In 2020, Chinese netizens widely popularized a once-obscure academic term: neijuan, or involution. Frustrated by never-ending competition over limited opportunities and working lives with little perceivable value, people from all walks of life interpreted the concept according to the various pressures in their own lives. From university students failing to find employment to mothers struggling to keep up with their children’s educational rat races, neijuan resonated with a nation contending with decelerating economic growth and massive inequalities.
What exactly is involution in its original, theoretical sense? What does it mean to China’s young people in 2021, and how might we go about responding to the larger issues behind the buzzword?
Seminar Director’s Roundtable
OCF 2021 will be presenting the topic of Involution as a seminar. In advance of the Forum, we’ve gathered our Seminar Director Ivorain Bi and three other colleagues for a mini-roundtable. Read on to hear their thoughts on involution!
Q1: What is ‘involution’/neijuan?
Ivorain: The theory of involution was first proposed by Kant, as a mean of distinguishing this kind of phenomenon from evolution. It specifically refers to a kind of continued refinement of culture. Kant’s original definition is actually very different from what we call involution today. Nowadays, neijuan is largely applied by anthropologists to describe a phenomenon in agriculture, where farmers keep investing labour in one limited area of rice fields in order to increase output. This actually leads to decreases in marginal values, since the fixed materials of production did not increase. This idea of stagnation in one particular production model is the initial academic theory of involution proposed by anthropology.
(cont.) When we talk about involution today, I understand it as describing how under contemporary systems and environments we all keep investing more and more energy in work but receive no significant increases in value returns. This kind of intense, hard work only leads us into increasingly fierce competition for shares in resources, rather than increasing the amount of resources available; we compete for bigger slices of the cake without making the cake bigger. This is the dilemma of involution we find ourselves in today.
Q2: What motivated you to propose and direct this seminar at OCF?
Ivorain: Young Chinese people, like ourselves and people around us, are all more or less feeling the effects of involution. There are lots of ongoing conversations about this dilemma, but few have been able to find suitable paths forward; instead, many of these conversations are only complicating and generalizing the original concept.
(cont.) We hope to use OCF 2021 as an opportunity to put an issue close to our lives on a discursive platform, in order to identify its origins. What’s more, we hope that the seminar will be clarifying for participants, since in the process of popularization the real conflicts that caused involution are easily lost, to the point where some structural contradictions have been interpreted as in-group conflicts.
Q3: Was there a moment when you felt caught up in this phenomenon of involution, or felt really exhausted by it?
Ivorain: To be honest, at first I didn’t think that my own experiences had much to do with involution, because I was always doing what I wanted to do rather than trying to attain goals forced upon me by external environments. However, the first time I experienced involution was when I was trying to prepare a personal profile for university applications. I saw that everyone around me was constantly updating their CVs, in the process investing both personal time and lots of money. The time and money spent on admissions could have been used for more meaningful outputs instead of being exploited for a few CV entries, which made me question: what’s all this for?
(cont.) I’ve also talked to people working in jobs with lower barriers of entry and lower wages. They usually have less bargaining power when it comes to employment, so they rely on over-drafting their time and health to keep their jobs. However, these exertions do not lead to better lives. Instead, they could only continue to lower their standards of work and bargaining powers.
Yuqing: I’ve only felt connected to involution more recently, which of course might have to do with the rise in popularity of these buzz words. I’m in my third year of university and considering career options; after joining some online job-search groups, every day I’m seeing these incredible people working harder than I am despite having had three or four internships. I think involution must be a group behaviour, a process where a group of people intensify each other’s anxieties. It doesn’t matter if the competition is healthy or toxic: the people in those job-search groups are all very friendly and helping each other, but once you enter these circles you’ll feel really intense pressure. Like what Ivorain said earlier, when you see how polished other people’s CVs are you’ll also spend lots of time improving your own profiles. Sometimes I wonder: if I were a little braver and decide not to join those groups or practice case interviews, what would happen? I’ve definitely heard of people who start looking for jobs in their fourth year of university and still manage to get into firms like McKinsey. However, once you enter these circles and begin to experience these anxieties, there’s this feeling that you can’t stop being pushed forwards by the crowds.
Emma: I think I also felt these pressures when applying to universities: I thought that everyone around me was amazing and I wasn’t preparing enough. But I think the biggest difference is that during university applications I believed that my hard work would be matched by the results. However, when it comes to the job search, I’ve felt most defeated by the fact that there are few opportunities to truly show just how hard I’ve worked.
(cont.) Oxford is a place with a big involution culture, where you’re surrounded by smart, hardworking people. I still think that to an extent this is a good thing: the pressures in university are a healthier type of competition that helps everyone improve, rather than the negative type described by involution.
Q4: Do you think so-called involution or neijuan is a structural problem, or an issue of values?
Yuqing: I think both. Public discussions around the concept of involution show that it must have some material basis. Although the word only became popular this year, back in 2015 and 2016 Chinese universities were already talking about the problem of involution, where everyone was fighting to publish journal articles but real breakthroughs were few. The anthropological definition of involution has visible material bases as well. These perceivable conditions made the word resonate with the public when it entered popular discourses. Both sociological and psychological perspectives are necessary for investigation the group behaviours within involution, but the issue itself definitely has a material basis.
Emma: I also think both are at play here. Nowadays many young people are talking about involution in a comparative sense. People feel a sense of loss when comparing themselves to other generations. For example, my parents easily landed good jobs after they gained admission to universities. In comparison, everyone around me went to university and my degree is more prestigious than the ones my parents gained, but I still can’t find a job and may have to rely on my parents financially if I earn less than they do. Although I don’t think we can say that competition is truly fiercer today than before: 30 years ago you probably didn’t have to get into the best universities in order to find good jobs, but higher education itself was more difficult to access back then.
(cont.) Moreover, in a sense young people have more worries today because they have more options. As society progresses, lots of changes have happened in terms of material possibilities and desires. These material changes have encouraged young people to think deeply about the conditions of their existence. I think that we can consider these anxieties and reflections as a positive sign, where people are independently thinking about their lives and critically contemplating their futures. I think this shows that we’re going in the right direction.
Ivorain: In our parents’ youth it was incredibly difficult to get into any university at all, and it’s definitely hard to say whether competitions over resources were more or less fierce back then; however, this is not the core of the problem. The key issue is that in those days, no matter how much or how little you managed to acquire in terms of resources, most people benefitted from economic growth. It’s like riding an elevator and being able to power the elevator with your own hard work. But nowadays the elevator isn’t going up as quickly and can’t contain as many people, so everyone spends all their time and energy fighting over places in the elevator rather than trying to power it. This shows that the elevator needs a new power supply system.
(cont.) When I was initially designing the panel, I wanted to discuss involution from a very material and systemic angle. We have to be clear about one thing: fierce competition isn’t involution. Our collective pool of resources grew rapidly alongside China’s economic growth over the last few decades. Nowadays, as economic growth slows down, our hard work in this static model only intensifies competition and fails to benefit the majority of people.
(cont.) For example, the working-class people I was discussing earlier keep working longer shifts, which is also a kind of involution. They don’t actually earn better wages and their productions don’t lead to better lives. They only create more revenue for their bosses, but they still have to work overtime to secure income.
(cont.) However, when interviewing people I’ve realized that some people tend to view involution from the perspective of psychology or peer pressure. These two aspects encourage each other, which puts them in tandem with the concept of involution.
Zhoudan: I think involution is a kind of group consensus: under current systems of labour, I could dedicate my entire life to work and still fail to attain upward mobility. This feeling of lost hope produces anxiety.
Q5: Is involution a ‘first-world problem’?
Ivorain: I’m actually quite against the idea that involution is a problem for the privileged; I think it’s neither a ‘first-world problem’ nor a niche concept. Some people may not be using the language of involution to describe their experiences or interpreting their circumstances as involution, but these people could well be involution’s first victims.
Emma: I think the people who say that involution is a first-world problem may be referring to the fact that this buzz word is often used by elites, which initially looks like a group of privileged people talking nonsense. This, however, doesn’t mean that those who aren’t talking about involution are not being directly affected by it.
Q6: From both personal and social perspectives, how should we go about solving or responding to involution?
Ivorain: First of all, we have to admit the problem and accurately understand its objective material basis. When we’re facing an objective reality, we shouldn’t generalize about the worries loosely associated with the term itself; ultimately, these worries cannot solve the problem.
(cont.) However, we shouldn’t invalidate these worries or attribute them solely to problems of values. We ought to admit that objectively speaking, involution makes individuals feel helpless. I don’t agree that individuals should be unwillingly caught up in these waves of involution, but I’m more strongly oppposed to society encouraging people to adjust their expectations and limit their goals as a way of escaping from involution. This kind of rhetoric not only goes against human nature, but also smacks of ‘Let them eat cake’.
(cont.) What we should actually do is confronting these worries and utilizing them as motivation to examine systemic issues in depth, as well as trying to change larger systems rather than deciding whether to participate in neijuan on an individual level. At the end of the day, individuals trapped in the dilemma of involution have no real freedom of choice, and only collective action can break this cycle.
(cont.) I’m most opposed to the idea that those who worry about involution are looking for escape or an excuse. It is true that many discussions around this contain these escapist elements, but that doesn’t represent the core of the issue. The moment we start blaming people for worrying about involution or even disparaging ourselves for our anxieties, we’ve forever lost any possibility of resolving the contradiction at the heart of involution. The fact that in this moment it has resonated with so many young people from vastly different economic backgrounds shows that it is far from a baseless rumour.
Yuqing: I think what Ivorain said about involution resonating with young people from different classes and backgrounds is very important. This represents the rise of a subconscious sense of community. This phenomenon is not only limited to involution: concepts like the dagongren (‘worker’, with self-deprecating and transient connotations) are constructing a kind of shared identity. Skilled IT specialists in big cities and construction labourers are all calling themselves dagongren. On one hand, I think this rise in group identity is a good thiing, because it encourages us to form community and pause to consider key problems rather than mindlessly following the currents as another cog in the market-economy machine. In this way, group identities can get us closer to a solution for the problem. On the other hand, however, if we are to seriously tackle this problem on either personal or structural levels, we’ll have to grow past the limits of involution as a concept. On a personal level we shouldn’t use involution as an excuse; on a structural level, we should recognize that the problem that needs resolving isn’t this vague buzzword of neijuan, but rather a series of more fundamental and specific problems. No matter what, the widespread discussions that neijuan has ignited will become its most meaningful legacy.
Zhoudan: At the end of the day, every generation will have new horizons for growths in marginal value; we won’t learn how to find such horizons at school. Some were brave enough to join Alibaba back in 2002 or 2003, when it still looked like a multilevel marketing scheme; others took the leap and joined Toutiao in 2012 or 2013. These are both examples of people being able to accurately identify marginal growths. Now that we have artificial intelligence and other online developments, times will change even faster. We used to divide generations by 30-year gaps; now it looks like there is a real generational gap every five years or so, and in the future it might be every three years. From this perspective, we actually have more opportunities than the generations before us.
Ivorain: It’s true that every generation has its own unique opportunities, but as economic growth slows down and different industries become stabilized, uncontested ‘blue ocean’ market spaces have decreased and individuals do have a harder time achieving so-called upward class mobility. Immediately after the market economy opened up in China everyone praised entrepreneurship, then foreign firms and internet companies became trendy; nowadays many young people look to enter the public sector or state-owned enterprises instead, believing that stability is the wisest choice. This shows that the conventional wisdom of ‘new generations have new opportunities’ does deserve a lot more scrutiny. Just because our generation has its own emergent sectors doesn’t mean the ‘involution’ discourse is caused by people failing to identify such new opportunities. This kind of thinking is in fact often a result of survivor bias. Technically an ideal system would be one where people rise to the top of their respective industries due to merit, rather than the traditional model of family inheritance or nepotism. However, involution at its essence isn’t just a problem of class mobility; in addition, our idealization of the leap from the bottom of society into middle class is a myth in itself. A lot of the times, involution simply means that many people are finding it harder and harder to maintain their normal income levels. I think we should not neglect this silent majority; at the end of the day, the problem has to be understood pragmatically.
Panel Description — After the Next Wave: The Bustling Chaos of Involution
Last year, China’s popular video-sharing site Bilibili produced ‘The Next Wave’, a 4-minute tribute to Chinese youth that led to passionate discussions and controversy. Through the same metaphor of ocean waves, we hope to ignite another conversation around this year’s buzzword: ‘involution’. After decades of development, contemporary China’s enormous economic inequality is intimately affecting every aspect of young people’s lives. From trending online phrases like ‘working person, working soul’ and ‘can’t stop neijuan-ing’ to the huge controversy around Bilibili’s ‘Next Wave’, involution is no longer just a intellectual problem for academics and politicians; instead, China’s youths are using involution to express their shared pain. However, due to the information echo chambers constructed by capital and data waves, we are increasingly trapped by transparent walls. Immediate worries often obscure long-term trends and structural issues.
At OCF’s Involution Seminar, our guests will be sharing their insights on four sub-topics: ‘Voices Outside The Ivory Tower’, ‘Acceptances and Breakdowns: Youth Attitudes Towards Decreasing Class Mobility’, ‘Distribution of Education Resources’, and ‘The Middle-Class Income Trap’. We hope that this Seminar can help young people see personal challenges as a starting point for understanding shared struggles and opportunities, so as to break down invisible socioeconomic gaps and find ways out of the involution dilemma through actions and responsibilities.
Bullshit Jobs: A Conversation with David Graeber — Made in China Journal
Income inequality is growing fast in China and making it look more like the US — LSE Business Review
Producer: Yizhuo Emma Wang
Content: Yunqiao Xu, Ivorain Bi, Yuqing Weng, Yizhuo Emma Wang, Zhoudan Pan
Editor: Yifan Zhao
Formatting: Yunqian Xu, Yifan Zhao
Translation: Irene Airuo Zhang