beaded bracelets

Forget Fidget Spinners, Chinese Youth Are All About Buddhist Bracelets

The hot new schoolyard fad in China: Young students are playing with Buddhist beaded bracelets to relieve academic stress

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12:02 PM HKT, Thu April 13, 2023 1 mins read

A mania for fidget toys — including spinners, cubes, and later, pop-its — swept American schools in 2017, annoying teachers and sparking scientific discourse. Despite many of these toys being made in China, they never really took off domestically. Now, though, Chinese kids are embracing an age-old version of the fidget toy: beaded bracelets.

These bracelets are Buddhist in origin and are traditionally used to keep track of breaths during Pranayama, a meditative practice. Usually popular among older generations in China, the price of vintage Buddhist beaded bracelets varies considerably, from a few hundred RMB (less than 100 USD) to more than 1 million RMB (150,000 USD), depending on the material.

However, the ones elementary schoolers use are made from cheap materials such as glass, plastic, or wood, and many have a cloudy jade-like appearance. These items usually cost less than 10 RMB (1.5 USD).

To use them as fidget toys, students coil the bracelet into two layers in their palms, then twist the two layers back and forth with their thumbs. They also trade bracelets with each other, collecting those of different colors and beads.

a group of elementary school students hold out their hands with beaded bracelets in the palm

A group of students fidgeting with their bracelets. Image via Xiaohongshu

“In class, after class, we’re always twisting [the bracelets],” said an elementary school student in a viral video by Zhangwen News, a Chongqing-based Chinese online media outlet.

Though the act itself is harmless, the obsession with fidgeting items might reflect the high stress levels among these young students. In the same video, another girl said, “There’s actually a lot of pressure. Our entire grade is very involuted. [The bracelets] help us relieve stress. Twisting it around makes a very comforting sound.”

By ‘involuted,’ or neijuan (内卷) in Chinese, she is referring to the overwhelming competition that comes from everyone working for fewer opportunities. It’s a buzzword that became popular in 2020 to describe the futile nature of China’s high-pressure work culture.

chinese fidget spinners, beaded bracelets, academic stress in china

The bracelets make a satisfying clicking sound when twisted. Image via Xiaohongshu

Chinese students have long faced an academic environment fraught with pressure. At the end of elementary school, students can choose to take entrance exams for more prestigious middle schools; after middle school, all students must take an exam to determine where they will go to high school.

That’s not to mention the gaokao, the college entrance exam that serves as the sole determinant of college admissions.

With limited education resources, it’s important to many parents that their children test well to attend the best schools possible, fueling a 120 billion USD private tutoring industry as of 2017. Two years ago, the Chinese government tried to alleviate this pressure by banning for-profit tutoring, among other initiatives. However, that hasn’t changed the country’s academic culture — it’s just forced tutoring underground.

This new fidgeting trend may be further evidence that the massive pressure Chinese students face hasn’t let up.

Fidgeting has been known to improve focus and distract from boredom and stress. Or, as one online blogger surmised, “[the bracelets] may be stress-relieving for some, but most of the students are just following the trend.”

Cover image via Weibo

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