘fortune earned through hard work’, and was labelled a ‘bloodsucking capitalist’.
Tangping (Lying flat)
Tangping, a term that means ‘lying flat’ giving up on the grind, has also gained a lot of traction. Tangping has been interpreted as a kind of resistance to neijuan, as an exit to a competition by renouncing pointless effort. Tangping spawned under the stress from overworking and promised a form of resistance to the cycle of exploitation.
Government encouragement of neijuan
The government’s position on this is largely positive and encouraging, as it is perceived workers working hard would drive up the economy.
Resistance to neijuan such as tangping has garnered concerns from the official state media, and some media went as far as to openly condemn the act of tangping. Xu Fang from University of California, Berkeley proposes that this is a part of the ‘stability maintenance’ effort from the ruling party; the government would rather people vent their emotions through ranting online rather than a social movement
- 996 working hour system
- Labor relations in China
- Chicken-blood therapy
- Crab mentality
- Rat race
- Occupational burnout
- Agricultural Involution
- Social structure of China
- Refers to a pseudoscience fad in China in 1967 where people believed that injecting few tens of millilitres of blood from roosters can boost longevity. 'Dajixue' ('to inject chicken blood') has been since used to refer to a heightened excited state.
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