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China Arts & Entertainment

Luo Tianyi and the Booming Virtual Idol Market in China

The virtual entertainment market is exploding in China.

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They are featured on China’s biggest TV shows and on the covers of fashion magazines: they’re virtual idols yet their success is very real.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

At the Spring Festival Gala of 2021, the Chinese state media’s annual televised event that only invites the country’s top-notch performers, the virtual idol Luo Tianyi (洛天依) made a guest appearance.

It was a big media moment that showed the growing importance of virtual superstars in Chinese pop culture. Luo’s performance was even announced on the show’s promo posters, making this the first time ever for a virtual star to be on the show like this.

Virtual celebrities such as Luo Tianyi are also called ‘vsingers’ and often have an enormous fanbase. What is the story behind Luo Tianyi and the boom of virtual superstars in China, leading to the remarkable appearance of a non-human celebrity in the country’s biggest mainstream TV show?

 
Luo Tianyi: The First Chinese Vsinger
 

Although it was the first time for Luo Tianyi to appear at the Spring Festival Gala, it was not her first big performance. The superstar previously showed up as holograph live at big events such as the Bilibili night, and in 2019 she shared a stage with renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

Promotional poster for the Luo Tianyi and Lang Lang concert.

Such a performance does not come easy. It takes months to design the looks and the moves. The holographic appearance of Luo Tianyi and the spectacular two-hour show took around six months of preparation by around 200 professionals involved in the production of Luo Tianyi.

Luo Tianyi is a so-called ‘vocaloid’ singer – a Mandarin Chinese language virtual character that was originally featured in the voice synthesizer software called VOCALOID developed by Yamaha, using third parties to create the characters. Vocaloid is a commercial product (released in 2004) with the purpose of enabling users to get a singer for lyrics and melodies without needing to hire an actual human singer.

The Shanghai Henian company collaborated with Tokyo-based Bplats in developing Luo Tianyi. The character was based on the winner of a contest that was organized in support of creating the first Chinese Vocaloid. The real-life singer whose voice was used for the creation of Tianyi is Chinese singer Shan Xin (山新).

Luo Tianyi was officially launched in 2012 as a 15-year-old entertainer and vsinger. By now, she has around five million followers on her Weibo account (@Vsinger_洛天依) where she posts about her performances, with thousands of people liking and sharing these posts.

 
Virtual Idol Boom: From Japan to China
 

According to Chinese state media outlet Global Times, 2020 was the year that virtual idols really took off in China, going hand in hand with the growing popularity of livestreaming.

Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili has contributed to the growing success of virtual idols in China. Bilibili is a homebase for many fan communities in China, since it is mainly themed around animation, comic, and games (ACG). It is one of the earliest platforms in China to broadcast virtual idol concerts, and in 2020 it held China’s first concert consisting solely of virtual performers under the title ‘BML-VR 2020’ (link).

The Bilibili concert featured a performance by various virtual entertainers, including the popular Hiseki Erio. Hiseki Erio is not Chinese, but Japanese. So is Hatsune Miki, one of the most famous virtual idols ever.

You could say Japan is the birthplace of virtual idols – a history that goes back to 1996 when Kyoko Date, also known as DK-96 or ‘Digital Kid 1996,’ made her debut as the first virtual talent.

Virtual idols come in various shapes, forms, and subgenres, and they all have their different background stories. Hatsune Miki was released in 2007 as the embodiment of the Vocolaid software developed by Crypton Future, and then there are the popular virtual Youtubers, ‘vtubers’, with virtual talent agencies such as Hololive also thriving in Japan.

The term ‘virtual Youtuber’ came with the arrival of Kizuna AI, who posted her first introduction Youtube video in late 2016. Kizuna, who later became a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization, is still considered one of the most popular vtubers on earth.

With the great popularity of Japanese manga and anime on the Chinese market, Japanese virtual idols also gained a strong foothold in the People’s Republic since around 2017. Hatsune Miki alone already has over 3,4 million fans on Weibo (@初音未来CryptonFutureMedia).

Virtual idols are increasingly popular in China, where Chinese virtual stars are springing up (Luo Tianyi, Ling, Xing Tong, Yousa).

The virtual entertainment market is now exploding in China, where the online ACG culture is flourishing on Bilibili and beyond.

Since Japanese popular culture products began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. As a counter-reaction, there has been stronger promotion of the production of made-in-China animations and other ACG products.

While China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is now also a wave of new China-born virtual stars, such as the Bilibili idol Yousa (冷鸢), or Xing Tong (星瞳), a virtual idol from Tencent. Chinese gaming company Papergames made the virtual character Nuan Nuan (暖暖) to also live outside of the gaming world; she is now a singer, a stylist, and a popular fashion ambassador.

Ling (right) featured on the cover of Vogue Me.

There is also Ling (翎), the Chinese virtual influencer who loves Peking opera, tea culture, and calligraphy. Ling, who was created by Next Generation studio and Shanghai AI startup Xmov, appeared on the CCTV show Bravo Youngsters (上线吧华彩少年) and was featured on the cover of Vogue Me in February 2021 alongside actual real-life celebrities.

Chinese virtual influencer Ling.

The number of Chinese virtual celebrities is expected to grow along with the growing market. In October of 2020, the Chinese variety show Dimension Nova (跨次元新星) first aired as a talent show scouting new virtual talent.

 
Virtual Commercials and Controversies
 

The growing influence of the virtual entertainment economy and culture in China is becoming more and more noticeable in pop music, commercial culture, and even in the sphere of politics.

Virtual celebrities are so popular that brands are also jumping in on this craze by hiring them as brand ambassadors or by creating their own cyber stars. Tencent’s Xing Tong, for example, modeled for Levi’s and sportswear brand Li Ning. Nuan Nuan, among others, was featured in a commercial for hair care brand LUX. Luo Tianyi appeared in campaigns for Huawei, Pizza Hut and KFC.

In January of 2021, McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador. They are not the only one: there are over thirty companies in China now using a virtual brand ambassador. The new McDonald’s idol was welcomed by Weibo users, where the news of her launch received 200 million views.

McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador.

The virtual idol influence also became apparent when Japanese ‘Hololive’ virtual celebrities Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco recently got caught up in a diplomatic row because they referred to Taiwan as a “country” when discussing their YouTube channel analytics during a livestream, leading to controversy among their Chinese fanbase.

In a statement published on Bilibili by Cover (the Japanese company behind the Hololive talent agency that the virtual celebrities in question were under), the agency apologized for what had happened. Nevertheless, both virtual stars involved in the controversy were banned from Bilibili and eventually the entire Chinese Hololive branch was shut down.

This example shows that although virtual idols are generally regarded as a safe option for brands and companies because, unlike real celebrities, they are not likely to get caught up in scandals, it is still possible for them to spark controversy.

Nevertheless, the future looks bright for virtual stars in China with still an enormous market for Luo Tianyi and others to conquer, with plenty of room for growth. From concerts to fashion shows to live streaming channels, from Weibo to Bilibili and beyond, we are bound to see virtual stars increasingly become a part of everyday life in China.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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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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

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©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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