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An Overview of Chinese Nominations at Busan Film Festival (Part II)

Three Chinese blockbusters & two films touching upon gender issues; these Chinese films at Busan are definitely worth watching.

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Image from 'Ash is the Purest White'

From Chinese dissident filmmakers to government-funded films, you can find it all at Busan, Asia’s biggest film festival. In the weeks leading up to the event, What’s on Weibo’s Gabi Verberg provides an overview of the Chinese nominees. This week: Part II (See Part I here).

On the 4th of October, the 23th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea will roll out its red carpet to open this year’s film festival season in Asia. With the screening of 323 films from 79 countries, it is one of Asia’s biggest international film festivals, with China as one of the main suppliers of films.

This week, we will introduce to you to the second batch of the Chinese nominees.

 

1. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy (Yèwèn Wàizhuàn: Zhāngtiānzhì 叶问外传:张天志)

Mainland China/Hong Kong
Genre: Action
Selected in the category: Opening Night Film
Director: Woo-ping Yuen (袁和平)
Weibo Hashtag: #张天志# (19.600.000+ views)
Premiere: October 2018, Busan International Film Festival

Starring: Max Zhang (张晋), Dave Bautista (戴夫·巴蒂斯塔), Michelle Yeoh (杨紫琼), Tony Jaa (托尼·贾), Chrissie Chaw (周秀娜)

About the Director:

Woo-ping Yuen was born in 1945, making him the oldest nominated Chinese director at this years’ Busan Film Festival. In 1978, Woo-ping Yuen was recognized by the film industry for the first time for his works Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Shé xíng diāo shǒu 蛇形刁手) and Drunken Master (Zuì quán 醉拳).

With Jackie Chan starring as the male protagonist in Drunken Master, the film was nominated for the Golden Horse awards at the Taiwan International Film Festival. In the 40 years that followed, Woo-ping Yuan’s films received numerous nominations and awards at film festivals all over the world.

His most famous contributions to film are as the action director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill: vol.2, and as a Kung-fu choreographer for the film The Matrix.

Storyline:

This spinoff focuses on Cheung Tin Chi (a pivotal character from Ip Man 3, played by Zhang), who has been defated by Ip Man and had his house burned down to the ground. He decides to seek shelter on Bar Street, where he quickly finds solace from his neighbors. But when Tin Chi discovers a gang is peddling drugs on Bar street, he takes it upon himself to intervene and gets into a fight with a powerful foreign villain.

Check out the trailer with English subtitles here.

Why you should watch it:

The main actors are internationally renowned. Michelle Yeoh showed off her beautiful martial arts skills in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Max Zhang’s showed his mastery of wushu in films such as The Grandmaster and Ip Man 3.

On their website, the organization of the Busan International Film Festival calls the film “dazzling, gripping, and an astonishingly action-driven film that will satisfy the audiences who are looking for great action scenes especially on a big screen.” They also call it one of the “most essential martial art films” that Hong Kong has ever seen.

 

2. The Island (Yīchū Hǎoxì 一出好戏)

China Mainland
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Selected in the category: : A Window on Asian Cinema
Director: Bo Huang (黄渤)
Premiere: 10th August 2018

Starring: Bo Huang (黄渤), Qi Shu (舒淇),Baoqiang Wang (王宝强),Yixing Zhang (张艺兴), Hewei Yu (于和伟), Xun Wang (王迅), Qinqin Li (李勤勤), You-lin Li (李又麟 ), Hao Ning (宁浩), Hu Guan (管虎), Jing Liang (梁静), Zheng Xu (徐峥), Teddy Chan (陈德森), Lei Zhang (张磊)

About the Director:

Bo Huang is one of China’s most famous comic actors. Except for acting, he is also a singer, tv host, choreographer, and now a film director. Over the last decade, he received nominations for his acting at almost every big Asian Film Festival, such as the Hong Kong Film Festival or the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. As an actor, Bo Huang starred in, among others, Journey to the West (Xīyóu Jiàngmópiān 西游降魔篇), No Man’s Land (Wúrénqū 无人区), and My Dearest.. The Island is Huang Bo’s first work as a director.

Storyline:

News of a meteorite coming towards the earth doesn’t seem to affect Ma Jin’s everyday life, as he goes about his days; going to work, obsessing over his pretty colleague, and even winning a grand prize lottery during his company’s team-building cruise. But Ma Jin’s life is about to drastically change, bringing him and his collegues to a deserted island, where they have to remake the world as they know it. This story is a surprisingly funny but critical fable of modern society.

See the trailer with English subtitles here.

Why you should watch it:

The film is already worth watching for its beautiful locations and its spectacular special effects. But another reason to watch the film is for the interaction between Bo Huang and his cast. For the production of The Island, Bo Huang’s budget seemed to be endless, allowing him to freely select his cast. As a consequence, almost all of his cast members are former colleagues. For the film Mr. Six (Lǎopào’er 老炮儿), Bo Huang worked with Hu Guan, Jing Liang, Hewei Ju, Hao Ning, and Yi Zhang, who are now all also featuring in The Island.

The Island is the 29th highest-grossing film in China of all time, with a total gross of 1.343 billion yuan ($195+ million).

 

3. Ash is the Purest White (Jiānghú érnǚ 江湖儿女)

China Mainland/France
Genre: Romance, Crime
Selected in the category: A Window on Asian Cinema
Director: Zhangke Jia (贾樟柯)
Premiere: 11th May 2018, Cannes Film Festival
Weibo Hashtag: #江湖儿女# (44.860.000+ views)

Starring: Tao Zhao (赵涛), Fan Liao (廖凡), Zheng Lu (徐峥), Casper Liang (梁嘉艳), Xiaogang Feng (冯小刚), Yi’nan Diao (刁亦男), Yibai Zhang (张一白), Jiali Ding (丁嘉丽), Yi Zhang (张译), Zijian Dong (董子健), Jiamei Feng (冯家妹), Xuan Li (李宣)

Note:According to some news sources, Xiaogang Feng has been edited out of the movie. The film showed at the Toronto Film Festival was five minutes shorter than the film showed at the Cannes Film Festival in May earlier this year. Xiaogang Feng is alleged of tax evasion and having close ties with actress Fan Bingbing, who hasn’t been seen in public since July first after also being accused of tax evasion.

About the Director:

The award-winning Zhangke Jia is one of China’s most famous film directors. His debut feature film, The Pickpocket (Xiǎowǔ 小武), won the International Forum of New Cinema at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1998. Ever since, Zhangke Jia is one of the few Asian directors to be a regular at the big international film festivals such as Venice Film Festival, where he won three prices and was nominated five times, or Cannes, where Jia won one award and was nominated five times. Among Zhangke Jia’s significant works are movies such as The World (Shìjiè 世界), I Wish I Knew (Hǎishàng chuánqí 海上传奇), A Touch of Sin (Tiān zhùdìng 天注定) or Mountains May Depart
(Shānhé Gùrén 山河故人).

Last year, the very first edition of the ‘Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival’ (平遥国际电影展), an initiative by Zhangke Jia, was held successfully. The film festival celebrates the latest achievements in international cinema and promotes the work of young Chinese directors. The second edition of this festival will be held in October of this year.

Storyline:

This movie, set in China’s underworld, tells the story of love and betrayal between gangster Bin and dancer Qiao. The two lovers have a very strong emotional connection, but their love is severely tested when Qiao winds up going to prison after a violent altercation in which she tried to protect her gangster boyfriend.

See the trailer with Chinese subtitles here.

Why you should watch it:

The Guardian awarded the film four out of five stars calling it an “glorious drama” which feels like a “gripping parable for the vanity of human wishes, and another impassioned portrait of national malaise.” Variety called the film a “gangster epic.”

Another reason to watch the film is its outstanding cast. The two protagonists are played by award-winning actress and director’s muse Tao Zhao (赵涛) and Fan Liao (廖凡). The latter won the Berlin Golden Bear Award, which is the highest prize awarded for the best film at the Berlin International Film Festival; The Golden Horse Award at the Taipei International Film Festival for best actor, and the award for best actor at the Singapore International Film Festival.

 

4. My Dear Friend (Hǎoyǒu 好友)

Mainland China
Genre: Drama
Selected in the category: A Window on Asian Cinema
Director: Pingdao Yang (杨平道)
Reads on Weibo: 35.000 (#抵达之谜#)
Premiere: 2016

Starring: Starring: Gabby So (蘇子情), Robert Loh

About the Director:

Pingdao Yang is a relatively unknown independent director and screenwriter. His works have appeared at dozens of domestic and international film festivals, and he has won several independent film awards.

Other works from Pingdao Yang are Spring of Yangchun (Yángchūn zhī Chūn 阳春之春), One Day As Usual (Guānyú Zhāng Kēzhǎng de Rìcháng 关于张科长的日常), My Family Tree (Jiāpǔ 家谱); and feature films E Huang Mountain (Éhuángzhàng Yìshì 鹅凰嶂逸事) and The River of Life (Shēngmìng de Héliú 生命的河流).

Storyline:

In a remote village of southern China where spring mist lays, A city woman travels to a remote village in southern China to look for her missing boyfriend. Instead of fining him, she discovers a 60-year-long secret friendship between two elderly men.

This film comes twelve years after the debut of the short film Spring of Yangchun , that came out in 2006. That film also tells about the love between two men; after one of the men’s girlfriends unexpectedly passes away, he reunites with his old-time friend who just got back from the army – the two still have issues to resolve.

Spring of Yangchun

(The 2006 short film is available online with Chinese subtitles here.)

Why you should watch it:

Despite the fact that the film was released almost two years ago, Busan Film Festival still wants it to be part of the category A Window on Asian Cinema; a noteworthy fact that says much about the film’s quality. It is also the only Chinese film in Busan of which the topic is related to homosexuality.

 

5. The Rib (Yàdāng de Zhùgǔ 亚当的助骨)

Mainland China
Genre: Drama
Selected in the category: A Window on Asian Cinema
Director: Wei Zhang (张唯)
Weibo Reads: 340.000 (#撞死了一只羊#)
Premiere: 4th September 2018, Venice International Film Festival

Starring: Jingyi Huang (黄精一), Wejie Yuan (源唯杰), Hao Meng (孟浩)

About the Director:

Wei Zhang is an independent filmmaker whose work focuses on the lives of people living in the margins of society. For that reason, among others, his work is closely followed by western film media and film festivals.

Zhang’s previous films include Factory Boss (Dǎgōng lǎobǎn 打工老板), a story about an entrepreneur who desperately takes on low margin jobs to save his business; Destiny (Xǐhé 喜禾)a tale of an autistic boy and his struggling mother; and The Sound of Dream (Tiānlài mèngxiǎng 天籁梦想), a film about four visually impaired Tibetan children whose dream it is to appear on a TV talent show.

Wei Zhang’s films received multiple nominations and won a number of awards, including Best Original Script at the Iranian Fajr International Film Festival, and Most Innovative Film Award at the Asia-Pacific art unit of the Venice Film Festival in Shanghai.

Storyline:

The Rib is based on a collection of true stories, and depicts a Chinese transgender teenager who grows up in a devout Christian family. One day, he tells his parents he wants to undergo surgery to become a woman, and he asks for his parents’ consent. It is the start of a tumultuous story that shows a new side of Chinese society.

Why you should watch it:

According to Variety, this “bold drama” is likely to become “a groundbreaking production for China.”

In choosing a topic such as this, Wei Zhang has indeed made a bold move, especially considering that previous years have seen an online ban on video content relating to homosexuality. According to ScreenDaily, the filmmaker was very grateful to have obtained permission from the Chinese government to shoot the film, and hopes that his work will have a positive influence on society.

Stayed tuned for more! Meanwhile, also check out part 1 of Chinese films at Busan, and our must-see Chinese film list of 2017 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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