Sunday 12 February 2023

内卷 (10. 544)

Via Clive Thompson’s latest Linkfest (much more to see there), we are directed to an essay by rëşt ôf wŏrld contributor Yi-Ling Liu on the Chinese terms for burnout and the relentless push to get ahead—or just barely tread water with an assortment of phrases, some familiar and some novel—and how some of those buzzwords have inverted and signal despair rather than aspiration. We’d add the corollary shàng àn (making it ashore—getting a stable government position) to “jumping into the sea” and we’ve heard of the minor revolts of lying flat or letting it rot (with their analogues in the West quiet quitting, work-to-rule, Sciopero Bianco or generally a slowdown action) but the title term neijuan or “involution” was new to us as well. A loanword from an outdated treatise—which may have been a bit of political sublimation and apologetic for colonialism—that conjectures that agrarian societies, pointedly rice-growing ones, fail in achieving technological or political change because of intensive farming and increased pressures, externally and internally, to maintain this high yield with class structures meant to re-enforce that quota. Its original sense has been incrementally extended as a critique of income disparity—number two in the number of billionaires but also home to six hundred million others who subsist off less than $150 per month and of an exhaustive and overly-competitive work culture. The pictured, harried student of Tsing Hua University balancing his laptop on the handle bars of his bicycle has been adopted by the ‘Involuted Generation’ as their king.