Article 3:

The Involution

As mentioned in the previous article, Chinese will do everything they can to support their children's education, allowing them to learn all the knowledge and special skills that will help them attending a good university. In China, the most important exam is the national college entrance exam (Gao Kao). Before Gao Kao, there is an exam to attend junior high school and an exam to attend high school, which are just as important. As China's educational resources are not fairly distributed, attending a good junior high school means a higher chance of attending a good high school. So attending a good high school means a higher chance of attending a good university, and a good university means a good career.


The commonly used term in China describing the situation everyone is facing is the involution.

What does it mean? Here is an example:

You are traveling from Germany to China, with a flight time of 13 hours, while 100 other people are also planning to board this plane. There are 50 seats on the plane, 2 seats in the first class, 48 in economy class and 30 standing positions. All these 100 people have to give an important 4-hour presentation in 14 hours for the client that will determine the economic development of your company.

(ie: everyone wants to go to university for a better, more comfortable life. But there are a limited number of places in elite universities, followed by other universities. Not going to university means that the adult life will be very hard and poorly paid.)

To get on board of the plane, the 100 people had to pass a test. The test, which similar to a driving license theory exam, is limited in scope and all questions have the correct answers. In order to prepare for the test you have to attend a theory course at a driving school (compulsory), but you can also buy different exercise books/question database to practice in advance (voluntary).

(i.e.: national college entrance exam and extra tutoring classes after school)

The results of the test directly determine whether you get a seat on the plane or not. The two with the highest scores get a first class seat, the next 48 people get an economy class seat, the remaining 30 people have to stand for 13 hours and 20 people are not allowed to board the plane.

First experiment: Everyone just attends a 30-hour theory class, then the 2 smartest people get a first class seat, the 48 next smartest people get to sit in economy class and the rest has to stand.

Second experiment: 2 people in economy class from the first experiment find out that they could also get a practice book/question database to practice, so these people study the practice book for extra 10 hours and they get the 2 first class seats this time.

Third experiment: Everyone discovers that doing extra practices would improve their chances of getting a (good) seat, so everyone starts using the extra 10 hours to study the practice book. The result of this experiment: The two smartest people still get a first class seat, the next 48 people get an economy class seat, 30 people have to stand and 20 people are not allowed to board the plane. The result is exactly the same as in the first experiment.

However, what is different this time is that all of them spend extra 10 hours to study. At this point everyone has to do extra work, but not gaining any extra benefit. This is what the Chinese call “involution”. It means that all students are currently facing, they keep practicing and attending tutorial classes, but they are not gaining real new knowledge.

Another issue is that it's all a zero-sum game (airplane seats / university places are limited), thus everyone is in a battle. Social media allows people to see what other children are doing. Every improvement of other children means a new threat to your own child. If you don't want get involved in this battle and give your child a happy childhood, your child is straight out (not getting a seat on the plane/ college degree). The college degree is the passport to enter the “well paid” Chinese society. After all, there can be hundreds of applicants for one position and filtering diplomas is the most efficient way.

Impact on individual familiy

The Education Bureau has introduced some policies to reduce the burden of students, such as reducing class time and not allowing too much homework. But this has not really helped the students. As said before, everyone is working extra. The Education Department's policy has led to a reduction in the functions of schools, so that more work is actually transferred to independent families. Each mother is a "broker mother" who thinks strategically about her child's development, choosing carefully what to study at what age, where to study, what their possible competitors are doing, and so on.

At the same time, some elite secondary schools and universities are allowed to do a small percentage of individual selections among candidates. This means they do not only look at the exam scores, but also at the "special talents" of the students. This has led to a further increase in competition, with students having to learn musical instruments, sports, etc. Let's use the previous example: You and two other students get the same high score, but the captain of the plane chooses the two who can play the violin and you are eliminated and have to go to the economy class. In the second experiment, you have also learned to play the violin, but 30 other people also have gained this skill. At the end 2 people who can play harp and basketball are chosen for the first class.

In 2020, the Education Bureau has decided that students should not only focus on science studies, but art studies is also important for the personal development, so art is included in the examination system. From an educational point of view, the Bureau may have good intentions, but for the individual this means more classes and preparation for exams at art. The only consolation for parents is that art is at the end something good: During school, studying art helps developing the brain. So knowing art helps one understanding beauty more easily.

Most Chinese parents have no other options in this battle but to struggle to move forward in the maelstrom. The only way out is to take their children abroad, out of the Chinese education system. But underage children need parental accompaniment, so going to school abroad means that one parent has to quit the job and the other parent has to cover the costs of two people living abroad (e.g. in the USA, UK), something that only upper class families can afford. Recognizing this market, Thailand has started to build a number of high-quality international schools and some Chinese of the middle class have already moved there.

Back to China: Why is the competition in China so fierce? Because there are so many people and so few good resources. After all, building more good schools and training more good teachers and professors can’t be achieved in few years. Even if a few minorities are doing this, they will eventually be compromised by the onslaught of the great wave of exam-oriented education. In one word: At the moment, we have no solution to this.

This doesn't end when the child finally attends a university. In China, to apply for a good job at a top company means, that they will not only look at your diploma, but also at your social skills and whether you know anything beyond your profession, because there are enough candidates. All this makes Chinese parents wary, but their wish is really quite simple: They want their children to have a happy life.


To get more insights into the Chinese mindset read our previous articles about education and social mobility.

Although there is no direct business content in this article the big environment as well as the mindset of people is also important to inform about, as it impacts user needs, consumer requirements and their behaviors in a lot of aspects.

When we write consumer research reports, we always explain extra so that our clients can understand certain consumers from a higher level. For cooperation, please feel free to contact Spiegel Institut.


Author: Yue Liu, Spiegel Institut Mannheim

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