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Top 10 of Popular Chinese Podcasts of 2019 (by What’s on Weibo)

What are Chinese podcast app users listening to? An overview.

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As the podcasting industry only seems to become more thriving around the world, What’s on Weibo tunes into China’s podcast market and selects ten of the most popular Chinese podcasts for you.

Ever since it first made its entrance into the entertainment industry, the podcast – a term coined in 2004 – has kept growing in listenership in most Western countries.

The same holds true for China, where podcasts are mainly concentrated on a couple of bigger online audio streaming platforms.

What are the most ear-catching podcast streaming services in China now? While various podcast apps have been competing with each other to attract users with their trending content, Ximalaya is one of the most popular ones as it offers the widest range of content of all major podcast apps in China. The app was first launched in 2013, and has been a top-scoring app ever since.

In terms of popularity, Ximalaya (喜马拉雅) is closely followed by DragonflyFM (蜻蜓FM), LycheeFM(荔枝FM), and a series of other podcast platforms with each implementing different business models.

How do we know what’s trending on these podcast apps? Based on user clicks and other metrics, Ximalaya has its own ranking lists of popular podcasts for five major categories: classics, audiobooks,crosstalk & storytelling, news, music, and entertainment.

DragonflyFM (蜻蜓FM) and other podcast apps also have their own rankings for even more narrowly defined categories, although these rankings often feature the same ‘most popular’ podcasts as Ximalaya and other apps.

To give you an impression and an overview of the kind of podcasts that are currently most popular in China, we have made a selection of trending podcasts across various audio apps, with some notes that might be useful for those tuning into these podcasts as learners of Mandarin (all of these popular podcasts use Mandarin).

Please note that this is not an ‘official’ top 10 list, but one that is compiled by What’s on Weibo based on various popular ranking lists in different categories. Guo Degang’s crosstalk and storytelling podcast, for instance, is ranked as a number one popular podcast on both Ximalaya and Dragonfly FM, which is why it comes in highest in our list, too.

What’s on Weibo is independent and is not affiliated with any of these audio platforms or podcasts.

 

#1 Guo Degang: Crosstalk Collection of 21 Years (郭德纲21年相声精选)

Link to podcast

Category: Crosstalk & Storytelling

Duration: 20-90 min/episode

About:

Guo Degang (郭德纲, Guō Dégāng) is one of the most successful crosstalk comedians in China. In 1995, he founded his own crosstalk society, Deyun Society (德云社, Dé Yún Shè), which aims to “bring crosstalk back to traditional theaters.” Guo Degang has succeeded in making the general public pay more attention to crosstalk (相声, xiàngsheng), a traditional Chinese art performance that started in the Qing Dynasty. Like many other traditional Chinese arts, crosstalk performers are expected to have had a solid foundation that is often referred to as “kung fu” (功夫, Gōngfū) before they can perform onstage. Among the many collections attempted to gather Guo Degang’s crosstalk and storytelling performance, this podcast is probably the most comprehensive attempt thus far to gather Guo’s crosstalk and storytelling – it lists Guo’s best performances throughout his nearly three-decade career.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

This podcast contains a lot of word jokes, special idioms, and cultural and historical context, making it more suitable for advanced Mandarin learners. But beginners, don’t be discouraged! Get your feet wet with Guo’s sense of humor if you like a challenge. Accent Alert: you will hear the Tianjin accent in Guo’s performance, which is also encouraged by the crosstalk & storytelling art genre.

 

#2 King Fafa (发发大王)

Link to podcast

Category: Talkshow & Entertainment

Duration: 1 – 2 hr/episode

About:

This podcast provides a glimpse into Chinese society through the lens of ordinary people and their own stories. These stories range from a Chinese mother going through struggles to give birth to her child in the UK as an immigrant, to the love-and-hate relationship between Chinese youngsters and marriage brokers. Or how about Huawei employees’ personal anecdotes, or a self-made millionaire’s confession on his sudden realization of the true meaning of life? Looking beneath the surface of people’s lives with a compassionate and sometimes somewhat cynical attitude, the talk show podcast Fafa King has won over Chinese podcast listeners.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

Enrich your vocabulary and phrases bank with this daily-conversation based podcast. Suitable for medium-level Mandarin learners.
Accent Alert: you will hear mostly Beijinger accents from the two hosts.

 

#3 Chasing Tech, Teasing Arts (追科技撩艺术)

Link to podcast

Category: Technology & Art / Business podcas

Duration: 30 min -1 hr/episode

About:

This Doko.com podcast allows listeners to get new perspectives on technology, art, environmental protection, and business through the voice of aspiring Chinese youths from within China and abroad. Doko.com used to be a digital marketing agency but now describes itself as a “group of people passionate about the internet, a diverse, interesting and exciting place.”

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

Doko’s podcast features interviews between the host and guests on topics mainly relating to art and technology in a semi-formal setting. Listen to learn how to discuss these topics in Mandarin. Accent Alert: you will hear the host speaking Mandarin with a slight accent and guest speakers with various accents of their origin.

 

#4 Let Jenny Tell You (潘吉Jenny告诉你)

Full title: Let Jenny Tell You – Learn English and Talk about America (潘吉Jenny告诉你-学英语聊美国), Link to podcast

Category: Education

Duration: 10 – 20 min/episode

About:

Let Jenny Tell You is one of the most popular podcasts around for Chinese listeners to learn English. Hosted by Jenny and Adam, the podcast offers quite rich and unique content, discussing various topics often relating to Chinese culture and news, and of course, diving deeper into the English language.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

As a language learning podcast, this podcast is actually perfect for intermediate learners of Chinese; it works both ways for Chinese-English learners as well as for English speakers who are interested in learning Mandarin. Because Adam speaks English, you always know what the podcast is about. Accent Alert: Jenny (the host) speaks fairly standard Mandarin with minor accents.

 

#5 Stories Across the Globe (环球故事会)

Link to podcast

Category: Society & Culture

Duration: 20 min/episode (length differs on Podcasts App Store)

About:

A skillful narrator digs into stories behind the news, examining various topics involving cultures, history, politics, international relations. This podcast, by China’s state-owned international radio broadcaster, often comes up as a suggestion on various platforms, and also seems to be really popular because of its news-related stories.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

Well-paced speech with an intimate tone, this podcast is a good source for learning new vocabulary and improving your pronunciation if you are already an advanced learner of Mandarin. Accent Alert: the host speaks fairly standard Mandarin with a Beijing accent.

 

#6 Watching Dreams Station (看理想电台)

Link to podcast

Category: Interviews & Culture

Duration: 20 – 40 min/episode

About:

A fun and informative podcast with varied content coverage, this podcast has a refreshing tone and smooth transitions between narratives and (expert) interview footage. A great source to learn more about what Chinese ‘hipsters,’ often referred to as literary and arty youth (文青, wén qīng) care about with regular mentions of social media stories.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

This podcast has relatively slow-paced speech covering various topics, which helps to make you more familiar with new vocabulary and practice how to explain things in Mandarin. Accent Alert: you will hear hosts speak fairly standard Mandarin with minor accents.

 

#7 Black Water Park (黑水公园)

Link to podcast

Category: TV & Movies, Talkshow

Duration: 1 – 1.5 hr/episode

About:

Learn what’s commonly discussed among Chinese young adults about movies and TV shows through these entertaining conversations between the two good friends Ài Wén and Jīn Huā-er.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

Suitable for medium-to-advanced-level Mandarin learners; highly engaging conversations involving lots of slang and colloquial expressions.
Accent Alert: the hosts speak with recognizable Beijinger accents, so be prepared.

 

#8 The Sketch is Here (段子来了)

Link to podcast

Category: Comedy

Duration: 45 min/episode

About:

With 5.426 billion user clicks on Ximalaya, this podcast featuring funny sketches is super popular and has become a household name in China’s podcast market. It offers a taste of humor appreciated by many Chinese, which is very different from what you’d get from a podcast in the West within the same category.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

Great source to learn colloquial Mandarin and funny ice-breakers, but challenging as humor is intrinsically linked with inside jokes and word play. Accent Alert: the host has what’s considered a soothing voice and speaks fairly standard Mandarin.

 

#9 Ruixi’s Radio (蕊希电台)

Link to podcast

Category: Lifestyle & Bedtime

Duration: 10 min/episode

About:

One way to examine culture is to look at what people generally worry about the most. This podcast, that always starts with the soft voice of Ruixi (the host) asking listeners “Hey, are you ok today?”, focuses on a darker side of society and addresses the social and mental struggles that adults in China are facing. Ruixi’s Radio is one of those podcasts that enjoy equivalent popularity across several podcast platforms, which indicates strong branding. For many people, it’s a soothing podcast to listen just before bedtime.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

The slow-paced monologue using language easy to understand makes a great learning material for beginning learners. Accent Alert: Ruixi (the host) speaks fairly standard Mandarin with insignificant accents.

 

#10 Stories FM (故事FM)

Link to podcast

Category: Stories & Bedtime

Duration: 20 – 30 min/episode

About:

Described by the New York Times as a “rarity in a media landscape full of state propaganda and escapist entertainment,” Gushi FM was launched with the idea “Your story, your voice.” As one of China’s popular audio programs, Gushi FM features stories told by ordinary Chinese of various backgrounds.

Tips if you are a Mandarin learner:

As a collection of monologues that detail stories, describe emotions, and argue ideas, this podcast suits advanced level learners. Accent Alert: in every episode, guests with speaking and telling stories in their own local dialects.

Want to understand more about podcasts in China? We’d recommend this insightful article on the Niemanlab website.

Because there are many more popular Chinese podcasts we would like to share with you, this probably will not be our only list. A follow-up list will also contain other favorites such as Two IT Uncles (两个IT大叔), BBPark (日坛公园), and One Day World ( 一天世界).

Want to recommend another Chinese podcast? Please leave a comment below this article or tweet us at @whatsonweibo, leave a message on Instagram or reach out via Facebook.

By Jialing Xie, with contributions by Manya Koetse

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.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Jialing is a Baruch College Business School graduate and a former student at the Beijing University of Technology. She currently works in the US-China business development industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a passion for literature and humanity studies, Jialing aims to deepen the general understanding of developments in contemporary China.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. mamahuhu

    October 30, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    Just might be useful for the readers to know that Gushi FM has a wechat account that gives a scripted version of the podcast, really useful for mandarin learners.

  2. Zhang Li

    October 31, 2019 at 11:45 pm

    “Story” in the Story is a podcast on the People’s Daily News app. It is very popular.
    https://peoplesdaily.pdnews.cn/web/content/detail/newsf894f5268f6a468ca65638b1307ab1ad.html

  3. Adam

    April 19, 2020 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks for sharing, very useful for Chinese listening practice 🙂

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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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