Involution: China’s Hyper-Competitive Education System

Written by: Wenzhe Teng

Involution, or “Nei Juan ” in Chinese, is one of the most discussed terms in 2020 China, commonly referred to by both citizens and the state media. To better understand the term, imagine you are in a movie theater, and suddenly, people in the front row stand up. In order to view the projection screen and see the movie, you must stand up as well. Consequently, the audience behind you has to stand. In the end, everyone in the theater is standing, still enjoying the movie, but everyone is exhausted. In this example, people are investing more effort into an activity and receive the same results as they did without the extra effort. If you do not expend more energy and continue to sit down, you will be the only one who can not see the movie. This is a representation of involution.

Involution captures the essence of urban China’s education system. Involved students spend overwhelming amounts of time on school work, and the best among them earn the title “Master of Problem Solving”. Some students reject the involution by “laying flat” because they disapprove of the intense competition. When learning about involution and its implications, one can get a deeper understanding of China’s hyper-competitive capitalist society. 

Involution was a term first coined by Anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Over the centuries before the industrial revolution, overpopulated peasants overworked their land for little additional gain in Java Island, Indonesia. Although peasants invested a significant amount of time and energy, creating very sophisticated rice terraces, the field could only produce a few more grains and support a few more residents due to its finite potential. In economic terms, the marginal cost put into the production was much higher than the marginal profit, and such investment was a waste. According to Geertz, Indonesian peasants’ habit of overworking is an example of involution, as the intensification of agricultural activity never led to a real “evolution”in technology or production method. 

Over time, involution was adopted to describe societal phenomena and was eventually applied in the context of 21st century China. China’s rapid economic growth slows down and fewer opportunities are available for aspiring students and graduates, whose number continues to grow. 

People spend more energy on their schoolwork, competing against one another to enter a good university or get a well-paying job. Specifically, there is an intense amount of preparation put towards the Gaokao, China’s equivalent of the SAT in the U.S. In Hengshui high school, students followed a rigid schedule: wake up at 5:30 a.m., morning jog at 5:45, reading session at 6, attending lectures from 7:45 to 10:05, after the 25-minutes break, more lectures until 12, 2 hours for lunch and nap, then class from 2 to 6 p.m., evening self-study session from 7:15 to 9:55, and sleep at 10:15. Weekends are reserved for tests and there is one day off every three weeks. Consequently, Hengshui high school is nicknamed the “Gaokao Factory”, or “Gaokao Prison” due to its fenced windows and ladders used to avoid suicide. 

Despite its notoriety, Hengshui has gained prominence in the past decade, and opened up at least 20 branches capitalizing on the invigorating schooling culture. Students’ diligence does prove to yield results: in 2020, Hengshui had 67 students going to China’s top two universities, twice as many as all other high schools in the populated Hebei Province combined. Over the decade, around 2000, or 90 percent of all Hengshui graduates, went to China’s level-one universities.  

This prompts the mindset that if you can overcome the hardship, you will come out on top. Most ambitious students and their parents alike favor Hengshui. Additionally, some students are not satisfied with their Gaokao results and decide to take the exam again the following year. Hengshui’s 2020 class has at least six hundred students staying one more year for a better score.    

Studying in Hengshui is like building a sophisticated rice terrace on Java island. One will get a better score, but it does not equate to the effort one puts into studying. Gaokao is known for punishing questions as students practice only to solve problems, not acquire additional knowledge. In Chinese, Jia means master. The scientist is called Kexue Jia, which literally means master of science, and the writer is called Zuo Jia, master of writing. These students sarcastically called themselves Zuoti Jia, “master of problem-solving”, for all they train for and learn is solving Gaokao problems.

Despite the overworked peasants, Java island can only support a fixed population level without the introduction of new technology. Similarly, hardworking students are not producing new opportunities. China’s universities will not suddenly accept a million more students due to students’ universally high grades. Trapped in a dead-end pursuit, involution does not help society to progress.

Even worse, involution contributes to the formation of a hyper-competitive educational system. Overworked students keep getting better grades and a greater number of them enter elite universities. Gaokao also recalibrates itself by becoming increasingly challenging each year. Questions are designed to be more obscure and demanding, so the marginal benefits of the mass practice become even less. Consequently, regular students’ chances are reduced. In order to get an equal chance, they are forced to compete on the same level as the overworked students. Everyone participates in involution and becomes a “master of problem-solving”, while the opportunity remains unchanged. Students who rejected involution are not able to overcome the increasingly difficult test and fierce competition, so they settle with low grades and less promising schools. They “lay flat” and get metaphorically “stomped” by their peers running morning jog. No matter what you do, you will be either exhausted or underachieving and underperforming.

Beyond Gaokao, involution spread into other levels of Chinese education. Middle schools and primary schools have developed rigid schedules for students so they can get into a good school, eventually leading to good scores in Gaokao. Many can not escape involution even after they graduate college because graduate school and civil service membership are also determined by standardized tests. In 2019, 1.4 million people took the Guokao, China’s civil service entrance exam. After each test, only one of 60 test-takers will become a low-level civil servant, while the rest give up or wait for the next chance. 

The fervor of completion produces twisted economic incentives. The private-owned Hengshui high school is not the only prospering business. The tutoring industry is a hundred billion dollar industry, with 13 listed companies in America’s stock market and 23 in Hong Kong’s. An astounding 75 percent of all Chinese students attend tutoring after school, as millions of families contribute to feeding the tutoring industry. It is commonly thought that if you do not overwork yourself and do not pay for tutoring, you will fail in the competition against your hardworking peers and their professional tutors. The tutoring business provides the biggest competitive advantage within this involuted education system. 

Although involution is harmful to Chinese society in many ways and physically, mentally, and financially draining to young people and their family, it does present one positive aspect of Chinese society. China’s class stratification is not complete, and there is room for social mobility as every citizen can, potentially, attend university or enter the civil service. Tuition in Hengshui and tutoring is costly, but the middle class and many working-class can still afford these services for one or two children. If you have a high score on Gaokao, you can choose schools freely, as college tuition in China is very cheap, far lower than its U.S. public school counterparts. Although it imposes a terrible burden on Chinese students, involution has not disbarred China’s social mobility. 

Besides the education system, involution also gains a foothold in China’s labor markets. Jobs with an abundant labor supply require overworking workers. Computer engineers and many others have a so-called “996” schedule, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Rather than seeking promotion, workers follow 996 to avoid being fired. The logic of involution applies here too: If other workers work 996, the worker who only works eight hours a day will be viewed as lazy and disloyal to the company’s development. 

In recent years, the Chinese government has started to pay attention to the involution phenomenon. In August 2021, the government banned tutoring for high school and younger students. Furthermore, China’s supreme court ruled 996 schedules as a violation of China’s labor law. 

Nonetheless, the policies against involution were not as effective as expected. Chinese parents complained about the tutoring ban, citing the rich’s access to private tutoring. 996 and similar overtime schedules continue to dominate Chinese industries. As long as someone else overworks to get an advantage in the competition, everyone else has to follow.

Involution will take more radical steps to eliminate. It is an expression of social-Darwinian capitalism, in which everyone competes to death for limited resources. And it is a remnant of China’s backward tradition of Keju, the civil service exam traced back to the seventh century Tang dynasty, a system judging people based on grade and nothing else.