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nèi juǎn | 内卷

Involution is a term popularized on Chinese social media beginning in 2020, describing a feeling of burnout and unhappiness felt by students and workers, blue and white collar alike. The term was explained by Yi-Ling Liu for The New Yorker as such:

The Chinese term for involution, neijuan, which is made up of the characters for “inside” and “rolling,” suggests a process that curls inward, ensnaring its participants within what the anthropologist Xiang Biao has described as an “endless cycle of self-flagellation.” Involution is “the experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless,” Biao told me. It is acceleration without a destination, progress without a purpose, Sisyphus spinning the wheels of a perpetual-motion Peloton.

Others have described involution as "the opposite of evolution," a process that "traps participants who know they won't benefit from it."

A combination of several social issues has led to the explosive popularity of the term. Many use it to describe China's increasingly competitive and cutthroat society, particularly for the growing middle class. Parents feel enormous pressure to get their children into the best schools and universities, while children feel ever increasing pressure to perform academically. Tech workers and white collar employees suffer from long hours and "996" work culture.

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