How One Obscure Word Captures Urban China’s Unhappiness

Anthropologist Xiang Biao explains why the academic concept of “involution” became a social media buzzword.

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 sangthe 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. Continue to read the full article here


– This article was written by Wang Qianni and Ge Shifan. It originally appeared on Sixth Tone