Feminism ‘doesn’t fit China,’ says the country’s first women’s bookstore owner

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-7 20:33:19

More Chinese women are paying attention to personal development as bookstores targeting female readers have gained foothold in cities. However, many of the women are still constrained by traditional gender roles and their reading often focuses on domestic topics.

A woman reads in a bookstore in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP

With its purple-dominated decor and floral prints, even if you didn't know the store's name you'd be able to tell that Beijing's Lady Book Salon is not for men. Its slogan painted on one wall - "Be a literary lady!" - drives the point home.

The first bookstore to focus solely on women in the Chinese mainland, Lady Book Salon provides a tailored service for its readers, offering them guidance in choosing books.

Its owner Xu Chunyu says many people questioned her decision to open a bookstore as "selling books is hard and yields little profit. And concentrating only on women would make me lose half of the customers."

Now 10 years later, she has opened eight stores around the country and has thrived by finding her niche in the market.

But Xu sees that behind the growth of her business is women's expanding demand for spiritual sustenance.

"Compared to men, modern women who are sandwiched between society and family are more in need of assistance to ease their internal conflict. The bookstore happens to have this function, to help them grow internally through reading," noted Xu.

Meeting a demand

Xu says that modern women, who have to manage their professional lives and traditional gender roles can find this balancing act hard to achieve.

"Women meet different problems and confusion at different ages, such as marriage, giving birth, and so on. They need different kinds of guidance in dealing with the world," said the bookstore owner, "It takes work for them to get inner peace and balance. And reading is a quick path to meet the demand."

Xu has a team of trained recommenders to meet the needs customers have at different times of the lives, from 25 to 45.

The Lady Book Salon's shelves are dominated by books about social science and literature and are divided into three categories: "books written by women," "books written for women" and "books women should read."

The first type of books refers to the works of female writers, such as the popular novels of Eileen Chang who wrote about 1940's Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong.

"Books written for women" are primarily books that teach women how to maintain their appearance, how to cook and how to care for children.

The last kind of books are books that Xu believes women need to read, and include texts on religion, philosophy and economics that can broaden women's horizons.

The store also sells feminist literature such as French author Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, which seeks to explain how women have been oppressed historically, to enhance female readers' awareness of their gender.

"I've been against associating women only with make-up or weight loss. The definition of women is too narrow. So we call for women to be 'literary ladies' to stress that women should cultivate their knowledge. We hope that women can build strong hearts to cope with outsider interruption and difficulties in life," Xu told the Global Times.

Despite these lofty intellectual goals, the store's bestsellers and the most-borrowed books focus on family, children's education, travel, philosophy and self-help.

Guo Yunxia, a member of Lady Book Salon for three years, told the Global Times that she mainly reads chick lit and books about education. The bookstore helps her to deal with her problems and negative emotions.

The mother of a 12-year-old and a middle-school teacher, Guo said that she is under great pressure and used to be easily angered by trivial things.

"Through reading I'm getting stronger. At this age, pressure is looming from both work and family. Now through reading more and more books, I feel that I am not so sensitive any more. The more I know about the world, the more I can come to terms with many things," said Guo.

Now Guo sometimes brings her daughter to the bookstore too. "In modern society women are faced with lots of pressure and temptations. I hope my daughter won't turn to drugs or something like that when she encounters difficulties in life. Reading could help her manage her emotions."

Feminism or not

Xiong Jing, a feminist and managing director of Beijing-based NGO Media Monitor for Women Network, says that the Lady Book Salon can be regarded as feminist in a general sense due to its concern for women.

But Wei Tingting, project manager of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, doubts whether this kind of service could help women become more equal with men. 

"Focusing on children education or training of women's hearts keeps women within the bounds of their traditional role in society, to have them serve the family better, instead of developing their independent personality."

"As a matter of fact, there are very few books about feminism in the market or in bookstores generally speaking. More often, the books are about how to be a good wife and how to balance family and career. But few are encouraging women to develop an independent personality," Wei added.

Xu said that even though Lady Book Salon sells feminist classics, to "help women understand themselves and know about their gifts," the bookstore is not a distinct feminist venue, and books on feminism make up just a small proportion of its whole stock.

Even though Xu does not mind being called a "mild feminist," she does not want to stress feminism in her business.

"I don't think feminism fits China. The patriarchal society cannot be toppled over in a short time. Women should not spend their golden years fighting against a thing that cannot be changed by a small group," said Xu, "The most important thing is life itself. I'd rather suggest that women emphasize spiritual growth and live a life of peace and happiness."

"Society is concerned with women mainly on a superficial level and fails to pay due attention to their internal growth. Some problems, like the relationship between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, emerge because women are not mature enough spiritually," noted Xu, "Cultural institutions like the Lady Book Salon are obliged to provide guidance for them."

But Xiong argues that "Women's self-awareness and cultivation is just one aspect, if the root of the problems is in society, the society needs to change in structure, as many feminists demand. The cultivation of heart isn't sufficient. "

Still rare

Lady Book Salon has been expanding, from a small-sized store in Beijing's Haidian district, to eight branches beyond the capital in cities like Tianjin, Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province and Taiyuan in North China's Shanxi Province. While their members come and go, now every branch has more than 600 members and the number is growing.

Following in Lady Book Salon's footsteps, several bookstores in cities like Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province and Shanghai have also started to focus on female readers in recent years. Even new media wants a slice of the pie. Last year, a reading app targeting women readers appeared which connects women reading the same books and gives them a platform to discuss them.

Xiong Jing claims that women today are indeed paying more attention to their personal development. "The best example is that more and more women are stressing the values of men when choosing their partners," she said, "As women are increasingly independent financially, they have more say in deciding what kind of life they will have."

But Xiong has noticed that, generally speaking, the growth of services focusing on women's development are not expanding at the same pace. "More often than not, the 'she economy' only cares about the external needs of women such as shopping and the beauty industry. Services and activities that really concern the spiritual needs of women are still rare," commented Xiong.

Guo still remembers how she was surprised to learn there was a bookstore like Lady Book Salon. "I'd been thinking there should be a place like that where women can sit down and read quietly. In a society dominated by material enjoyment for women, such institutions are rare."

Xiong said that on one hand women that understand the need for personal development are still in the minority, and many in society at large are yet to realize that women's needs have outgrown beauty salons and horoscopes.

"It has much to do with the self-awareness of women themselves. If more and more women are becoming aware of the significance of spiritual pursuits and guidance, the market will notice the trend and adjust," said Xiong.

But she noticed that many women who are aware of the need for personal development are only interested in it for the sake of becoming better wives and mothers, rather than for their own sake. "On one hand, many books target serving the family. On the other, women in China are still traditional and don't have strong gender awareness."

"There is still certain distance between the so-called spiritual pursuits today and real gender awareness," said Xiong.

Newspaper headline: Turning a page

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