Sometimes you can learn a lot about a society or a culture from a buzzword.
Such is the case with the term neijuan, the Chinese term for involution.
The concept of China as a society beset by involution gained traction last year in spring on social-media from college students who were more and more anxious, stressed, overworked, trapped in a status race.
It was then spreading like fire to the tech workers and became one of the most commonly used Chinese words of 2020, and has been deployed to describe many things, ultimately “the experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless”.
The following are extracts from a great article on the New Yorker by Yi-Ling Liu: China’s “involuted” generation.
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 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.
Young Chinese have embraced “sang” 丧 — an attitude of sardonic apathy and nihilism and tangping 躺平 – “lying flat”, opting out of the struggle for workplace success and consumer fulfilment – as a reaction, an antidote to the unrealistic positive energy of the New Era.