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All About the Chinese Films Featured at Busan Film Festival (Part III)

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From Chinese dissident filmmakers to government-funded films, you can find it all at Busan, Asia’s biggest film festival. What’s on Weibo provides an overview of all the Chinese nominees at the festival. This week, the final 7 in our Part III (See Part I here, part II here).

On the 4th of October, the 23th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea finally kicked off. With the screening of 323 films from 79 countries, and 140 world and international premieres, it is one of Asia’s biggest and most exciting international film festivals, with China as one of the main suppliers of films.

This week, we will introduce to you to the final batch of the Chinese nominees, including mostly arthouse films in the category Wide Angle (many of them being short films), but also the big comeback of one of China’s greatest directors, Zhang Yimou.

 

1. My China (Wǒ de Jìngtóu 我的镜头)

China Mainland/Hong Kong
Genre: Documentary (90 min)
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅)
Premiere: 6th October 2018, Busan International Film Festival

About the Director:

Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅) is a renowned Chinese director who was born in Shanghai in 1966. He directed his first film The Days (冬春的日子) in 1993, after which it immediately entered film festivals in Canada, Berlin, The Netherlands, Italy, London and many more. Since then, Wang has made around one film every two years.

Scene from ‘The Days’ (冬春的日).

Wang especially gained international recognition since the 2001 film Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车), which became the winner of the Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival and wowed critics with its story of a youth’s search for his stolen bicycle, particularly with its shades of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves. In 2005, Wang’s film Shanghai Dreams (青红) won the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival. Other famous works of Wang include Chongqing Blues (日照重庆) and Red Amnesia (闯入者) which were both nominated for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

Storyline:

My China, also known as Chinese Portrait, is a documentary portraying Chinese people and the places they live in during a period of upheaval. While traveling all over China, the documentary captures people from all walks of life, including miners, fishermen, farmers, students, or construction workers, with Wang Xiaoshuai himself being the main character and guide throughout the film.

See the trailer with Chinese subtitles here.

Why you should watch it:

Although Wang is one of the most famous Chinese directors outside the PRC, his works are often not welcomed within China. With his often-critical lens, he tries to lay bare contemporary China and her societal problems, leading to many of his works being banned in China.

Chinese Portrait might be Wang’s most personal work yet, as he questions his own identity in it by following the path of his family members; he tries to get to know his own country and get an understanding of how the country influenced him as a person. The film is a very intimate portrait of the director and an honest and a beautiful visualization of China’s tumultuous modern history.

 

2. On The Border (Yánbiān Shàonián 延边少年)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short Film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Wei Shujun (魏书钧)
Weibo Hashtag: #延边少年# (164.000+ views)
Premiere: 18th May 2018, Cannes International Film Festival

Starring: Li Zhengming, Cui Yuan, Fei Peng, Gang Yanming, Yang Gao and Zhao Lihua.

About the Director:

Wei Shujun (魏书钧) was born in 1991 in Beijing. At the age of 14, he first entered the film industry as an actor. In the years that followed, he worked in various junior positions, such as runner, assistant director, and sound recorder, before he directed his first documentary Said in the Forbidden City (说在紫禁城). In 2016, Wei had an international breakthrough with his first feature film Duck Neck (浮世千) which got him a nomination at the Busan Film Festival as the youngest nominated director that year.

Storyline:

This 15-minute film revolves around Hua Mingxing, a boy from a Korean ethnic group who lives in a Korean-Chinese border village. His father left him a long time ago to earn money in the city. As the boy is passing his time in the village that is mostly populated by elderly people, he decides to go and find his father in the city to ask him to finance his travel plans to Korea. But instead of finding his dad, Hua ends up roaming the streets of Yanbian, striking up a friendship with a young woman.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

On the Border was awarded with a Special Jury Distinction-Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival of 2018.

 

3. Void (Mèn 闷)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Xu Jianshang (徐鉴赏)
Premiere: 19th June 2018, China Mainland

Starring: Chen Xuanyu (陈宣宇)

About the Director:

Majoring in film directing at Beijing Film Academy, Xu Jianshang received recognition for her short Lost in the City (城市), which won Best Screenplay at the Xiejin Academy Film Festival and got nominated for the French Poitiers Film Festival. She graduated from the Asian Film Academy in 2014 and directed the feature film Ma•amaa, a co-production between India and China. She is currently studying film production at Busan Asian Film School.

Storyline:

Pai is a Beijing-based student who is alone and struggling with her studies, her friends, and her living situation. When Pai tries to make things better, the this 19-minute short film shows how her situation further spirals out of control.

Noteworthy:

Despite the fact that Xu is still young, she already received much recognition for her work. Xu is the only female listed among all the directors in our three part overview of Chinese nominees at Busan.

 

4. In the Middle of Blue (Yīzhǐ lánsè de xiā 一只蓝色的虾)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Qi Ji or Miracle(祁骥)
Weibo Hashtag: #一只蓝色的虾# (315 views)
Premiere: 21th June 2018, Beijing Film Academy Graduation Show

Starring: Kong Yan (孔雁), Zhang Benyu (张本煜) and Zhang Lu (张鹭).

About the Director:

Qi Ji is a 22-year-old director that graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in July of this year. In 2016, after studying film for only one and a half year, he directed Belief (念) a short film portraying the Muslim minority in China. The film unexpectedly entered the International Youth Micro Film Exposition (国际青少年微电影) and ended in the top ten Best Chinese Films. For Qi’s second work, In the Middle of Blue, he won the jury award at the +86358 Short Film Festival.

See here his speech ‘Can an artist be made?’ on TEDx in English.

Storyline:

This 26-minute film features a female protagonist called Ye Hong, who is left by her husband after not being able to have children. Her life then takes a dramatic change, that unexpectedly leaves her having twins and only raising one of them.

Why you should watch it:

Qi is an extremely young and promising director that is worth keeping your eye on. This does not only show in his nomination for the Busan Film Festival, but is also evident from the cast he rounded up for this production.

 

5. Down There (Nàlǐ 那里)

China Mainland/France
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Yang Zhengfan (杨正帆)
Premiere: 6th of September 2018, Venice Film Festival

Starring: An Qigu, Wang Songhua and Chen Shaokai

About the Director:

Yang Zhengfan started his career in filmmaking in 2009, and in 2012 he set up production company ‘Burn the Film‘ with producer Zhu Shengze (朱声仄). In 2013, his work Distant (远方) received international attention and was nominated at the Locarno and Vancouver Film Festival. In 2016, he was invited at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, receiving the Jury Award at China Independent Film Festival and the Best Experimental Film Award at South Taiwan Film Festival with his work Where Are You Going (你往何处去).

In collaboration with Zhu, Yang also worked as a cinematographer and producer for two documentaries titled Out of Focus (虚焦) and Another Year (又一年). Both received much international attention.

Storyline:

A blissful night is unexpectedly interrupted by the sound of a woman desperately screaming downstairs. Residents of the apartment building do wonder about the sound, but it quickly loses their interest, and continue the thing that they were doing before. If nobody sees what happened, does that mean it becomes something that never happened? This 11-minute sgort film explores indifference and cruelty in the modern-day city.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

Down There received nominations for both the Venice International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Another reason why you should watch it, is that Yang has proved to be an expert in portraying individuality, loneliness, and exclusion of people in big cities. Whether he is portraying migrant worker families or middle age taxi drivers, Yang has a gift for showing the immensely intimidating effect the big city environment has on people.

 

6. Monkey Magic (Dànào Xīyóu 大闹西游)

China Mainland
Genre: Animation
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Ma Xihai (马系海)
Weibo Hashtag: #大闹西游# (3.498.000+ views)
Premiere: 22nd of September 2018, China

Starring: Sun Ye (孙晔), Shen Dawei (沈达威), Tao Dian (陶典) and Liu Beichen (刘北辰).

About the Director:

Ma Xihai began his career in the animation industry in the early 1990s. He started as a crew member, made it to senior graphic designer, production supervisor, and eventually executive director. Besides Monkey Magig, he has worked on many adaptions like Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective (老夫子之反斗侦探), Master Q: Fantasy Zone Battle (老夫子之魔界梦战记), and Storm Rider. His computer animations even brought him to South Korea where he produced a TV series, and to Japan where he worked on game animations. In 2013 he co-directed his first animation film The Soccer Way (圣龙奇兵大冒险). Monkey Magic will be the first film directed entirely by Ma.

Storyline:

Monkey Magic is a modern reinterpretation of the timeless Chinese classic Journey to the West. The story starts when toys refuse to admit that monkey Sun Wuyuan is the king of monkeys because he doesn’t have Sun Wukong’s magic stick. Full of determination, Sun Wuyuan goes to find the legendary king Sun Wukong on Mount Huaguo to give him the magic stick – the beginning of a tumultuous adventure.

See here the trailer with Chinese subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

The film has already seen a very good reception within China since it premiered, selling over 36 million tickets. It was the most popular film in theaters during the mid-autumn festival, and it already is the most successful animation film of 2018.

 

7. Shadow (Yǐng 影)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Action/Historic
Selected in the category: A View on Asian Cinema
Director: Zhang Yimou (张艺谋)
Weibo Hashtag: #影# (88.674.000+ views)
Premiere: 6th of September 2018, Venice Film Festival

Starring: Chao Deng (邓超), Sun Li (孙俪), Zheng Kai (郑恺), Wang Qianyuan (王千源), Wang Jingchun (王景春), Hu Jun (胡军), Guan Xiaotong (关晓彤) and Wu Leo (吴磊).

About the Director:

The renowned Zhang Yimou is an awarded cinematographer and director from Xi’an. He is often praised for his knowledge of Chinese history and his capacity to respectfully and truthfully transform these old stories into white screen productions. He is one of the few Chinese directors that is a regular at both Asian and western film festivals. In 2003, his film Hero (英雄) was nominated for an Oscar for the best foreign film. Other famous works include Red Sorghum 红高粱), Not One Less (一个都不能少), The Flowers of War (金陵十三钗), and his previous film starring Matt Damon, The Great Wall (长城).

In 2008, Zhang directed the opening- and closing ceremony of the Olympics held in Beijing, China. This gained him a very high reputation in both China and abroad. That same year, he was nominated for “person of the year” by the American Time Magazine.

Storyline:

Shadow is based on Zhu Sujin’s rendition of China’s legendary Three Kingdoms saga. It tells the story of Yu, a commander who lost his kingdom. In an attempt to regain his power and kingdom, he trains a boy named Jing to become his ‘shadow’ or double (note: Yu and Jing are both played by Chao Deng). But things go differently than he planned, with Jing falling in love with Yu’s wife and growing up to doubt his own identity and the path that was chosen for him.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

Variety was positive about the film and was talking of a comeback after Zhang’s somewhat soulless previous two films. The review read: “Every supremely controlled stylistic element of Zhang Yimou’s breathtakingly beautiful ‘Shadow’ is an echo of another, a motif repeated, a pattern recurring in a fractionally different way each time.”

Others describe the film as “rousing” and “typically beautiful.”

To see the other Chinese films at Busan, check Part I and Part II here.

By Gabi Verberg

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Top 10 Overview of China’s Most Popular TV Dramas May 2021

These are the best Chinese TV dramas of the moment.

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Scene from 'Court Lady' (number 8 on the list). Image via huaren.us.

Time to binge-watch. These are some of the most popular TV dramas in China that are trending this 2021 season. An overview by What’s on Weibo.

It has been some time since we have made our last overview of popular Chinese TV dramas to watch this season. It’s high time to give an update on the latest popular TV dramas in China, especially because they recently often become trending topics on social media.

In a year in which China is focusing on its space program and is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, it is noteworthy that several TV dramas have come out themed around the military and historical topics that are being pushed in recent propaganda efforts.

We compiled a shortlist of China’s top TV dramas based on recent top lists of the leading search and online video platforms, from Baidu to iQiyi and 360kan. This is not an official list, since various platforms have their own hot lists that differ based on the site. We have compiled a top ten based on a combination of the current trending lists, with these ten shows popping up in the top ten lists across various top-ranking charts.

You can find most of the dramas with English subtitles available on YouTube or elsewhere – if so, we have included a link. These are the 10 shows that are trending around Chinese social media in May of 2021!

 

10. The Glory of Youth (号手就位 Hào shǒu jiù wèi)

  • Date: Premiered in April of 2021 on Zhejiang Satellite TV
  • Genre: Military Drama (49 episodes)
  • Directed by: Li Lu (李路) and Zhang Hanbing (张寒冰)
  • Screenplay by: Ying Liangpang (应良鹏), Feng Jie (丰杰), Zu Ruomeng (祖若蒙), Xue Tianzhe (薛天智). Adapted from the novel Getting Enlisted Upon Graduation (毕业了当兵去) by Feng Jie.
  • Produced by: Propaganda Bureau of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Xi’an Qujiang Film and Television Company
  • About: The Glory of Youth is also known under the English title of The Trumpeter in Position. This drama tells the story of four college students joining China’s PLA Rocket Force. It is the first Chinese drama to focus on the Rocket Force.
  • Context: This TV series premiered in the same month when a key module of China’s new permanent space station was launched, with Chinese (popular) media increasingly focusing on China’s ambitious space programme.
  • Trending: The drama’s premiere was held in Beijing on April 9, with nearly 200 officers and soldiers from the PLARF (People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force) attending the event.
  • Link: TLYY (no English subtitles)

 

 

9. Word of Honor (山河令 Shānhélìng)

  • Date: Premiered in February 22 of 2021
  • Genre: Wuxia / Martial arts (36 episodes)
  • Directed by: Cheng Zhichao (成志超), Ma Huagan (马华干), Li Hongyu (李宏宇)
  • Screenplay by: Xiao Chu (小初), adapted from the danmei wuxia novel Tian Ya Ke (Faraway Wanderers) by Priest.
  • Produced by: Ciwen Media, Youku
  • About: Word of Honor tells the story of Zhou Zishu (played by Zhang Zhehan 张哲瀚), the leader of the emperor’s special “Window of Heaven” organization who leaves his post to pursue freedom. In doing so, he unwittingly gets involved with the martial world and the Ghost Valley master Wen Kexing (played by Gong Jun 龚俊), who wanders the world, always looking for a fight.
  • Context:Word of Honor belongs to the danmei genre. Danmei (耽美) and ‘BL’ (for ‘Boys’ Love’) are umbrella terms for contents of ‘bromance’ or male-male homoerotic fiction (read more here). The Chinese web novel author ‘Priest,’ whose work this TV drama is based on, is among one of the most successful authors within the online BL fiction genre in China.
  • Trending: Gong Jun and Zhang Zhehan are super popular as a ‘couple’ among fans of ‘CP’ in Chinese drama. The practice of imagining a relationship between two characters is known as ‘CP,’ an abbreviation for “coupling” or “character pairing.”
  • Link: Viki (with English subtitles), also coming to Netflix!

 

 

8. Court Lady (骊歌行 Lígē xíng)

  • Date: Premiered April 15 of 2021
  • Genre: Costume, drama (55 episodes)
  • Directed by: Wang Xiaoming (王晓明), Bai Yunmo (白云默), Shen Zhaoqing (申兆清)
  • Screenplay by: Feng Nong (风弄)
  • Produced by: Dongyang Huanyu Film Culture Co.
  • About: Court Lady features actress Li Yitong (李一桐) and actor Xu Kai (许凯) as Fu Rou and Sheng Chumu. She is a merchant’s daughter, he is the son of the Duke of Lu. When Fu Rou becomes a court lady and Sheng joins the army, their love is put to the test. Their romantic story is set in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
  • Context: Over the past years, historical dramas in China faced difficulties due to tightening regulations on TV series distorting history and having a “bad influence on teens.” Dramas such as Court Lady but also The Long Ballad have been celebrated by state media for their “appealing storyline” and “positive messages” about China.
  • Trending: The drama’s costume design is praised for its accuracy and beauty. Over 3000 costumes were designed for this production.
  • Link: Viki (with English subtitles)

 

 

7. Octogenarian and The 90s (八零九零 Bā líng jiǔ líng)

  • Date: Premiered April 21 of 2021 on Hunan TV
  • Genre: City, Family Drama (39 episodes)
  • Directed by: Xu Jizhou (徐纪周) and Yi Jun (易军)
  • Screenplay by: Long Zhenyu (龙振宇), Zhu Junyi (朱俊懿), Wu Yu’er (邬雩儿)
  • Produced by: Zhejiang Huace Film & TV, Xiangxiang Shidai Entertainment, Beijing HualuBaina Film & TV Company, Haining Yueliang Kaihua, Beijing Leben
  • About: “Sunshine Home” is the nursing home founded by Grandma Lin, the grandmother of the carefree millennial girl Ye Xiaomei (played by Wu Qian 吴倩). Carefree, until her grandmother becomes terminally ill and hands the nursing home over to Ye, who learns more from the elderly in the home than she could have ever imagined.
  • Context: As China is dealing with a rapidly ageing population, there is an increased media focus on the lives and struggles of the elderly.
  • Trending: Although this show is among the most popular TV dramas in China at the moment, it has also received criticism for being too superficial.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

6. Faith Makes Great (理想照耀中国 Lǐxiǎng Zhàoyào Zhōngguó)

  • Date: Premiered on May 5th of 2021
  • Genre: Period drama (40 episodes)
  • Directed by: Fu Dongyu (傅东育), who previously won an award for the drama Phurbu & Tenzin.
  • Screenplay by: Liang Zhenhua (梁振华)
  • Produced by: Hunan TV
  • About: Faith Makes Great is a Chinese TV series based on true stories that happened throughout hundred years of communism in China. The drama is an initiative of China’s State Administration of Radio and Television to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
  • Context: 2021 is the year the Chinese Communist Party turns 100. This is one of the TV dramas commemorating the founding of the Party.
  • Trending: One of the episodes of this series features the super popular Chinese celebrity Wang Yibo.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

5. Douluo Continent (斗罗大陆 Dòuluō Dàlù)

  • Date: Premiered on February 5th of 2021
  • Genre: Fantasy / Adventure (40 episodes)
  • Directed by: Yang Zhenyu (杨振宇)
  • Screenplay by: Wang Juan (王倦)
  • Produced by: Tencent, New Classics Media, Xuanshi Tangmen, Dashenquan
  • About: Douluo Continent was adapted from a fantasy novel by the same name written by Tang Jia San Shao (唐家三少). It tells the story of Tang San, played by the ever-popular Chinese celebrity Xiao Zhan. Tang San lost his mother as a child and becomes friends with another orphan named Xiao Wu (Betty Wu) while he is in training to be a Spirit Master. With his rare talents, Tang overcomes many difficulties while growing older and embarking on his journey.
  • Trending: The producers of Douluo Continent issued an apology earlier this year for plagiarizing British TV series His Dark Materials and a role within the computer game League of Legends in the opening scene of the drama.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

4. My Treasure (生活家 Shēnghuó Jiā)

  • Date: Premiered on May 13 of 2021
  • Genre: City Drama (35 episodes)
  • Directed by: Liu Haibo (刘海波), who also directed the 2019 show In the Name of the Law (and many others)
  • Screenplay by: Teng Yang (滕洋)
  • Produced by: iQiyi, Yuanshi Pictures, Tomorrow Film
  • About: My Treasure follows the life of fresh graduate Qiu Dongna (Vicky Chen) and the struggles she faces while starting up her career and dealing with the people thwarting her plans.
  • Context: Over recent years there has been a rise in Chinese TV dramas with a strong female leading role.
  • Trending: The main role of this show, Qiu Dongna (邱冬娜), has won the hearts of many netizens on Chinese social media.
  • Link: YouTube (with English subtitles)

 

 

3. Dancing in the Storm (风暴舞 Fēngbào Wǔ)

  • Date: Premiered April 25th of 2021
  • Genre: City, Spy drama (43 episodes)
  • Directed by: Liu Xin (刘新), who also directed the 2020 hit show Hunting (猎狐)
  • Screenplay by: An Zhiyong (安志勇) and Fu Li (傅莉)
  • Produced by: Ciwen Media, iQiyi, Manmei Film
  • About: Dancing in the Storm focuses on Clark Li Junjie (William Chan 陈伟霆) who works at an information security company where he accidentally discovers the company’s dangerous dealings with external parties. This discovery is the start of an investigation into a complicated web of intrigue.
  • Context: This show should not be confused with another one with a similar title, namely Storm Eye (暴风眼), which is also a 2021 drama. That Chinese ‘national security’ drama came under fire for “overly dramatic plotlines.”
  • Trending: The Weibo hashtag page of this drama (#风暴舞#) has by now received over 260 million views on Weibo.
  • Link: YouTube (no English subtitles)

 

 

2. Awakening Age (觉醒年代 Juéxǐng Niándài)

  • Date: Premiered in February of 2021 on CCTV
  • Genre: “Red drama”, Revolutionary historical drama (43 episodes)
  • Directed by: Zhang Yongxin (张永新)
  • Screenplay by: Long Pingping (龙平平)
  • Produced by: CCTV
  • About: Awakening Age tells the story of how the Party was founded, focusing on the events taking place in between 1916 and 1921.
  • Context: 2021 is the year the Chinese Communist Party turns 100. This is one of the TV dramas commemorating the founding of the Party.
  • Trending: Awakening Age has a hashtag page on Weibo (initiated by CCTV) that by now has received over 590 million views.
  • Link: YouTube (no English subtitles)

 

 

1. A Love for Dilemma (小舍得 Xiǎo Shědé)

  • Date: Produced in 2020 and premiered on iQiyi on April 11, 2021
  • Genre: Family drama (42 episodes)
  • Directed by: Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also directed hit show Nothing But Thirty (三十而已, 2020)
  • Screenplay by: Zhou Yifei (周艺飞)
  • Produced by: iQiyi and Linmon Pictures
  • About: This season’s super popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system. In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless. While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.
  • Context: One of the reasons this drama is so popular in China right now is because of its depiction of the competitive education system and parent-child relationships of ordinary Chinese families.
  • Trending: A Love for Dilemma ignited discussions on the term of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media (read more here), especially when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.
  • Link: iQiyi (including subtitles)

 

Wanna read more on Chinese tv dramas? Check our other articles here.

By Manya Koetse
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China Society

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

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