Involution: Competition and Choice for Chinese Students 内卷:中国学生的竞争与选择

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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.

内卷指的是一种社会动态,这种极端的、非理性的、有时是非自愿的竞争使人感到筋疲力尽。目前,中国社会大多数行业正经历着不同程度的内卷。中国学生在生活的很多方面都感受到了内卷,包括学业、课外竞赛和实习等。

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.

秦刚大使讲述了自己的亲身经历来说明内卷是如何影响他儿子的童年的。他说:“我的周末都是在把我的孩子从一个培训学校送到另一个培训学校中度过的,他学习的课程涵盖了数学、物理等。”上了一整天的课之后,一位家庭教师会在晚上到他们家补课。补习结束后,秦刚还得辅导儿子的家庭作业。

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.

内卷演化自一种学术理论,该理论指出,一个社会在达到一定的发展水平后,不能再向外发展,只能向内提升复杂程度。这个词起源于英文,在20世纪80年代首次被翻译为中文 “内卷”,由历史社会学家黄宗智在其1985年出版的《华北农民经济与社会变迁》一书的中译本中引入中国。2020年,这个词在网络上破圈流行起来。这个词的走红是出乎意料的,但却恰如其分地反映了中国年轻人目前面临的日益加剧的压力。

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.

为了更好地了解内卷是如何影响学生的,我与北京的一名本科生彭同学进行了交谈。他说内卷不是他自己的主动选择,他感到来自周围同学的压力,为了跟上其他学生的步伐才选择加入。“如果一门课程要求完成3000字的论文,同学们都会写到5000字以上。而如果我不这样做,而其他人这样做,我可能得不到好成绩。” 这可能会让西方读者感到惊讶,因为大多数人并不把文章的长度和质量等同起来。然而,在内卷的压力下,成千上万的学生正不遗余力地进行竞争。

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.

彭同学认为,拿到较高的课程分数对于大多数学生来说非常重要,因为他们的成绩排名决定了他们能否获得奖学金评定、保研资格等重要机会。这种情况类似于经典的囚徒困境:理论上,学生可以通过合作,同意停止提高标准;但这样的协议永远不会达成。一旦几个学生开始写更多字数的论文,其他的学生就会因为害怕落后或拿不到好成绩而被迫竞争,这样的循环就会无限延续下去。

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.

彭同学提到并不是所有的班级都会有如此激烈的内卷。内卷的程度取决于一个班里有多少同学愿意参与这种竞争,也取决于同学们对通过竞争获取的奖励的预期。

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.”

另外,由于中国的巨大就业压力,在寻找实习机会方面也存在着强烈的内卷现象。就读于南京某名校金融专业的硕士生商同学讲述了自己参与内卷的经历。他的第一份实习是在一家著名证券公司做兼职助理,但是没有任何工资或餐补、住房补贴、交通补贴等,并且要求最低实习时间为6个月。但由于公司的名气较大,商愿意接受这样恶劣的实习条件。商同学是通过内推拿到的实习机会,他说:“由于我的本科学校不够好,因此我几乎不可能通过正式的招聘渠道拿到著名公司的实习机会。尽管我的工作比较枯燥,但我还是会接受这种看似不平等的条件,因为公司的声誉对我今后的实习和工作有很大帮助。”

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.

商同学的经历并不是个例:中国学生倾向于选择著名的、规模大的公司去实习,这些公司的实习机会竞争非常激烈。学生们认为,这类公司是增加自己简历的含金量、证明自身价值的最好方式。

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.

实习内卷还在逐渐低年级化。很多大一大二的学生会利用暑假时间和参与网课的灵活性参加实习,而许多大三大四的学生会选择离开学校所在地去实习,尝试多种实习岗位。李同学是一所英国顶尖大学的硕士生,她在本科期间已经完成了5个实习,涉及了快速消费品(FMCG)、互联网、咨询三种行业。在九月份前往英国读研究生之前,她刚刚结束一家互联网实习,并且再次成功获得了一家咨询公司的远程实习工作。李同学说:“我已经不敢停下脚步了,虽然现在我都不知道自己喜欢做什么”。

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.

“内卷”在中国出现的原因是复杂的。其中一个主要因素是中国主流社会对优秀和成功的定义较为局限。对物质上的成功和声望的片面追求导致了不健康竞争的形成。当越来越多的人在一条赛道上奋力奔跑,结果就是拉长了所有人与终点的距离。

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.

另一个影响内卷的潜在因素是社会压力。名牌大学的毕业生倾向于顶着巨大压力去知名公司和体面行业工作,而不管他们可能面对的工作与生活失衡的代价。在“低端”行业工作通常被认为是对所接受教育的浪费,以及是令家庭失望的事情。此外,选择不太体面的工作意味着降低社会地位,有时甚至被视为对自己社会阶层的背叛。

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.

内卷并非中国独有的现象。这是有限的社会资源和边际递减效应导致的结果:随着越来越多的受过教育的人在有限的经济中尽其所能地争夺资源,每个个人参与者的收益将会减少。中国的内卷问题比其他地方更严重的原因可以归结为庞大的人口基数和一些文化特性,尤其是对勤奋工作的看重、以工作为中心的观念、教育中对课外活动和闲暇时间的限制以及单一的物化的成功观。

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.

内卷有许多负面影响。对个人来说,内卷会导致精力浪费、兴趣和热情的丧失以及焦虑和抑郁等心理问题。对于整个社会来说,内卷会扼杀创新,导致社会性疲态。

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.

中国学生对内卷的态度非常复杂。提到内卷,学生们倾向于带有一种调侃与无奈的态度。他们会用“卷王”来形容那些过度内卷的人。但是,内卷不一定是一个贬义词,很多情况下内卷可以是一种动力来源。这个词深刻反映了当下学生们的竞争现状,不管任何一个中国学生在多大程度上参与了内卷化。

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.

并不是所有人都愿意屈服于内卷。一些学生对自己有着清晰的定位,或者在思考后决定只适度参与竞争。梁同学在拿到硕士offer之后,选择了gap一年。在这一年中,她在非政府公益组织工作了几个月,然后根据自己的兴趣学了几门课程发展自己的爱好。“之前沉浸在比较单一的环境中,周围同学做什么我就做什么。现在我才意识到自己可以有更多的选择。”因此,如果一个人感到陷入内卷中无法脱身,或许环境的变化可以带来个人想法的变化,从而过上远离内卷压力的日子。

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.

中国社会能否实质性解决内卷问题?其中的一个关键障碍是中国社会缺乏退出机制:在退出内卷之前,必须首先考虑这个选择背后的压力和风险。即使一个人设法摆脱了工作或学习的内卷,也会面临子女教育、生活水平提升等新一轮竞争。因此,应对内卷需要中国社会的价值观或评价体系做出改变,或者社会发展取得新一轮突破,从而促进社会外向型发展,而不是局限于内部竞争。

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.

在中国,解决内卷问题还有很长的路要走。当下,这个词在互联网上的流行将引起人们对这一社会现象的更多关注。公民和政府应该共同努力,让大家意识到选择生活的权力始终是在自己手上的,从而改善这种状况。

Hongyu Wang is reporting from Nanjing, China.

王宏宇,报道于中国南京。

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