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China’s Top TV Dramas to Watch This Winter 2017/2018

China’s top television dramas to binge on this winter – by What’s on Weibo.

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From historical dramas to military series – a list of the latest, most-watched television dramas in China shows that Chinese television dramas are not just hot & happening – they are also diverse when it comes to themes and genres.

It has been over 27 years since China’s first television drama aired and caused a national craze. Although China’s media industry has greatly changed through the times, one thing has remained the same: Chinese TV viewers still love watching television dramas – a dominant form of media entertainment. In fact, the Chinese TV drama industry is booming and among the most vibrant in the world, with no signs of slowing down.

As the days are getting colder and darker, it is time to curl up on the couch to do some tv drama (binge) watching. China has seen a myriad of new television dramas this year, with some of the more popular ones airing this winter.

This is a top 10 of most popular new dramas according to Weibo’s charts and the Sohu hot charts at the time of writing. We have added various links on where to watch these series, but they might change overtime – please post relevant links in the comment section below.

Some dramas are only licensed for certain regions. For those who wish to switch between regions on their desktop or mobile, you can use a VPN. Our friends at NordVPN offer excellent services (check out here).

From the Game of Hunting (l) and The Legendary Tycoon.

For weekly updates on the top online ratings of Chinese television series, check out Cdramabase.com, an excellent website run by Alice Craciun providing insights into the world of Chinese drama.

#10. Peacekeeping Infantry Battalion #维和步兵营#

Genre: Military drama
Release date: October 10, 2017 (35 episodes)
Network: Jiangsu TV
Directed by: Ning Haiqiang (宁海强), Yi Xiang (翌翔)

‘Peacekeeping Infantry Battalion’ is a different military drama than the mainstream series within this genre; it is not focused on Sino-Japanese War, but on modern-day conflicts. This drama has received much praise from Chinese experts.

Its airing comes at a time when China’s role in UN peacekeeping is becoming increasingly crucial, not just as a contributor of troops, but also as a financial provider. The drama, attracting large audiences across China, plays an important role in the current shaping of the image of China’s peacekeeping troops.

The drama was co-directed by director Ning Haiqiang, who is also known for multiple military productions such as The Hundred Regiments Offensive (百团大战), and aims to show how Chinese peacekeeping forces are selected, trained, and go abroad. The drama mainly focuses on the tumultuous story of people in the Peacekeeping Infantry Battalion, who are risking their own lives to evacuate citizens from Libya during a dangerous mission. And, of course, it would not be a proper Chinese drama without some romance amidst all the military developments.

To check out the drama (in Chinese) see this YouTube channel.

Starring: Du Chen (杜淳), Jia Qing (贾青), Xu Honghao (徐洪浩), He Da (何达), Liu Runnan (刘润南), Shen Hao (沈浩).

#9. Detective Dee #通天狄仁杰#

Genre: Costume drama, detective
Release date: August 21 2017 (46 episodes)
Network: Beijing TV, Anhui TV
Directed by: Xie Zhaoyi (叶昭仪)

This is a large-scale costume drama that was already produced back in 2014. It focuses on the main character Di Renjie, which is played by actor Ren Jialun, who also starred in the drama Noble Aspirations (青云志).

Drama blog DramaPanda describes Detective Dee as a “Chinese equivalent to Sherlock Holmes” who actually lived during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (624-705). He’s become a widely fictionalized character.

The drama shows the trials and tribulations of Di Renjie, as he is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit and then discovers he has special talents for solving cases.

Watch it on CCAsian here.

Starring: Ren Jialun (任嘉伦, also known as Allen Ren), Kan Qingzi (阚清子), Jiao Junyan (焦俊艳), Chen Yi (陈奕), Miao Junjie (缪俊杰).

#8. Green Love 青恋

Genre: Romance, family, rural
Release date: October 18, 2017 (26 episodes)
Network: CCTV-1, Zhejiang TV (where it started airing October 31st)
Directed by: Ma Jin (马进)

‘Green Love’ (Qinglian) is the only tv drama in this list that is themed around rural life in China – although it is about urban youth at the same time. It tells the story of the 28-year-old man Lin Shen (starring Guo Jingfei) who returns to his hometown of Yunshe village after establishing his own company in Shanghai.

As described by Cdramabase, he is not the only one turning to this village after building on a career in the big city. Investor Chen Ling (by Che Xiao) wants to escape the busy city and visits Lin Shen’s village, where she learns to appreciate Chinese village life.

Starring: Guo Jingfei (郭京飞), Che Xiao (车晓), Una You (尤靖茹).

#7. The Legendary Tycoon #传奇大亨#

Genre: Period drama
Release date: October 9, 2017
Network: Zhejiang TV, Tencent, iQiYi, Youku
Directed by: Zhuang Xunxin (庄训鑫)

With 110 million views on Weibo #传奇大亨#, this is a popular Chinese drama and a quite original one because it is based on a real-life story.

This drama takes place in Shanghai during the 1930s, when the brothers of the ‘Gu family’ join the movie industry. Gu Yanmei, played by actor Zhang Han, is the youngest brother, who follows his older brother Gu Ruoxia to Singapore to start their own film business there. When war breaks out, the brothers decide to move their film production base to Hong Kong – the start of a tumultuous and flourishing career.

The Legendary Tycoon is based on the story of the Shaw Brothers, of whom the youngest, Run Shaw, passed away in 2014, at the age of 107 (Find a short history of the Shaw Brothers & Chinese cinema here).

See the first episode of this drama here (in Chinese), or through Viki with English subtitles here.

Starring: Zhang Han (张翰), Jia Qing (贾青), Chen Qiao’en (陈乔恩), Song Yi (宋轶) Tan Kai (谭凯), Liu Changde (刘长德) Guo Ziqian (郭子千) Yao Zhuojun (姚卓君) Sun Wei (孙玮).

#6. Xuan Yuan Sword: Legend of the Han Clouds #轩辕剑之汉之云#

Genre: Fantasy, sci-fi, costume
Release date: August 8 2017 (58 episodes)
Network: Dragon TV
Directed by: Pan Wenjie (潘文杰), Jin Sha (金沙)

‘Xuan Yuan Sword: Legend of the Han Clouds’ is set during a fantasy era and revolves around three opposing kingdoms and the heroic accomplishments of the young protagonists. That these kinds of fantasy spectacles are still very popular amongst netizens can be viewed on this drama’s Weibo hashtag page, which had received 2,2 billion views by the time of writing.

The show can be viewed with English subs on Youtube here or through Viki.

Starring: Zhang Yunlong (张云龙), Yu Menglong (于朦胧), Guan Xiaotong (关晓彤), Zhang Jiazhu (张佳宁).

#5. My! Physical Education Teacher #我的!体育老师#

Genre: Romance, comedy
Release date: 11 November 2017 (38 episodes)
Network: Hunan TV
Directed by: Lin Yan (林妍)

The pretty Wang Xiaomi had always dreamed of being treated like a princess by her future husband. The much older Mark (Zhang Jiayi), who is facing a mid-life crisis, is her ideal candidate. But dealing with her new stepdaughter and restless husband is not the pampered life Wang had hoped for.

The drama comically features the generational differences between those born in the post-70s, post-80s, post-90s, and those born after 2000.

The drama can be watched online through CCAsian here.

Starring: Zhang Jiayi (张嘉译), Wang Xiaochen (王晓晨), Wang Weiwei (王维维), Zhang Zijian (张子健), Zhao Jinmai (赵今麦)

#4. Ordinary Person #凡人的品格#

Genre: Urban drama, workplace
Release date: October 28, (45 episodes)
Alternative title: Ordinary Person Character
Network: Jiangsu TV, Zhejiang TV
Directed by: Xu Zongzheng (徐宗政)

This drama’s narrative follows the story of several people who work together at a media company. While war reporter-turned-producer Zhan Dapeng (played by Lin Yongjian) is facing a crisis both in his working and personal life, the pretty industry newbie Chang Ge (Jiang Xin) is an admirer of Zhan. The two encounter many challenges while working on a new program together – they’re both partners and enemies at the same time.

Check it out (in Chinese) on Youtube here.

Starring: Lin Yongjian (林永健), Jiang Xin (蒋欣), Tong Lei (童蕾), Liang Zhenlun (梁振伦), Bai Zhidi (白志迪).

#3. The Endless Love #路从今夜白#

Genre: Romance
Release date: 11 November 2017 (32 episodes)
Alternative title: The Journey from Tonight is White
Network: Hunan TV, Mango TV
Directed by: Gu Yunyun (顾贇贇)

This drama, that is based on a novel by Mo Wu Bi Ge, revolves around the love story of the talented painter Gu Yebai (played by Chen Ruoxuan) and the amiable Lu Youyan (An Yuexi). When Gu is getting ready to prepare for a major art competition, psychological problems are challenging his journey. A new love blossoms when Lu Youyan helps him overcome his problems, but their relationship faces more obstacles as the drama unfolds.

This drama can be watched through Viki.com with subtitles (if it is licensed for your region).

Starring: Chen Ruoxuan (陈若轩), An Yuexi (安悦溪), Wei Miles (魏哲鸣), Luo Yutong (罗玉通), Clinton Kuang (匡牧野).

#2. ER Doctors ##急诊科医生##

Genre: Hospital drama
Release date: October 30, 2017 (43 episodes)
Network: Dragon TV, Beijing TV
Directed by: Zheng Xiaolong (郑晓龙), Liu Xuesong (刘雪松)

The television drama ‘ER Doctors’ (#急诊科医生#) is not just one of the highest-ranking tv dramas this winter, but also one of the most viewed and discussed topics on Weibo.

ER Doctors is a realistic drama that centers around a group of doctors at a hospital’s emergency department.

It tells the story of the ER room head doctor of the emergency department He Jian Yi (Zhang Jiayi) and the new Ph.D. advisor, who just returned from America, Jiang Xiaoqi (by Wang Luodan). At first, these two are wary of each other, but they come to understand each other and rescue not only patients side by side but also themselves in the end (Cdramabase).

According to Shanghai Daily, director Zheng attached great importance to the details in every scene, which is why he visited a Shanghai hospital with the drama’s cast to learn basic ER training.

Starring: Zhang Jiayi (张嘉译), Wang Luodan (王珞丹), Jiang Shan (江珊)

#1. Game of Hunting #猎场#

Genre: Romance, workplace
Release date: November 6, 2017 (52 episodes)
Alternative title: Hunting Ground
Network: Hunan TV, Youku, LeTv and more.
Directed by: Jiang Wei (姜伟) (also screenplay)

The Game of Hunting is the absolute number 1 of this list, currently topping the top lists of most popular dramas on Weibo and Sogu, and receiving a 9.0 rating from viewers.

The drama’s narrative revolves around headhunter Zheng Qiudong (played by Hu Ge) as he struggles to climb up in the financial world – a “hunting ground” full of enemies and immoral characters. When his business falls apart, he has to start anew with the help of this new alliances.

The show is heavily sponsored by One Plus (一加手机), one of China’s most popular domestic smartphone brands.

Game of Hunting can be watched online through multiple channels, including YouTube.

Starring: Hu Ge 胡歌, Chen Long 陈龙, Sun Honglei 孙红雷, Zhang Jiayi 张嘉译, Zu Feng 祖峰.

Want to know more? Also see
Top 5 Chinese TV Dramas of Summer 2017
Top 10 Chinese Television Dramas Early 2017
Top 10 TV dramas in China 2016

By Manya Koetse

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

©2017 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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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Linda Carr

    May 24, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    The Endless love is just a lovely series that I love to watch. In the beginning, I was just thinking that Chinese just rely on K-dramas and their shows are not as good as Koreans but now, I can understand they have a good drama industry. I am also watching some Chinese dramas here ( http://drama3sonline.com/ ).

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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
Follow @whatsonweibo

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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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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