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Involution 内卷, Lying Flat 躺平 and Returning from Overseas 海归

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Background of the Interview

Student Xiaohang and her Independent Research Project (IRP) supervisor Dr. Spencer Fowler invited CGTN reporter Minxi to the Dalton Academy in order to learn from her experience as a reporter covering the topics of involution (内卷), lying flat (躺平) and returning from studying overseas (海归). Xiaohang is currently planning on dividing her paper into five sections: developing a clear definition of higher education, focusing on the trend of involution, identifying typical patterns of higher education institutions, examining the recent upsurge of involution and the bottleneck that people encounter when trying to improve one’s lifestyle. Minxi offered tailored advice to Xiaohang, she suggested that Xiaohang narrow her focus towards a specific topic and time period. By the end of the discussion, they concluded that it may be best for her to research the impact that involution had on people after the first year of the pandemic, how government policy responded to the increasing trend of involution and lastly examining the effect that government policy had on the trend of involution.

Key Terms - Chinese (Pinyin) - Definition

Involution 内卷 (Nei Juan) “The experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless” according to anthropologist Xiang Biao.[1]

Lying-flat 躺平 (Tang Ping) Essentially means doing the bare minimum to get by, and striving for nothing more than what is absolutely essential for one’s survival.[2]

Overseas Returnee 海归 (Hai Gui) People, most often students, who return to China after developing talents or earning degrees overseas.

Recap of the Conversation

The beginning of the conversation was centered around the topic of involution. This is a trend that branches into many dimensions, referring to everything from ever increasing requirements for students, to the rat-race colloquially known as 996, a popular phenomenon in the technology sector. Student Xiaohang, Reporter Minxin and CEO & Superintendent Dr. Fowler discussed involution, lying-flat and returning from overseas, while sharing their stories and brainstorming a research topic for Xiaohang’s IRP paper.

Below is a snapshot of the conversation, that touches upon a few of the core themes of Xiaohang’s research, as well as many contemporary problems that people across the world are wrestling with.

Xiaohang: I’m from Shandong, my dad is from Hubei, in Beijing we focus on many things but in Hubei and Shandong they tend to focus solely on education. They need to find ways to differentiate, this very process may be the root of involution. These are a few characteristics of involution that I’ve noted: students find ways to make themselves standout, which is one state, while there is also a stop state commonly referred to as “躺平”.

Spencer: Do you think that this pressure can benefit students by allowing them to pursue their passions outside of the classroom?

Minxi: It was intended to be a good thing but became a new source of competition. They are pressured to be better than the other kids. The government has realized it’s a problem which is why the policies to stop after school tutoring have emerged. The whole sector is crushed, it has completely disappeared. These programs liked to play out the fears and anxieties of parents. There were advertisements saying “Don’t fall behind at the starting line” and other similarly predatory tactics being employed. If the parents can afford it, they’ll keep spending more. The output of this mechanism was increasingly unhealthy kids.

Christopher: Where did you accumulate your knowledge of involution?

Minxi: I accumulated my experience by observation and reading articles on the internet. There is a concern about this not just among students but among workers in tech companies. It becomes a norm not something extra that you do to better yourself.

Author: Christopher D. Mahoney

[1] Liu, Y.-L. (2021, May 14). China's "involuted" generation. The New Yorker. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from [2] What is 'lying flat', and why are Chinese officials standing up to it? South China Morning Post. (2021, October 24). Retrieved December 17, 2021, from

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