A new word has entered the popular lexicon to describe feelings of burnout, ennui, and despair.
Last September, a student at Beijing’s élite Tsinghua University was caught on video riding his bike at night and working on a laptop propped on his handlebars. The footage circulated on Chinese social media, and shortly afterward more photos of other Tsinghua students—slumped at cafeteria tables, buried under stacks of textbooks—appeared online. Commentators proceeded to roast the insane work ethic on display and tag the students as part of a rising generation of “involuted” young people. The cyclist became a meme—“Tsinghua’s Involuted King”—and a flurry of blog posts on Chinese social media criticized the “involution of élite education,” while an article published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency dissected the “involution of college students.” By the time winter arrived, the idea of involution had spread to all corners of Chinese society.
The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz helped popularize the term in his book “Agricultural Involution,” from 1963, in which he analyzed Java’s economic response to population growth and Dutch colonial rule. Geertz’s theory of involution holds that a greater input (an increase in labor) does not yield proportional output (more crops and innovation). Instead, a society involutes. The Chinese term for involution, neijuan, which is made up of the characters for “inside” and “rolling,” suggests a process that curls inward, ensnaring its participants within what the anthropologist Xiang Biao has described as an “endless cycle of self-flagellation.” Involution is “the experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless,” Biao told me. It is acceleration without a destination, progress without a purpose, Sisyphus spinning the wheels of a perpetual-motion Peloton.
The concept of China as a society beset by involution gained traction, last spring, on Douban, a social-media site popular among college students, in a discussion thread called “985 trash.” The name refers to Project 985—a consortium of élite Chinese universities similar to the Ivy League—and the shared reality that many students at these institutions feel like “trash”: anxious, stressed, overworked, trapped in a status race. The thread grew as participants bemoaned the involuted job market (finance or data analytics—which path is more involuted?), criticized involuted entrance examinations (taking and failing the C.P.A. exam five times), and lamented the involution of the post-pandemic economy. “Young people can only see one way that they can make claims for their dignity and be recognized as a person,” Biao said. And, most often, that way is to earn top grades, land a well-paying job, buy an apartment, and find a similarly high-achieving spouse.
The meme of involution has spread from college campuses to what is for many graduates their next destination: China’s hypercompetitive tech industry. Tech workers have begun to sense the involution of their lives: those employed at large tech firms often work hours known as “996” (nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days a week). Whereas “996” was once a badge of honor, the phrase is now uttered with ironic despair, and has swelled into new iterations such as “007” (working online twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week). Like the students, tech workers are resisting an idea offered by the business world and the government: that the technology sector, fuelled by single-minded market competition and the relentless hustle of its workforce, will propel China into a future of wealth and ease.
It is an ideal that leads college students to work inhumane hours and drives young migrant workers to hustle on behalf of Meituan, an e-commerce and delivery-service company with a “victory or death” ethos. It also underlies the ruthless tactics of the tech industry, including smear campaigns and shameless copying of competitors. And, yes, China certainly has been transformed by technology: with a swipe on a phone, the modern worker can order a scallion pancake to her doorstep and hail a Didi driver to wherever she wants to go. Facial-recognition cameras take attendance at schools, and algorithms help allocate work tasks. But many tech workers, having scaled and optimized their lives, sense that they have become just like their devices: interchangeable and emblazoned with a sheen of productivity, for no real higher purpose.
In search of alternatives, some have begun to embrace Marxism, organizing “Das Kapital” reading groups and revisiting leftist revolutionary songs from the Soviet Union. At Internet companies, software engineers have protested their working conditions on GitHub, a coding-hosting platform, sharing their overwhelming schedules and drafting petitions for an improved state of affairs. Others have adopted coping mechanisms similar to those of Silicon Valley dropouts: quitting their jobs, joining remote communes, setting up Chinese versions of Burning Man, and developing a “Buddhist” (that is, a chilled-out and laissez-faire) approach to life. Some young Chinese have embraced sang—an attitude of sardonic apathy and nihilism. “I wanted to fight for socialism today,” Zhao Zengliang, a twenty-seven-year-old sang Internet personality, wrote in a representative post. “But the weather is so freaking cold that I’m only able to lay on the bed to play on my mobile phone.”
Naming a condition like involution is an act of liberation and a move toward a cure. The problem with involution is that it has become ubiquitous. It was one of the most commonly used Chinese words of 2020, and has been deployed to describe many things. I’ve read about the involution of blockchain, team-building events, the logistics industry, M.B.A. applications. I’ve encountered a Marxist take on involution, a Weberian reading, and even a Confucian interpretation. I’ve learned about the involution of online games—a gamer ethos that has sucked out the spirit of play—and the involution of the marriage market, a process through which single people fight over a dwindling pool of worthy mates.
Instead of allowing our words to “deteriorate into a slush of vague intention,” as Rebecca Solnit wrote, what if we named things with greater truth and precision? What if people called the brutal hours imposed by the tech industry “corporate feudalism” and the dangerous demands placed on delivery workers a form of exploitation? What if the students toiling away in front of their computers, depleted and tired, are not involuted but, rather, to borrow a phrase from the late David Graeber, victims of a profound “spiritual violence?” What if we used a more explicit term to describe the effects of an involuted system, such as, say, “technocapitalist authoritarianism?”
Last December, a twenty-two-year-old employee surnamed Zhang at the e-commerce company Pinduoduo collapsed on the ground in the middle of the night, on her way home from work, and died six hours later, apparently from exhaustion and overwork. Two weeks later, another Pinduoduo employee leaped to his death, during a visit to his parents, reportedly after he was fired for criticizing the company’s work culture. In response to an outpouring of anger and grievance, the company appeared to dismiss Zhang’s death, posting a comment on its official social-media account: “Who hasn’t exchanged their life for money?”
Involution came to the fore once again, as online commentators tried to make sense of the deaths of two young people through its lens. I compulsively read posts on WeChat with titles such as “A Pinduoduo employee has died, why did we descend into an era of involution?” and “Workplace involution under the Pinduoduo model.” In contrast to exploitation or suppression or even alienation, involution is presented as part of the natural order of things—like bad weather. You can’t point fingers at an abstraction or rally against a fusty term from an anthropology text.
In many ways, China’s affliction of involution is no different from America’s cutthroat meritocracy. But China’s crisis is unique in the severity of its myopia and its methods of entrapment. The young high schooler, disillusioned with the monotony of school, cannot easily access subversive subcultures or explore alternative ways of living, because, increasingly, that information is deemed “vulgar” or “immoral” and banned by the government, scrubbed from the digital sphere in the name of “promoting positive energy.” The delivery driver, seeking better working conditions, can’t protest his grievances or organize his fellow workers in an independent union, because he rightly fears that he will be detained. The disillusioned office worker, instead of taking action, will more likely sink deeper into his desk chair. Involution is a new word that helps keep an old system, and those who control it, in place.
All Rights Reserved for Yi-Ling Liu