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CCTV New Year’s Gala 2017 Live Blog

It’s time for the CCTV Gala 2017: the special annual evening variety show that captures millions of viewers on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Manya Koetse

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The biggest live television event in the world is about to start. Spring Festival is here and that means it is time for the CCTV New Year’s Gala 2017: the special annual evening variety show that captures millions of viewers on Chinese New Year’s Eve. What’s on Weibo provides you with the ins & outs of the 2017 Gala and its social media frenzy, with updates before, during and after the show.

Are you ready for the Year of the Rooster? Like every year, the start of Chinese New Year is celebrated with Chunwan, the CCTV Spring Festival Night Gala (中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会), better known as CCTV New Year’s Gala.

With an average viewership of 700/800 million, or 90% audience share, the event is the world’s most-watched TV show. The four-hour long spectacle, that starts at 8 pm Chinese time, is a both an entertainment show and propaganda platform – it features China’s biggest stars and best performers while also including the current Party propaganda outlines.

Stay with us to watch the gala and to get to know its ins & outs (also see our liveblog of 2016).

Live stream of the Gala on Youtube and on CCTV Gala official website.

Liveblog (now closed) :

27/01 18:34
Are you ready?

A little over three hours to go before the start of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (央视春晚), the variety show that will entertain families all over China in the last hours of the Year of the Monkey with an evening full of music and performances. This year is the 35th edition of the Spring Festival Gala, which has been broadcasted since 1983. With a viewership of 700 to 800 million people, is the world’s most-watched TV show – bigger than the Oscars or the Super Bowl.

27/01 19:04
What to expect?

What can we expect at this year’s show? Like last year, the show will be broadcasted from various places besides its main venue in Beijing’s CCTV’s No.1 Studio. In 2016, the Gala was aired from Quanzhou, Xi’an, Guangzhou and Hulun Buir.

This year, it will be aired from Harbin, Guilin, Shanghai and Liangshan. Every city has its own hosts, who often welcome the audiences in their own local dialect or language, with performances that are related to the region. Last year the spectacular performance of singer Sun Nan (孙楠) who danced with 540 moving robots reinforced the image of Guangdong as the home of China’s tech startups.

27/01 18:49
The show people love to hate

Just one hour to go! The CCTV Gala will feature a total of 34 different acts tonight, including singing, dancing, and comedy, in a time frame of around 4 hours.

It is a tradition for families to gather around the TV to watch the Gala before the New Year comes at midnight. The Gala usually is as much about entertainment as it is about political propaganda, and it is somewhat of a tradition to comment on the show and complain about it; criticism on the Gala is actually so commonplace that the sentence “there’ll never be a ‘worst’, just ‘worse than last year'” (“央视春晚,没有最烂,只有更烂”) has become a popular saying over the years.

Unsurprisingly, the show also drew much criticism in 2016 when some called the show a “propaganda disaster.” According to many viewers, the spectacle was “way too political” with its display of communist nostalgia, including the performance of different revolutionary songs such as ‘Without the Communist Party, There is No New China’ (没有共产党就没有新中国)… we can probably expect the same complaints on Chinese social media tonight.

27/01 12:31
Tonight’s hosts

This year, the main show of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala will be hosted by familiar faces: the presenters Zhu Jun (朱军), Dong Qing (董卿), Zhu Xun (朱迅) , Kang Hui (康辉) and Nëghmet Raxman.

The 52-year-old Chinese host and actor Zhu Jun is one of the most well-known CCTV faces. He has presented the CCTV New Year Gala since 1997. Dong Qing (43 years old) is also an annual host: she has hosted the Gala since 2005. Zhou Xun is a Chinese actress and singer, who will be on the show for the fifth time. Kang Hui is an influential CCTV news anchor and Nëghmet is a Chinese television host of Uyghur heritage.

Tonight there will be many stars appearing on the show, from kungfu star Jackie Chen to skit actor Pan Changjiang, Olympic star Fu Yuanhui, actress Yan Xuejing, comedian Jiang Kun, and many, many others.

27/01 12:44
The Mascot

It’s almost time to start! In the meantime, a little update on the CCTV mascot. In 2015, the CCTV Gala introduced an annual new mascot for its New Year’s Show. Last year’s mascot Kang Kang drew so much controversy with its unconventional appearance, that CCTV decided to play it safe this year with a traditional Rooster. The rooster will reappear throughout the show in the Gala’s logo. Besides this rooster there is also a more humorous one that appeared in the promotion video of the Gala.

27/01 19:09
Here We Go!

Here we go! This year’s CCTV New Year’s Gala first starts with intertextual references to all the past “hits” of the gala, which has been aired since 1983. This opening act is a much-anticipated one, as the very popular boy group the TFBoys are performing together with beautiful Chinese actresses Liu Tao, Jiang Xin, Wang Ziwen, Yang Zi and Qiao Xin.

They are performing the song “Beautiful China Year” (美丽中国年).

The TFBoys have been very successful in China over the past years. They also appeared at last year’s Gala, and recently won the Weibo Awards for being the most popular on Chinese social media, for which they received nearly 63 million votes. Their performance here tonight might make it more appealing for younger audiences to watch the New Year’s Gala, which generally has a somewhat stuffy image.

27/01 13:28
Theme: National Unity

Tonight’s hosts have welcomed us to this year’s Spring Gala and are introducing us to the other sub-venues from Harbin to Guilin, from Shanghai to Hong Kong. All the while the various ethnicities of China are emphasized. An important theme of this year (and previous years) is national unity, traditional culture and family affection. Previous year there was a special emphasis on the “Chinese Dream.”

27/01 13:32
First Sketch

During tonight’s show there will be various performances, of which nine will be comical sketches. After we have just witnessed dozens of chickens dancing in a somewhat hysterical performance by the “Air Force BLue Sky Children’s Art Troupe”, it is now time for a comical sketch. These sketches often contain some political messages; previous year there was a special emphasis on corrupt officials.

This sketch called “Big City, Little Love” is performed by Liu Liang, Bai Ge and Guo Jinjie. It is about a young man, a migrant worker, who lied to his wife saying he has gone to work in the city where he had a “high position.” In fact, he is a window cleaner for high buildings.

27/01 13:40
“In This Moment”

This is the older song “In this moment” (在此刻) performed by singers Hu Ge and Wang Kai (胡歌, 王凯). (Watch the show live here https://youtu.be/8Tnna8odMvA).

27/01 13:52
“Older Couple”

This second sketch of tonight has some big stars. Cai Ming (蔡明) is a singer, actress, and sketch performer notable for performing sketch comedy in CCTV New Year’s Gala since 1991 – she is known for her sharp language. Pan Changjiang also is a Chinese skit actor and sitcom actor. In his early years, he appeared regularly in the CCTV New Year’s Gala.

This sketch is called “Older Couple” and is about a man who forgot what his wife looked like until Cai comes along and pretends to be his wife. In the end it turns out that it is not him, but her who lost her memory. When she remembers – in a The Notebook kind of scene – the couple falls into each other’s arms.

27/01 13:59
Over to Liangshan

We are now moving over from Beijing’s studio to the venue in Liangshan (凉山), Sichuan province. We first see the dance ‘fire of celebration’, followed by a song titled “Deep Feelings, Long Friendship” (情深谊长). The Chinese singer performing here is named Jike Junyi or simply ‘Summer’. She is a 28-year-old singer who was born and raised in Liangshan. She is wearing traditional Yizu (彝族) minority clothing and sings about the Long March.

Summer’s performance is followed by a catchy tune by singers Li Keqin and Cai Zuoyan, who sing with some Sichuanese touch to it. The fire torches in the background are also an Yi minority tradition.

27/01 14:11
Crosstalk

We’re back in Beijing for this crosstalk (相声) scene by Gao Xiaopan and You Xiancha (高晓攀、尤宪超). Different from the other sketches (小品), crosstalk usually involves two actors with one being the “joker” and the other being the “teaser”.

Other than the other sketches, crosstalk is about word jokes and playing with rhythm and language. This particular scene is about two men looking back on their childhood, and the nostalgic things about being brought up by their grandmother. This scene, that represents some sort of collective memory, will be especially appealing to China’s post-1980s generations who were often raised by their grandparents. Apart from national unity and traditional culture, family affection is one of this year’s themes for the Spring Festival Gala. It touches a sensitive nerve for many, as it makes them think back of their own grandmother.

27/01 14:17
Wow, Li Yanchao

The next performance is a pretty stunning underwater-kind-of-scene with Chinese dancer Li Yanchao (李艳超) stealing the show. The female host says: “Let’s express the hope that in the new year, there will be more patches of grass under our feet, and more blue sky above our head.”

27/01 14:32
The Match-Making Show

This funny sketch imitates one of China’s most popular dating shows If You Are The One 非诚勿扰. They get succesfully matched, but then it turns out that they are actually a divorced couple. This is the 3rd of a total of 6 comical sketches that will be performed tonight.

The main conflict of this sketch is that the woman wants her husband’s attention, while he thinks making money is more important than being his wife’s side – a common conflict in middle-aged families in China today. Since tonight’s theme is family affection, the sketch ofcourse has a happy end with both husband and wife expressing their love for each other.

27/01 14:31
Is this show really live?

Is this really live? Yes it is. But although the Gala is a live broadcast from CCTV’s No.1 Studio, and its other venues across China, every year’s show has a taped version of the full dress rehearsal. The tape of the official rehearsal runs together with the live broadcast, so that in the event of a problem or disruption, the producers can seamlessly switch to the taped version without TV audiences noticing anything.

27/01 19:53
Two stars, different generations

Here are are teen idol Jason Zhang (张杰) and Mao Amin, one of China’s most famous and female pop stars of the mid-1990s. You might notice that Mao Amin’s voice is much firmer and fuller than Zhang Jie’s. In Mao Amin’s generation, most singer got popular because of their skills, not for their looks..

The set of this song is so extravagant and spectacular, that some netizens think that this year’s CCTV gala director, Yang Dongsheng, must be a big fan of Avatar the Movie.

27/01 14:48
Here’s Guilin!

We’re now moving from Beijing to Guilin in Guangxi. The event is performed near Guilin’s famous Elephant Trunk Hill, where various Taiwan and Hongkong singers are invited to sing folk songs. The first song is a well-known traditional Chinese song: the Mountain Song from the famous Chinese movie Third Sister Liu 刘三姐. The scene here seems to include fragments of Zhang Yimou’s Impressions Liu San Jie show.

27/01 14:58
Nostalgia

This year’s CCTV Gala is looking back on previous years. This is the 35th year the Gala is broadcasted, and this edition started with a look back on top hits over the past three decades. This sketch also reflects on the past of the Gala, as the actors have previously performed a sketch here in 1987. Its message is that the society today is not the same as the society of 30 years ago. It reflects on how many people are bystanders, and that few people are helping each other out.

27/01 15:04
Heroes of the Red Army

Time to honour some communist heroes – a recurring part of the CCTV New Year Gala. One of the elderlies honored here is aged 104 was around 22 years old during the Long March.

27/01 15:11
Propaganda Platform?

The Communist and military songs of last year’s Gala annoyed many netizens, who thought the Gala was merely a propaganda platform rather than a variety show. But it is a recurring part in virtually every show.

27/01 15:16
Hashtag #CCTVGALA

On Weibo, the views and comments on the hashtag #CCTVGala (#春晚#) have by now exploded, with over 13 billion views and 52 million comments.

One popular post is that from a netizen who tells she was watching the Gala and the TFBoys with her grandma on an old TV set when her grandmother asked: “Is that boy on the left not feeling well?”

27/01 15:22
Family First

It is clear that family affection is one of this year’s main topics, as all sketches revolve around family relations. This sketch deals with the relationship between children and parents in law. Instead of talking about the well-known daughter and mother in law conflicts, it talks about the relations between son and father in law. Although the father does not like his son in law, the young man is really trying to help him either way.

27/01 15:28
90 Minutes to go!

There’s still 90 minutes to go before the New Year! Main themes of the night up to now: national unity (dancing minorities!) and family affection (marriage and family harmony!).

We have already seen Liangshan and Guilin subvenues, and will still see performances from the venues in Shanghai and Harbin in the coming 1,5 hours.

Meanwhile, Weibo netizens are wondering why the actress from a sketch earlier tonight, the renowned Cai Ming, was copying Elsa from Frozen.

27/01 15:35
Chinese Opera

This is a compilation of songs, such as “One Generation to Another” (薪火相传), by various Chinese Opera performers and troupes.

27/01 19:19
Look at China

This song titled “Look at the mountains, look at the water, look at China” (看山看水看中国) by Lu Jihong and Zhang Ye (吕继宏, 张也) is an ode to China’s different landscapes. It is accompanied by a clip that shows different places in China, from the nature in the south to the big cities in the north.

27/01 16:31
Minority Sketch

This sketch called “A Tianshan Situation” (天山情) focuses on the people of the mountainous area on the border between Xinjiang and Mongolia. The act is mostly spoken in north-eastern dialect, with a slight Shanghai dialect. The sketch is about a train track project in their region that has shocked the cows due the noise, affecting their milk production. When all goes well in the narrative, the Uyghur people finally thank the Chinese Han people for saving their life and everything they have done and for saving their lives – perhaps a somewhat controversial angle…

27/01 16:05
Switching to Harbin

One of today’s subvenues is Harbin, in northern province of Heilongjiang, home to the famous Harbin Ice World. The park has dozens of enormous buildings and sculptures completely made from ice. The city is currently about -20 celcius; perfect weather for acrobatics on ice!

27/01 16:09
These are the Champions

The National Martial Arts team has arrived to the stage. These are all China’s top martial art champions. More than 60 of them, both men and women, are performing together here tonight.

27/01 16:11
Public Announcement

Every year’s CCTV Gala has a “public advertisement” (公益广告) , a movie that is often emblematic of the morals or the guidelines the Party leadership wants to emphasize for the Chinese New Year. With an audience of 700 to 800 people, the show is the perfect propaganda platform.

27/01 19:35
Dancing Pineapples

Yes. We are now watching dancing pineapples and watermelons. Always when you think it cannot get worse, it always does – as many netizens say. This is a song that encourages people to do sports and eat healthy; one of this year’s themes is also to promote good (mental and physical) health.

27/01 19:17
Trusting people

In one the night’s last comical sketches called ‘Trust’ (信任), we see famous comedian Lin Yongjian in a narrative about trusting people. On New Year’s Eve, a taxi customer wants to go upstairs to pick something up – but the taxi driver is afraid they will walk off. The customer is also afraid the driver will drive off. It is during this sketch that Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui, one of the most popular social media figures of 2016, pops up for a short role. She performs some tongue twisting sentences in Anhui dialect.

27/01 16:39
Honouring the Astronauts

Time to honour 11 Chinese astronauts.

27/01 19:14
Here’s Jackie Chan! But what on earth is he doing?

In this song that is simply titled “Country” (国家), Jackie Chan steps out with students from Peking University to sing about his love for China (“I love my home”) while doing a dance that entails what looks like sign language. Perhaps not really what you would expect the “kungfu master” to do.

28/01 09:23
Shanghai Dream City

Now over to Shanghai for a song by Chinese singers Coco Lee and JJ Lin about “Dream City” Shanghai. We see a futuristic scene with motors going round in a big metal round set-up in front of the iconic Pearl Tower. It is one of the most spectacular scenes of the night, comparable to that of the dancing robots in 2016.

27/01 16:56
Almost time!

It is almost time for the 12 o’clock moment! Just before we will hear a song by singers Han Lei and Tan Weiwei with what looks like a somewhat cringeworthy company of farmers, migrant workers, hospital staff and soldiers to represent “all the Chinese people.”

27/01 17:01
HAPPY NEW YEAR!

The hosts of tonight’s Gala are wishing everybody a happy Chinese New Year. And of course we at What’s on Weibo are also wishing you a happy Year of the Rooster.

27/01 19:11
“Mother China”

Just immediately after the New Year countdown, here comes a song called “Mother China” (母亲是中华).

27/01 17:11
Interlude

A little interlude clip shows Chinese abroad singing about the “Chinese feeling” (中国心). The CCTV festival is watched by millions of Chinese within the PRC, but there is also a huge viewership outside of China.

27/01 17:19
The last sketch of the night stresses national unity

The last sketch of the night is a typically southern sketch, set during the peak of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. The story takes place in a community park, where the four protagonists have a misunderstanding. The narrative focuses on people’s good morals, and is full of Jiangsu and Zhejiang dialect.

This sketch, like the one of the “Tianshan Mountains” and the story of the Uighur herdsmen, again shows the theme of national unity.

27/01 18:16
More Family Love

“Leave the Grasslands” (离别草原) is sung by famous singer Yun Fei and the female singer Yun Duo. It is followed by another short film that stresses family affinity.

27/01 17:34
“Stop!”

In one of the last acts of the night with a foreign acrobat, the hosts speak some very clearly pronounced English sentences: “Here are the flowers!” and “Stop!” In a game where a Chinese and a foreign acrobat compete to collect as many flowers within 60 seconds, the Chinese woman wins with 16 flowers versus 15 of the foreign acrobat.

27/01 19:13
Dancing Troupe

Chinese singer Wu Tong sings the song “Deep Feelings” (一片深情) accompanied by a group of male dancers.

27/01 17:48
Unforgettable Night

The last songs of this night are “Magnificent Journey” (壮丽航程, by Yan Weiwen and Yin Xiumei) and “Unforgettable Night” (难忘今宵). The latter is sung by the 72-year-old singer and dancer Li Guyi and the 64-year-old mezzo-soprano singer Guan Mucun. Li Guyi sings the same song every year at the end of this show.

During these songs, the screen behind the dancers show images of the G20, new glass bridges, windmills, and all kinds of big projects that have been established or organized in China over the past year.

The last song ends with all performers of the Beijing venue on stage. The hosts wish everyone a happy newyear. “See you next year!”, they say.

27/01 19:10
Trending after the Gala: “Brother Smile”

Directly after the ending of the CCTV Gala, many Weibo netizens are talking about one person in the audience as observant viewers have spotted the very same man in the audience of the CCTV Gala every year since 1999. The man, who is now nicknamed ‘CCTV Gala Brother Smile’ (#春晚笑脸哥#), was again spotted in the audience tonight.

The man has gone viral over Chinese social media now. Many netizens are extremely curious about the man, wondering how he came to sit from the back of the audience to the front crowd throughout the years. Some also compliment him for not having changed much over the past 18 years.

27/01 18:13
That’s a Wrap!

This liveblog will be closing now. We hope you enjoyed the night!

– By Manya Koetse
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Sources on Chunwan

Kang, Liu. 2010. “Searching for a New Cultural Identity: China’s soft power and media culture today.” In Suijian Guo and Baogang Guo (eds), Thirty Years of China-U.S. Relations: Analytical Approaches and Contemporary Issues, 197-253. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Scocca, Tom. 2011. Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future. New York: Riverhead Books.

Wang Ge. 2015. “Popular Spring Festival Gala language: Sociocultural Observations.” In Linda Tsung and Wei Wang, Contemporary Chinese Discourse and Social Practice in China, 185-200. Amsterdam/Philadelpia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Ying Zhu. 2012. Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. New York: The New Press.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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    André Schappo

    January 28, 2017 at 1:18 am

    Actually, 难忘今宵 is growing on me and it is only the second year I have watched the CCTV New Year’s Gala????

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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?

Manya Koetse

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on

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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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Movie “Sister” Stirs Discussions on Traditional Family Values in China

The movie ‘Sister’ has sparked online discussions on whether or not personal values should be prioritized over traditional family values.

Manya Koetse

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Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.

After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.

My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?

Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.

The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”

Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?

Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.

“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”

Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”

Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?

“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”

These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.

“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”

“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”

“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”

One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”

Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.

By Manya Koetse

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