In recent years, a new Chinese term “内卷” (nèi juǎn) has emerged to describe the intense and excessive competition within Chinese society. As China continues its rapid economic development, competition for good grades, jobs, relationships, and even minor things has reached unhealthy levels. Understanding 内卷 and why it exists can provide insight into broader Chinese society.
What Does Nei Juan内卷 Mean?
The term “内卷” (nèi juǎn) literally translates to “inward curl” or “inward roll.” It is used metaphorically to refer to internal competition within a group that is so intense that participants seem to be curled inward competing against each other.
内卷 is often used to characterize education systems or job markets where intense competition with others in the same group prevents success. For example, if students only focus on beating their peers rather than acquiring knowledge, or employees compete for promotions rather than collaborating, this reinforces inward-looking competition rather than positive growth – hence the metaphor of an inward roll.
How to Use “内卷” (nèi juǎn)
Wáng Xiǎomai: Nǐ kànle Xiǎo Lǐ de chéngjìdānle ma? Tā kǎole niánjí dì yī míng.
Wang Xiaomai: Have you seen Little Li’s report card? He tested as the top grade for the year.
Li: Shì a, wǒmen bān de fēnwéi zhēn de shì “nèi juǎn” de hěn. Dàjiā zhǐ guānxīn dé fēn duōshǎo ér bùshì zhēnzhèng xuéxí.
Li : Yeah, the atmosphere in our class really “nei juan” a lot. Everyone only cares about the scores and not actual learning.
Wáng Xiǎomai: Shì a, shízài tài bù jiànkāngle. Zhè zhǒng jìngzhēng yuǎnyuǎn chāoguòle yīnggāi yǒu de chéngdù.
Wang Xiaomai: Yeah, it’s really unhealthy. This level of competition has far exceeded what it should be.
Background of Education Competition
Much of the discussion around 内卷 in China centers on education. To understand why competition among students has reached unhealthy levels, we must first understand China’s cultural and historical emphasis on education, as well as the intense pressure placed on children.
Education has traditionally been valued in Chinese culture. In imperial China, success via the imperial examination system was seen as one of the few paths a commoner could take to raise their standard of living. Today, academic success is still perceived as one of the surest ways to find a good job and ensure future prosperity.
Additionally, China’s large population and relatively scarce resources have always created an intensely competitive environment. There is a Chinese saying “千军万马过独木桥” (qiān jūn wàn mǎ guò dú mù qiáo) meaning “thousands of soldiers crossing a single log bridge.” This describes how intense competition can be in Chinese society.
Excessive Academic Pressure
Due to the cultural emphasis on education and intense competition for resources, the pressure on Chinese youth to perform academically is staggering. Parents, schools, and society have extremely high expectations for academic success.
Key standardized tests determine a child’s future opportunities to an excessive degree. The most important is the 高考 (gāo kǎo) college entrance exam, which is seen as the singular determinant of a student’s future. Because competition for spots at top universities is fierce, students must devote enormous time and effort solely to preparing for tests rather than learning for the sake of learning.
The excessive focus on testing and competition has caused students endless stress. Because resources for psychological counseling are scarce, youth mental health has become a major societal problem in China. The rise of 内卷 reflects this excessive academic pressure and competition among peers.
Characteristics of 内卷 Culture
So what exactly constitutes 内卷? Some key characteristics include:
- Obsession with comparisons. Students constantly compare grades, test scores, universities, majors, internships, and other metrics with their peers. This erodes self-confidence.
- Focus on appearing exceptional. Rather than developing one’s own interests, students feel pressure to appear top-tier in conventional academics, extracurricular accomplishments like music or sport competitions, and other areas. This reflects competition for the appearance of excellence rather than the reality.
- Loss of intrinsic motivations to learn. With so much pressure to achieve good exam scores and results, the motivation shifts from actually acquiring knowledge to beating the competition. Learning becomes a means to an end of social success rather than an end in itself.
- Social conflict. 当代大学生不看好“内卷”现象 (dāng dài dà xué shēng bù kàn hǎo “nèi juǎn” xiàn xiàng) “Contemporary college students do not appreciate the ‘nei juan’ phenomenon.” The hyper-competitive environment strains friendships and relationships, isolate individuals, and create feelings of animosity between peers.
- Psychological distress. As a result of the high-pressure environment, rates of youth anxiety, depression, and even suicide have increased dramatically.
In essence, an obsession with besting peers within the same group distracts from actual productive growth, erodes mental health, and creates excessive conflict. This is the essence of 内卷.
Causes of 内卷 Nei Juan Culture
What has caused Chinese academic culture to spiral into the unhealthy phenomenon known as 内卷? Several key societal factors enable this hyper-competitive environment:
Population and Scarce Resources
As mentioned earlier, China’s massive population combined with scarce resources has always fostered intense competition. There are simply too many people competing for too few openings at top schools and companies. This forces people to fight against their peers rather than collaborating constructively.
Flawed Metrics of Value
Societal metrics of value shape behavior. In China, standardized test scores, rankings, grades, publications, and similarly quantitative metrics carry an extreme and disproportionate weight in determining prestige and opportunities. This motivates short-term behavior aimed at inflating such metrics rather than meaningful self-improvement. It exacerbates cut-throat competition against peers chasing the same narrow benchmarks.
Few Alternative Paths to Success
For various cultural and systemic reasons, educational and professional success in China boil down to an extremely narrow set of pathways, with little room to develop alternative talents and interests. This creates immense pressure to conform to established norms. Students all chase roughly the same futures, intensifying competition against peers.
Mianzi (面子), or maintaining self-image or “face” regarding one’s social standing, is an important motivation in Chinese culture. This drives unhealthy competition. Students compete to avoid looking bad compared to peers and flaunt accomplishments to appear exceptional, even if actual learning suffers as a result.
Chinese parents infamously impose extremely high academic expectations on children. Their own status becomes tied to their children’s test scores and rankings. This passes intense pressure down to youth who have little autonomy in balancing their own interests with parental demands regarding conventional academic achievement above all else.
The combination of these cultural, institutional, and demographic factors has created an environment ripe for the rise of 内卷 and excessive competition among Chinese students. This phenomenon has had profoundly unhealthy impacts on both individuals and society.
Impacts of 内卷 Culture
The hyper-competitive academic environment characterized by 内卷 has caused multiple concerning societal issues:
Deteriorating Mental Health
Excessive study workload, lack of intrinsic learning motivations, social isolation, loss of leisure time activities, and stigma against appearing “weak” have created crisis-level mental health issues among Chinese students. Rates of anxiety, depression, and youth suicide have skyrocketed. This poses severe public health challenges.
Creativity and Individuality Stifled
The singular focus on rote memorization of tested material and standardized skill development to beat exam benchmarks severely hinders creative self-expression, exploration of unique interests, development of original thinking, and cultivation of talent in unconventional areas like arts and humanities. Conformity is enforced while individuality is stamped out.
Integrity and Ethics Downplayed
The degree of high-stakes competition has also eroded senses of academic and professional ethics and integrity. Cheating is commonplace and integrity is sacrificed if it improves competitiveness against peers fighting for the same limited spots. The mentality becomes succeeding “by any means necessary.” This creates immense ethical issues.
Decreased Well-Being and Happiness
According to a celebrated 2006 study, China ranks among the lowest countries globally in overall happiness and well-being due to immense social pressure and low perceived sense of individual autonomy over life paths. The 内卷 phenomena clearly exacerbates these challenges and prevents people from pursuing fulfilling lives on their own terms.
Wider Impacts on Society
The issues above pose challenges not just for affected individuals but for the country as a whole regarding economic vitality, social stability, and global competitiveness. Issues like mental health epidemics, loss of creativity, and ethical deterioration will affect development. Thus 内卷 also raises alarm from a policy perspective.
Moves Against 内卷 Culture
In response to growing concerns over issues linked to 内卷 culture, China has cautiously begun initiatives to ease academic pressure and reform competitive education systems. Some approaches include:
- Reducing the emphasis on testing and tried-and-true metrics for academic sorting of students
- Encouraging development of vocational schools, alternative education formats, and unconventional paths to reduce obsession with the narrow 高考 to 大学 pipeline
- Adding certain non-conventional subjects like arts and humanities to the 高考
- Enacting harsher cheating penalties
- Expanding psychological counseling availability
While such reforms are slowly starting to appear, the intense historical and cultural underpinnings driving 内卷 make it extremely difficult to reverse overly competitive mindsets. Parents continue imposing expectations, society perseveres in conventions, and the realities of scarce resources persist. Thus 内卷 culture will remain an issue for years to come.
The intense competition encapsulated by the term 内卷 permeates Chinese society, especially in academia. Understanding its causes and impacts provides insight on broader Chinese cultural and institutional contexts. Only through ongoing reforms and mindset shifts can China move towards a healthier system aligned with both human welfare and global competitiveness in a 21st century context.