The History of Involution in China

Priyal Nahata


This article is two fold- it first discusses involution as a social phenomenon and norm in China and in the final part, the rise of the Lying Flat movement in resistance to it. It seeks to understand involution in China as an international norm and its unique trends and external influences impacting her historically and presently misplaced identity. This is achieved through tracing the norm diffusion and internalisation by state agents and foreign historic influence, in a narrative convoluted and certainly not progressive. With the actions of the Chinese state, one can understand how misplacement is so deeply internalised as a matter of routine and daily life but can be sought to be navigated through the counternorm of Laying Flat.

Involution as a Norm in China

Involution creates a state of inertia and stagnation in modern urban China’s economy, leading to a norm of fierce competition for limited resources amongst peers as unemployment grows to 19 percent and higher, and exploitation of labourers grows- substitutability of workers due to the large supply means college students become more competitive to put in extra effort for higher performance, making the system more cut-throat and anxiety-inducing (Bram, 2022).

Chinese anthropologist Xiang Biao explains involution- roughly translating to spinning inwards- as “an infinite loop like a spinning top..(which is a) competition that does not allow failure and withdrawal.” (Gao, 2021). While the educational rat race in competitive capitalist and Western-driven societies exists, Chinese experience and domestic pressures are unique and must be studied within the context of the “legitimacy gap” (Bloomfield, 2016) due to the erasure of contestation of various stakeholders and liberal bias in international norms creating contested compliance to the same.

While the focus is on the actions of the Chinese state, it must be recognized that external influence has played a staunch role in the diffusion and internalisation of involution. (Bloomfield 2016). We examine the Chinese past by focusing on the norm’s institutionalization and having a long pedigree in state practice.

Confucianism or Capitalism?

It’s important to understand that involution’s meaning has changed- in the past, it was seen as a structured and repetitive pattern of work in an agricultural society that lacked competition, but now it is an endless energy-draining cycle based on self-motivation. Keeping this context in mind, Chinese culture in the past- through Confucian ideology- stressed ancestor worship to emphasize the value of continuity and conformity. An “unworthy descendant” was someone who was not the same as the person who was unable to repeat and walk in the same steps as his ancestors.

Confucianism stressed ritual for the same reason, even in political strategies and stressed the importance of a family unit- no one should be left behind. This was utilized by the Han and later dynasties and leaders to justify their autocracy through assimilation and collectivisation of the people under the Confucian ideology and facade of morality.

However, today’s involution moves away from conformity to competition and destructive individualism. It is marked by liberal market competition and a corruption of Confucian teachings which did situate itself in strong communal morality with high uniform moral judgement. (Qianni and Shifan, 2020).

Instead of the family as a social unit- a collective system of reward and punishment being used by Chinese emperors- now it has become getting a higher GPA and focussed on the individual’s growth trajectory. State policies such as the dismantling of state-owned industries, Chairman Deng’s “let some people get rich first” (让一部分人先富起来)” agenda and holding Gaokao, the extremely difficult college entrance exam, pushes for hypercompetitive work environments that had lead to a burnt out youth (Bram, 2022).

State and Humiliation

When discussing the role of state institutions, identity misplacement is observed to be caused by a traumatic past because of which there is a cognitive dissonance between China’s geographic location and sense of self in cultural space (Wali Aslam et. al. 2020).

The Century of Humiliation’s impact on contemporary China’s policies has created a “never again” mentality. With the Japanese occupation of China in World War II, Holocaust-like conditions were created with the country rampant with famines, war crimes, killing and displacing millions and the traumatic Nanjing Massacre- this led to an emotionally charged national rejuvenation strategy driven by economic growth that was taken up where avoiding a second Century of Humiliation is of paramount importance.

The Century of Humiliation was made possible because of internal challenges of corruption and rebellions during the Qing dynasty- this has led to extreme stress on maintaining domestic stability while preventing any loss of territory to foreign powers. It is not just a matter of geopolitical advantage, but this suffocating fear of being colonized and foreign interference in domestic laws (Tischler, 2020).

Deng wants some people to get rich first!

The immense influence China’s history holds is seen with Chairman Deng ushering in the era of “reform and opening up” and completing the reforms in a disorienting three to five years. It must be recognised the sweeping changes that were made under Deng within just a period of 35 years in pursuit of economic security. In 1978, when he came to power China had a dismantled central authority and was economically broken with a per capita GDP being US $ 193, which is the average food consumption that fell below nutritional standards. Within 35 years, she became the world’s second-largest economy, the largest exporter and the greatest producer of manufactured goods. In 2012, China’s per capita GDP jumped thirtyfold to US $ 6091. Such large advancements do not come without social costs with the country transforming from an 80 per cent rural society in 1976 to by the time Deng retired an urban society with nearly 200 million migrant workers (Menon, 2022). By opening herself up to the international market and establishing diplomatic and trade relationships with the United States, a green revolution was imported, forcing rural residents out of communes, rural suicide rates of the elderly became fifty times higher than the general population due to a lack of social security (Eisenman, 2018).

Furthermore, it leads to wide regional inequality as well as a growing rural-urban divide. To attract foreign investment in the late 1980s, Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) were set up along the eastern coast which had a larger potential for development causing the regional income gap to widen (Douglass, 2009). Ultimately, these rapid and relatively free-wheeling changes led to the sparking of panic buying and hurried increases in prices causing widespread inflation and corruption which finally led to the Tiananmen Protests. While the Century of Humiliation caused deep-seated anxiety and suspicion of foreign powers, Deng found it essential that a stabilised domestic polity could only be possible with the aid and investment of those same colonizing powers.

Xi and Whose Prosperity?

The Third Revolution in China came with President Xi Jinping, who on coming to office took his Politburo Standing Committee to an exhibition on the Century of Humiliation, using national trauma as a political tool and gaining legitimacy in pushing forth the dire need for “struggle”. Addressing the concerns of his people, he launched an anti-corruption campaign but because the GINI coefficient was around 38 per cent and some people “got rich first” inequality was already rooted in the social fabric of the country and there was an unfair advantage for the wealthy and their children. In the growth model for four decades with massive infrastructure development and technological advancements, Yuen Yuen Ang explains how in this Gilded Age corruption “became a steroid” and exasperated social stratification and created a sense of “ennui”- no matter what, the general people would never be able to catch up to the elite (Bram, 2022).

However, President Xi’s focus on combating corruption and rebalancing the economy led to further impediments to true growth with the introduction of the Common Prosperity Programme. Despite being anti-monopoly and cracking down on private players, its fundamental shortcoming is that it is a political programme: that has a paternalistic attitude towards ordinary citizens who are classified as receivers of state goodwill but incapable of demanding progressive change. While maintaining the “dual circulation economic strategy” to increase indigenous reliance without complete decoupling of export markets, the state is perpetrating heteronormative family values and awarding married couples with privileged accesses to address the demographic problem. It is increasingly difficult to have labour movements as the state becomes more powerful and authoritative in daily life where “welfarism” is equated to “laziness” and ensures the state’s structural domination over popular sectors (Zhang, 2022).

Where China and her identity heads, lie in the hands of the various stakeholders- not just the state but the general public too- therefore analysis of the two and accounting for their voices is imperative to understand the nuanced social phenomenon and its final destiny.

About the Author

Priyal Nahata is a Policy Research intern at IMPRI and is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree at Ashoka University, studying sociology and international relations.

Acknowledgement: Author would like to thank Satyam Tripathi, Chaitanya Vivek Deshpande and Ronak Gupta for their kind comments and suggestions to improve the article.


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