Involution: Competition and Choice for Chinese Students 内卷：中国学生的竞争与选择
By Hongyu Wang 王宏宇
NANJING, CHINA — One of the hottest topics flooding Chinese social media since 2020 is involution (neijuan). Mentioned by millions of Chinese folks every day, this buzzword is so popular that Qin Gang, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, included it on a list of ten popular Chinese words during a cultural exchange forum in October.
中国，南京 —— 自2020年起，席卷中国社交媒体的网络热词之一就是内卷。这个流行词在中国热度很高，每天都有上百万中国人提到内卷，甚至中国驻美大使秦刚在10月的文化交流论坛上也将它列入了中国十大流行词。
Involution refers to a social dynamic in which extreme, irrational, and sometimes involuntary competition makes people feel burned out. At present, most industries in China are experiencing some degree of involution. Chinese students experience involution in many aspects of life, including academic work, extracurricular competitions, and internships.
Ambassador Qin told a personal story to illustrate how involution affected his son’s childhood. “My weekends were spent rushing my kid from one training school to another, and the courses he took ranged from math to physics,” he said. After a whole day of classes, a tutor would come to the family home in the evening. After the tutor left, Qin would help his son do his homework.
The concept of involution derives from a scholarly theory which states that a society, after reaching a certain level of development, can no longer develop outward but can only become more and more internally complex. The term ‘involution’ originated in English and was first translated into Chinese as neijuan (内卷) in the 1980s before being re-introduced to China by Huang Zongzhi, a historical sociologist, in his 1985 book The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China. In 2020, involution burst into popularity on the internet. This word’s rise to prominence was unexpected yet aptly reflects the intensifying pressures young Chinese people currently face.
To better understand how involution is affecting students, I talked to Peng, an undergraduate student in Beijing. He said involution isn’t his choice, and he feels pressured to join the competition in order to keep up. “If a course requires an essay of three thousand words, my classmates will write five thousand words or more. And if I don’t do that while others do, I may not get a good grade.” This may surprise Western readers, most of whom do not necessarily equate an essay’s length with its quality. Yet under the pressures of involution, tens of millions of students are sparing no effort to compete.
According to Peng, good grades are very important for most students, since their class ranking determines whether they will receive scholarships and obtain recommendations for postgraduate study. This situation is similar to the classic prisoner’s dilemma: theoretically, students could cooperate by agreeing not to constantly raise the bar, but such an agreement never holds. Once a few students start writing more words on their essays, others are forced to do the same for fear of falling behind, and the cycle is perpetuated ad infinitum.
Peng noted that not all classes have such intense involution. Levels of involution are determined by how many students in a class are willing to participate in this competitive cycle, and by students’ perceptions of the rewards that can be gained through such competition.
Due to the huge pressures in China related to getting a job, there is also intense involution vis-à-vis finding internships. Shang, a master’s student majoring in finance at an elite university in Nanjing, has personally experienced this involution. For his first internship, he worked at a well-known securities firm as a part-time assistant with no salary, no meal subsidy, no housing or transportation allowance, and with a six-month minimum commitment. Shang was willing to accept poor working conditions because the company is famous. “As my undergraduate school is not good enough, it was almost impossible for me to get an internship in a famous firm through formal recruitment channels,” said Shang, who got his internship only after receiving a recommendation from a staff member at the firm. “Even though my work was quite boring, I still would accept such seemingly unequal conditions because the reputation of the company would help me with future internships and work.”
Shang is not alone in his outlook: Chinese students tend to prefer well-known, large-scale companies where competition for internships is fierce. Students believe these types of companies offer the best way to strengthen their resumes and prove their value.
Involution in internships is gradually hitting low-achieving students. Many freshmen and sophomores make use of summer breaks and the flexibility of online courses to find internships, while many juniors and seniors choose to leave school and switch between different internships. Li, a master’s student at a top British university, completed five internships during her undergraduate studies, including positions in the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), internet, and consulting industries. Before moving to the UK for graduate school in September, she had just finished an internship at an internet company and got another part-time job at a consulting firm. “I’m afraid of stopping, although even now I have no idea what kind of job I like,” Li said.
The reasons involution has emerged in China are complex. One main factor is the narrow conception of excellence and success in mainstream Chinese society. The unilateral pursuit of material success and prestige leads to the formation of unhealthy competition. More and more people are racing as fast as they can on a single track, and as they run, the finish line seems to get further and further away.
Another factor underlying involution is social pressure. Graduates from elite universities face immense pressure to work for highly-reputed companies and industries, regardless of the work-life balance (or lack thereof) they afford. Working in low-prestige industries is commonly viewed as a waste of an education and disappointment for one’s family. Furthermore, the decision to take a low-status job, which entails stooping down to a lower social level, is sometimes even viewed as a betrayal of one’s social class.
Involution is not unique to China. It is the result of limited social resources and the marginal diminishing effect: with more and more educated people competing to the best of their abilities for finite resources in a limited economy, the payouts to individual participants will decrease. To the extent involution is more serious in China than elsewhere, involution can be boiled down to two factors. The first is competitive pressure, which is brought on by the large population. The second is prevailing cultural norms, particularly respect for hard work, an unerring focus on one’s job, the circumscription of extra-curricular activities and leisure time in children’s education, and a single, materialistic conception of success.
There are many harmful effects of involution. For individuals, involution can lead to wasted energy, loss of interest and passion, and psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. For society at large, involution can stifle innovation and lead to social exhaustion.
Chinese students have very complicated attitudes towards involution. They tend to mock the social structures underpinning involution but also feel completely helpless. The term ‘involving king,’ which describes someone who is extremely invested in involution, is frequently used to mock people who perpetuate the phenomenon most. However, involution is not necessarily a derogatory term; in many cases, it can be a source of motivation. This term deeply reflects the current state of competition for Chinese students, regardless of the extent to which any given Chinese student participates.
Not everyone is willing to succumb to involution. Some students know what they want out of life and decide to join the competitive cycle only in moderation. Liang is a student who decided to take a gap year before starting her graduate studies. During this period, she worked at an NGO for a few months and enrolled in several courses solely out of personal interest. “I had been immersed in a monotonous environment where I just followed whatever my classmates were doing. Now I realize that I have more choices and can make decisions all by myself.” Thus, a change of environment can help those who feel trapped by involution to modify their personal thinking and escape the vicious cycle.
Can Chinese society substantially address involution? A key barrier to change is the lack of an exit mechanism: before quitting involution, one must first consider the specters of pressure and risk lurking around the corner. Even if one manages to leave behind the cycle of involution in work or study, there are still more competitive cycles waiting ahead, such as educating one’s children and improving one’s living standards. Consequently, dealing with involution will demand major changes in China’s social values and evaluation system, or some breakthrough in social development that allows for the promotion of outward development rather than internal competition.
There is still a long way to go in addressing involution in China. For now, the popularity of this word on the internet will draw more attention to this social phenomenon. Citizens and the government must make joint efforts to improve the situation and raise awareness that the power to make choices about our lives is always in our own hands.
Hongyu Wang is reporting from Nanjing, China.