Knowledge Anxiety – Paid Study Rooms Thrive in China

  • There are almost 3,000 Paid Study Rooms in China now.
  • Insecurity urges people to study continuously.
  • Internet users think involution is happening in China.

Unlike traditional cafés, Paid Study Rooms (PSRs), the name already gives away how it works: people pay to self-study here. Many of them bear the word “dream” in it, like Dream Runner, Dream Seeker or Dream Builder. In this society where competition and hardworking are extensively encouraged, PSR has just started its journey.

Since 2019, all kinds of PSRs have thrived across China, especially in bigger cities. By the end of 2020, there were almost 3,000. The fee varies from 5$ to 15$ per day, but most will choose directly monthly or seasonal plans. With isolated stalls, warm orange lamps and lockers, they are an oasis of serenity.

“There’s simply too many distractions at home. I used to go to McDonald’s and Starbucks, but it’s too noisy there. Here the atmosphere alone will keep me focused all day.” says Chen who has signed up for the Unified National Graduate Entrance Examination (UNGEE) this year, one of 3.77 million, 18% more than the year before.

About competition, everyone has something to say. School and workplace are where it intensifies the most, which means PSRs usually find their spaces nearby. People come here for whatever that has something to do with exams: UNGEE, IELTS, GRE, ACCA… Quite a few come here because they’ve noticed external pressure. In a sense, they’re trying to make their uncertain life a bit more secure by continuous study. The more sense of urgency one feels, the stronger the urge to study.

Each PSR has its own features, the only must-have is a post-it wall. Reading through all the wishes and feelings, the shocking impact comes from the fact that each one stands for a struggling soul.

“Knowledge anxiety is spreading in big cities. It comes from both inside and outside. People don’t want to remain status quo but are also afraid of changes. Consequently, they make money by working and they pay for studying. You never know which one comes first, tomorrow or the termination letter.

Reply 1988, a South Korean TV series with PSRs.

On the internet, the word “involution” has invaded all the major discussions on social issues. Clifford Geertz first used “agricultural involution” in 1963 to depict the phenomenon where “many centuries of intensifying wet-rice cultivation in Indonesia had produced greater social complexity without significant technological or political change.” The term later has been extended to express “an increase without development.”

Chinese internet users now use it everywhere, especially for coders. They complain that tech giants now only hire coders with a perfect education background, even though it might be just an entry level position. On the other hand, students are putting more and more energy into improving their curriculum by studying day and night.

“The worst part is not being involuted, but knowing that the involution is happening, and you still have to jump in.”

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Just another attempt to show a more real China.

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