"Involution", "working man", and "Versailles literature": memes of embitterment

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Article by Ji Siqi in South China Morning Post (11/21/20):

"China’s frustrated millennials turn to memes to rail against grim economic prospects"

Chinese youth are venting their disillusionment with bleak job prospects and widening inequality with new memes and buzzwords online

The stinging online sentiment jars with the government line that China’s economic boom is creating opportunities for young people

The three terms we will focus on in this post seem simple and innocuous enough, but China's millennials put a sardonic spin on these expressions that turns them into subtle censure (which you're not supposed to do in China) against the socioeconomic conditions they face.


In English usage, this is a noun with the following meanings:

a. The act of involving.
b. The state of being involved.
2. Intricacy; complexity.
3. Something, such as a long grammatical construction, that is intricate or complex.
4. Mathematics An operation, such as negation, which, when applied to itself, returns the original number.
5. Embryology The ingrowth and curling inward of a group of cells, as in the formation of a gastrula from a blastula.
6. Medicine
a. A decrease in size of an organ, as of the uterus following childbirth.
b. A progressive decline or degeneration of normal physiological functioning occurring as a result of the aging process.


[See "Afterword" below]

One possible Chinese translation of "involution" is nèijuǎn 内卷 (lit., "inward roll"), but discontented millennials in China have given the latter an implication that "involution" does not have in English:

For young Chinese, especially those with a college degree, there is a growing perception that their career prospects are darkening, their social mobility shrinking and the country’s wealth gap widening – although this point of view diverges sharply from the government narrative.

The disconnect has given rise to buzzwords like nei juan, or involution. The term was originally used to explain a process in which additional input cannot produce more output. In the case of a farmer tilling a paddy field – no matter how much additional labour he puts in, there is a limit to how much rice can be produced.

Working man

What could be more glorious in a communist country than to be a member of the working class?  Not now.  I remember back in the 60s and 70s, most of the many students from Taiwan I knew then took part-time jobs (dǎgōng 打工) to work their way through graduate school.  Although it was hard, they were proud of being able to earn a valuable advanced degree this way, and nearly all of them sent a considerable portion of their wages back to their families in Taiwan — gèng guāngróng 更光荣 ("all the more glorious").

In China, dagong [ren] 打工[人] was first used to describe a migrant worker who was forced to leave their hometown to take odd jobs in sweatshops across the country. But that sense of diminished personal agency is spreading rapidly to white-collar workers.


Versailles literature

Sounds elite and effete, n'est-ce pas?  Yes, but in a slyly satirical way.  The term in Chinese is Fán'ěrsài wénxué 凡尔赛文学.

Other young Chinese have used social media to vent their frustration at the country’s wealth gap, flocking online to satirise people who brag about their luxurious lifestyle in monologues derided as “Versailles literature”.

A favourite target has become Meng Qiqi, a novelist and mother of two from Beijing, who on Weibo flaunts her luxury purchases or the fact she employs nannies who speak “both English and French”, all the while pretending not to be aware of her sumptuous lifestyle.

In an interview with Weibo last week, she said she only became aware of her humblebragging after her husband reminded her that some 600 million Chinese earned an average monthly income of 1,000 yuan (US$152) – a figure that was widely reported after Premier Li Keqiang mentioned it in May.

In China, it is politically incorrect (and downright dangerous) to complain, especially if the government is the least bit involved.  But the Chinese people are resourceful and creative, and — as we have seen countless times on Language Log — able to express their true sentiments in coded, guarded, clever, circuitous ways that not even the armies of government censors can keep up with.



Just as I was about to make this post, by good chance I came across an e-mail (11/18/20) from an anonymous friend in which they penetratingly discussed the anthropological and Sinological aspects of involution.  Considering the viral use of the term by PRC millennials to bemoan their socioeconomic fate, I will make it a separate guest post for the anonymous friend.


Selected reading

    This is just a small sampling of the scores of posts about puns, parodies, and other means for circumventing the censors in the PRC.

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 23, 2020 @ 2:26 pm

    I think the only English sense of "involution" I've encounterd in the wild is 5.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    December 23, 2020 @ 3:45 pm

    It is for that very reason (sense 5) that the polylingual "Welcome" sign at the entrance to my wife's hotel is referred to as "the involute".

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 5:08 am

    Sense 4 of "involution" is too narrow in talking about numbers. It should say something like "An endomorphism which is self-inverse", but that is possibly too technical for a general-purpose dictionary.

  4. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    To capture the mathematical sense more generally, yet less technically, one may say “a transformation that undoes itself”. That is, if applied twice, it returns the original input. Involution in this sense is duihe 对合.

    Part of the ‘not-not’ post and comments can be read as discussing negations that aren't involutive.

  5. Anne Henochowicz said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 8:03 pm

    In this case, “involution” 内卷化 derives from the anthropological sense, referred to in the SCMP quote and detailed in a recent piece at Sixth Tone: https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1006391/how-one-obscure-word-captures-urban-chinas-unhappiness. (I think Clifford Gertz coined/normalized the term.) It's about more than just production or ouput–it's the ever-stranger contortions people put themselves through as they compete for the limited resources of their social system, as opposed to breaking free of the spiral and changing the system itself.

  6. Nat said,

    December 25, 2020 @ 10:06 pm

    I think the mathematical sense is intuitively captured by the idea of “double-negative”. An operation which, when applied twice cancels itself out. Basically this is what the dictionary definition is saying, but as Peter Taylor points out it’s applicable to any mathematical object, not just numbers.
    I think I first encountered in discussion of the notion of time reversal. Time reversal is an involution. It’s a rather pretty word.

  7. John Rohsenow said,

    December 28, 2020 @ 8:25 am

    Here is a related article which originally appeared in Sixth Tone that discusses these three terms as well as some others of the same ilk:
    "Socially Dead Laborers of Versailles: China’s 2020 in Memes:
    From period-impoverished students to depressed music-lovers, Sixth Tone sums up the top online buzzwords from this best-forgotten year."

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    January 1, 2021 @ 3:29 am

    In view of the fact that today is 1st January 2021, and wishing to remain strictly on topic, I would like to wish all contributors to Language Log a very Happy New Year on an involute …

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