How One Obscure Word Captures Urban China’s Unhappiness
Over the past few months, Chinese people from all walks of life, be they software developers, stay-at-home moms, or elite university students, have all discovered their daily lives can be accurately described by the same once-arcane academic term: involution.
Originally used by anthropologists to describe self-perpetuating processes that keep agrarian societies from progressing, involution has become a shorthand used by Chinese urbanites to describe the ills of their modern lives: Parents feel intense pressure to provide their children with the very best; children must keep up in the educational rat race; office workers have to clock in a grinding number of hours.
Involution can be understood as the opposite of evolution. The Chinese word, neijuan, is made up of the characters for ‘inside’ and ‘rolling,’ and is more intuitively understood as something that spirals in on itself, a process that traps participants who know they won’t benefit from it.
In a sense, it’s the latest word for the negative side of China’s cutthroat society, similar to sang, the mentality of people who have turned apathetic by incessant competition, or the various memes people use to decry their intensely boring white-collar jobs. But involution’s academic roots and its widespread application suggest the word, to many, captures something more fundamental.
Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper sat down to discuss involution with anthropologist Xiang Biao, a professor at the University of Oxford and the director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. Xiang has researched China and other parts of Asia, and is often called on to comment on the country’s social issues. He explains how involution relates to Confucianism, how China’s narrow definition of social success means people end up competing with each other, and how there doesn’t seem to be an exit ramp from this “endless cycle of self-flagellation.” The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Paper: Involution was a term first used in anthropology. I read in a natural science journal that the word was originally used to describe shells. One kind of shell has an elongated end that spirals outward. Involuted shells, on the other hand, twist inward as they grow, forming a complicated structure. However, you can’t see these twists when looking from the outside. What’s the evolution of “involution?”
Xiang Biao: The concept of involution was first used by Clifford Geertz in his summary of the agricultural economy of Java Island as he attempted to explain why there had not been any significant breakthroughs in this agrarian society for so long. With the agricultural economy becoming more and more sophisticated, and the increasing number of people working in the fields, you might expect output to be greater, too. But in fact, the small increase in output from the increase in labor was only enough to cover what the additional workforce was itself consuming. In other words, each additional worker consumed the extra amount they produced. Thus, a state of equilibrium and stagnation — one which existed for centuries.
Later, scholar Philip C. C. Huang studied the agricultural economy of the Yangtze River Delta, introducing the concept of involution to the analysis of China’s agricultural economic history. Because our culture traditionally encouraged having large families, population growth made labor extremely cheap and took away any incentive for technological innovation. This is a big difference between China and Europe. For example, the carrying pole was virtually nonexistent in Europe. However, every farming family in China had one. All heavy work in Europe was done almost entirely using animals. Once the steam engine was invented in Europe, machinery was then used to solve the problem.
Prasenjit Duara applied the concept of involution to administration and politics. He wanted to explain how the new government of late-Qing dynasty China, at the turn of the 20th century, looked to strengthen its grip on the state, and thus constructed all kinds of bureaucratic institutions. The state invested huge sums of money to build its bureaucracy, but the grassroots administrative capacity was not strengthened, nor were services at the local level. This is what he called “state involution.” The large number of officials meant the state had to collect more taxes from farmers to keep funding these administrators. But these officials became self-serving rather than working for rural communities. This resulted in social breakdown and eventually revolution in rural society as more and more resources were taken from the peasants, but little was returned.
The involution these scholars spoke about and the one used nowadays are very different. But they all convey a sense of “lacking significant progress, and coming up to a dead end.”
The Paper: Yang Ke, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote a paper called “Mothers Are Becoming Managers” in which she tells the story of a mother who slowly turns into a manager. She also talks about involution in motherhood, whereby mothers are required to do more and more for their child. At the time I couldn’t really follow it, but then last year I became a mother myself and discovered that the work really can be endless — the more you do, the more there is to do. For example, I feel like I have to spend more time than other mothers and I need to make sure my son’s schedule is full. I apply various lotions — one type for his face, one for his body, and another on his bottom. There’s always so much to do. Can “involution” be used to describe the work of a mother? The word has become very general and has a certain derogatory sense — like taking a dig at society. What are your thoughts on how “involution” is used nowadays?
Xiang Biao: Word usage is a social phenomenon. If people feel the word “involution” expresses their anxieties, it’s on us (scholars) to listen carefully and then work out what’s going on. It’s not our job to tell people they can’t use certain words. However, we can help define what involution is, and how it has been used historically.
When you talk about involution in mothering, there are two facets. One, of course, is the constant spiraling increase in investment. The second is not knowing where the end is, and not knowing what the meaning is or what you are getting out of it but feeling like you can’t stop.
This inescapable cycle could be considered involution. In a Chinese context, why do people end up in such an endless, energy-draining loop? This clearly has something to do with group pressure — because other mothers are doing it. As such, it creates a kind of intentional or unintentional competition or comparison.
If you want to call it involution, I think that’s fine. However, if you want to make a comparison with the original meaning, it raises a new question. Originally, involution was about a high-level equilibrium trap, whereas what we’re seeing today is a never-ending circular trap. You’re not just repeating the same work day after day, you’re looking for new types of lotions and supplements and spending your days in social media WeChat groups looking at the newest things other people are using. If you are using the same product all the time, you’ll find yourself in a state of panic, afraid of being left out. Meanwhile, your child is growing up, and their needs keep changing. First there’s the trouble of choosing a kindergarten, and then elementary school brings new problems. By the time they’re starting middle school, you’re going crazy choosing the right school for your child.
If involution is said to originally have referred to a structural pattern in agricultural society which is repetitive, lacks competition, and prevents progress, then involution today is an endless cycle of self-flagellation, feeling as if you’re running in place and constantly having to motivate yourself day in, day out. So, it’s a highly dynamic trap which consumes a lot of energy. Living in a smallholder society was physically tiring, but this kind of mental torture didn’t exist.
Ancestor worship has traditionally been very important, and this custom emphasizes repetition and continuity. In China, people speak of being an “unworthy descendant.” Being “unworthy” means you’re “not alike” and are unable to repeat what your forebears did — your ability to repeat is the most important thing. However, the complete opposite is true today. The way we raise our children must be different from the way our parents raised us. This is a feature of family education in China nowadays. You have to constantly teach your child to be different from their parents when they grow up. So, this is another kind of trap — one in which it’s necessary to constantly surpass others. It’s like the Olympics: faster, higher, stronger.
The Paper: Involution has recently become a popular buzzword. Whether it’s takeout delivery drivers or computer programmers at big tech companies, they all complain that their work is “too involuted.” Or, when applying for a job at a bank or another such good company and there’s a written exam designed purely to test whether you beat the other applicants. It’s a kind of competition for the sake of competition, where the content might have absolutely nothing to do with the job. Afterward, people will mockingly describe the situation using the word involution. When people talk about involution nowadays, is it a critique of capitalism? For example, someone might be working overtime yet simultaneously poke fun at “996 culture” on social media. We’ve also noticed that many young Chinese people — especially those born after 1990 or 1995 — are well aware of the overarching social structure and want to imagine alternative ways of living.
Xiang Biao: In terms of the workplace, we can say that involution is being used to critique modern capitalism. But capitalism is too broad and imprecise a word. It first emerged in places like the United Kingdom, with modern capitalism then best developing probably in Germany, but the phenomenon of involution isn’t as evident in these countries. So, there’s something characteristically Chinese about it.
Single-minded market competition becoming a way of life, a fundamental method for organizing society, and a way of allocating resources could be what people mean with involution.
First, of course, is market competition. But a lot of competition is not really market-related. For example, when it comes to education, examinations are set by the state or the school. But they make exams look like market competition and have everyone participate in the game.
Next, homogeneity is extremely important. One of the most important prerequisites of the involution we’ve been discussing today is nondifferentiation: Everyone is focused on and living for the same goals. Otherwise, if you’re unhappy at work, you could go do something else like open a noodle restaurant. But no, everyone is propelled to go down the same path.
People now feel anxious about those doing daywork at Sanhe (a job market in Shenzhen, southern China, commonly known for attracting people who have given up on being “successful”). In other words, they don’t understand how someone can just choose to opt out of competition. In China, there is pressure not only to be moving upward, but also to not be moving downward. Recently, a postgraduate student in China told me he once applied for a job at McDonald’s. When the manager there saw his education history, the first thing he asked was: “Have you considered what your parents might think?” This was a very heavy question. He didn’t say, “you’ve wasted your time studying” or “you’ve flushed your tuition fees down the drain.” Instead, the question he asked made the matter an emotional and moral issue, as if it was some kind of betrayal. In other words, by stepping down the social ladder, you’re essentially committing moral betrayal.
Everyone in China has the same goals: Earn more money, buy a home of more than 100 square meters, own a car, start a family, and so on. This route is very well marked, and everyone is highly integrated. People are all fighting for the same things within this market.
The Paper: By homogeneous, do you mean singular? In other words, the opposite of varied?
Xiang Biao: I mean highly singular in terms of goals, evaluation criteria, as well as methods of competition. For example, everyone has to take exams, and methods of reward and punishment are also highly singular, such as bonuses or the like.
From an anthropological viewpoint, this is something of a special case. Does competition exist in other societies, especially primitive societies? Yes, but there are a couple of things worth noting. The first is that people’s lives are often made up of two parts: the sphere of prestige and the sphere of subsistence. Subsistence refers to hunting and farming, in which people usually cooperate rather than compete so that everyone can be fed. However, competition still exists in this kind of society — usually between leaders and heads of tribes or families. They’re typically male, and they have competitive relationships with leaders in other villages. What are they competing for? Prestige. So, competition exists when it comes to prestige. Perhaps the best-known example is potlatch, in which these tribal heads compete for prestige by distributing their accumulated wealth with others, or by destroying their own wealth in public. This is interesting, because this vying for prestige is directly related to redistribution. Leaders get prestige by sharing their wealth, so competing for prestige is done through material redistribution which then contributes to equality.
In terms of subsistence, however, there is no competition. This is where things can be complicated. For example, everyone has different abilities at hunting. Let’s say you are skilled and killed a deer. Everyone will recognize you in terms of prestige, and they will praise your courage and hunting skills. But the meat must be evenly distributed. In China’s case, this kind of differentiation no longer exists. Competition is total.
The Paper: In your book “The Self as Method,” you explain that in today’s Chinese society, wealthy people want to be wealthier and have no desire to redistribute their wealth, there is no differentiation of goals, and every class has its own concerns. The lower class hopes to achieve upward mobility through education. The middle class thinks hard work will perhaps allow them to join the elite, and their children can study finance at an Ivy League college, then get a job at an investment bank on Wall Street. Meanwhile, the elite really want to avoid descending the social ladder. They are dead set on their children learning art or something similar as their method of flaunting their own identity and taste. Yet they have no intention of redistributing. The current situation seems to be one in which everyone, no matter what class they belong to, is anxious and afraid. This is the “last bus mentality” (being afraid of missing out and being left behind) you’ve previously spoken about. Does this mentality exist within every class?
Xiang Biao: Yes, but the problem is that the last bus has already passed. Heated competition began in the ’90s; the reason people are raising the question of involution now is because the last bus has passed. The lower class still hopes to change its fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.
You mentioned a couple of very important things just now. First is that we don’t have horizontal differentiation. In Germany, there is a strong emphasis on apprenticeships, which are considered an important method of employment. One time in Germany, I went to get a haircut. I was a little nervous beforehand since Asian people have very different hair than Europeans. I didn’t know if the barber could deal with it, and yet it turned out to be the best haircut I’ve ever had. The barber was very focused and content with the work. My hypothesis is that hairdressers in Germany begin their training early on as apprentices; hairdressing is their career, and they are very devoted. It’s not like in Asia where if someone doesn’t do well at school, they’re left with no choice but to open a hairdressing salon to make some money. From then on, they feel unable to attend school reunions.
The Paper: Just now you said that the last bus has passed. I’m not sure, but this might be a point of contention. How do you think we should define and understand what’s going on? Or is it that the situation cannot be generalized at different levels of society?
Xiang Biao: Of course this is a crude metaphor. What people are struggling with right now is finding a crack in the structure.
Things are never that simple, but let’s return to the question of differentiation. If you look at more mature societies, why are people there more content? It’s not because they think there’s no hope; it’s that they redistribute their hopes and efforts. People look at what they’re good at and interested in. You still need to work hard, but you follow different ways of doing so. You find the method that works best for you, and you can live well. Our biggest problem is that the last bus has already passed, but we don’t want to start on a new path.
So-called involution is not merely a question of whether or not competition is fierce, but whether you get anything out of it. People know full well that the results aren’t what they desire, but they still want to compete. They don’t know other ways to live if they’re not competing, and if you quit the competition, you’re left facing moral pressure.
The Paper: I’d like to talk a little more about quitting competition. From your observations, do you agree that not competing is essentially not allowed within Chinese society?
Xiang Biao: One very important aspect of involution today is that there’s no exit mechanism. You’re not allowed to quit. Just now I mentioned the postgraduate student who was asked during a job interview at McDonald’s what his parents would think. When moving down or stepping out of the competition and living the life you want to live, the moral pressure is enormous. There’s also a sense of anxiety behind the various discussions of Sanhe youth — how could they have simply dropped out of the race? Society’s stability and so-called development is maintained by this intense competition.
Therefore, the winners demand the losers to admit that they are a failure: Not only that they have less money and fewer material possessions; they must bow down morally and admit that they’re useless and have failed. If you don’t admit it and simply quietly walk away from the competition, you’ll face a lot of criticism. It’s not allowed. As such, those who can actually step away have to be very wealthy, like those who send their children abroad. Having an exit mechanism like this is very important. In other words, such a mechanism should exist. If your child isn’t academically minded, then make sure they have other options. This is something that should be taught in schools.
The Paper: Recently, an article titled “GPA is King: The Prisoner’s Dilemma for Young People in China’s Top Universities” has received a lot of attention. It says that China’s brightest students in schools such as Tsinghua and Peking universities are in extreme competition with their peers, overpowering personal growth with a quest for success and eventually burning out. In classical education, the most important function of education was to understand yourself. In modern society, however, education has been tasked with changing your destiny, and it’s now common to believe that upward mobility can be achieved through education. This then leaves students feeling lost due to involution, while teachers become frustrated at the lack of students actually interested in scholarship. This “GPA is king” mentality at Tsinghua and Peking universities then leads to involution. Perhaps this wasn’t the case when you were a student at Peking University. What do you think has led to this change?
Xiang Biao: I’m not entirely unfamiliar with this super-calculative mentality. From 1990 to 1991, when we were doing our military training in the first year of university, very minor points were considered big things. This isn’t a question of competition, since you’re not pitting yourself against others. What you’re really looking for is the approval of those in authority; you want to please them. This need-to-please will in turn affect your relationship with your classmates.
Competition is not entirely a horizontal, bilateral relationship. It has always been triangular, since competition needs to be determined by a third party. The competition students feel between them and their classmates is completely controlled by a third party. We used to think that competition arises because of resource scarcity, because of what people call an imbalance of supply and demand. But if I was a village head and invented a way that put everyone in competition with each other, with the highest reward being my approval, wouldn’t I be very comfortable as the village head? So-called shortages are human-made. What constitutes a “good life”? What kind of things are “honorable”? Aren’t these all human-made?
This form of competition leads to an extremely high degree of integration. Everyone thinks the same, and everyone expends their energy and lives together, not thinking of anything else — everyone is just busy.
The Paper: You don’t tutor undergraduates at Oxford, is that right? Involution seems to be more prevalent among undergraduates. I wonder whether students in the West, particularly at top universities, also experience this kind of involution.
Xiang Biao: I don’t know much about undergraduates at Oxford University. But overemphasizing exam scores, as well as instrumentalizing everything, carefully pleasing authorities, and considering classmates potential competitors — I don’t think these issues exist there.
Firstly, this kind of GPA competition, or call it involution, is an exception in human history. In China it has only been around for the past decade. Of course, there’s also group pressure in the U.K. What is group pressure for undergraduates at Oxford? When you’re doing something, people expect you to say why you find it interesting. If you can’t explain why, your reputation will take a bit of a hit and people will think you’re not a very “authentic” person. It’s as if you’re doing something just to please people, or because others think it’s a good thing — then people will think you’re not interesting. So, you need to have a good narrative for why you do what you do. It’s a habit: When students write reports or research applications, you can see that they emphasize why they think something is of interest. Chinese students who study abroad have some difficulty in this respect and will write about the social significance of the project in their research proposals. The thing is, lots of things are socially important. Plus, this socially important topic has been done to death — so what new things can be done? These reports can sound empty and just parrot the conventional.
The Paper: Some articles say the influence of East Asian cultures — China, Japan, and South Korea, which are Confucian cultures — has led to a greater emphasis on education. Then, Southeast Asia is a completely different ballpark, and people there aren’t so obsessed with work and study. Do you think involution is connected to Confucianism?
Xiang Biao: I think it is, yes. One connotation of Confucian culture is that no one should be left behind. This is a really good tradition. Everyone wants to move up, because Confucianism stresses conformity. It doesn’t emphasize competition, but does provide a background of integration.
The involution that we’re talking about today is very individualistic — everything is GPAs, which is very un-Confucian. At the same time, however, it is very Confucian, because it places everyone within the same thinking space. So, it’s Confucian culture that has become competitive.
But Confucianism is also a very broad concept. For example, the experiences of involution in China and the high-pressure work and school life in Japan are not exactly the same. Japan does have karoshi — death from overwork — but this is more of a kind of group pressure. It’s closer to Confucianism, meaning there is a strong communal nature and highly uniform moral judgment. If your workmates don’t leave the office, neither should you; otherwise, you’ll feel you’re letting them down. In addition, there’s not so much of a desire to advance yourself in Japan.
Japan has a large number of homebodies who lack any desire to get ahead. Yesterday, I asked my wife (a Japanese sociologist) how she squares the fact that Japan has people dying from overwork, and yet no competitiveness. Japanese education is very equalitarian, and no one should be left behind. Classes are taught according to the least able, and everyone waits for them. That’s the opposite of China, where education is aimed at the top students. China has a Confucian foundation with extremely liberal market competition mixed in.
The Paper: That’s right. I was going to ask if you think involution in Japan is more serious than it is in China. But after what you just said, it seems that comparing the two is complicated.
Xiang Biao: Today we talked about the concept of involution as well as the different situations in which it appears. We also touched on what the standards should be for positive competition, whether competition should have an exit mechanism or at what point one should be established, and how our society should treat them. This includes promoting a spirit of craftsmanship. There has actually been much talk about encouraging a “craftsman’s spirit” in recent years, which I find really interesting. Could this be related to involution?
I have a high regard for the spirit of craftsmanship. Someone might open a small restaurant selling just two or three dishes, deliberately keeping the place small and fully devoting themself to their task at hand.
In Japan, I visited one restaurant where they only serve tempura. The chef there picks up a sea urchin and starts to tell you about the fisher who caught it, and then how they are transported from the Seto Inland Sea to Tokyo. This one sea urchin requires the work of so many hands. He treats the oil and flour with the same reverence. You’ll start to think about how you’re connected to all those people. So in this sense, the spirit of craftsmanship is a very deep devotion to the here and now, to that little corner of the world where you find yourself. I think this is a much better way to deal with your sense of worry and being adrift in the world.
A version of this article was first published on the website of Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper. It can be read here.
Contributions: Chen Qi’an; translator: David Ball; editors: Kevin Schoenmakers and Yang Xiaozhou.
(Header image: An employee watches a video on his cell phone as he rests at his cubicle during lunch break, at a tech company in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, April 12, 2019. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/People Visual)