Published: 10:35, May 14, 2024
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New goal for gender equality
By Wang Qian

A bookstore in Beijing seeks to engage in deeper discussions about women's issues, Wang Qian reports.

The illustrated book We Are Artists is on display on a corner table in La Otra, a bookstore in Beijing. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Cui Qichao says that when he opened the women-themed bookstore La Otra in Beijing, he started to better understand what women have actually gone through — their struggles and challenges — in the workplace and society. La otra is Spanish phrase meaning "the other".

"As a feminist man — still a minority in society — I have faced different voices from both males and females, which, I believe, are similar to most women who have tried to defy society's norms," the 32-year-old bookstore owner says.

They are obedient, silent and frugal, and try their best to be good mothers, good wives, good daughters ... but always forgetting to be themselves.

Cui Qichao, bookstore owner

Some people view his business as something like a gimmick, cashing in on feminism amid the trend in China to strive for gender equality. Some radical feminists, who believe that society prioritizes the male experience, express fury over Cui's male identity.

At first, crying was his way to deal with his emotions. Ultimately, he decided to keep the store open, although he didn't know what experiences — painful or joyful — it would bring him.

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Carrying more than 2,000 titles, most of which are by female authors, the bookstore, which is smaller than 40 square meters, has been established as a learning hub and community for people interested in woman studies. You can even find the out-of-print book series by Li Xiaojiang, who is often credited as the founder of women's studies in contemporary China.

Images of remarkable women, who have defied social expectations and made extraordinary contributions, adorn the bookstore wall. (WANG QIAN / CHINA DAILY)

At the entrance of the bookstore is a poster of a working woman, and the windows feature the inspirational quote, "Women can do anything." A blackboard by the door reads: "Menstruation products, hot water and pain relievers are offered for free at the bookstore."

Inside the store, there is a wall presenting a selection of images of remarkable women who have defied gender expectations and made extraordinary contributions.

"In addition to selling books, the bookstore is an inviting and safe public space to communicate, discuss and provide support among people concerned, under the basic rule: let women talk," Cui says.

Over the past year, Cui has held dozens of salons, film screenings and book clubs involving various topics and formats, ranging from women's health, sexual harassment, intimate relationships and domestic violence.

At the entrance of the bookstore is an image of a working woman and an inspirational quote, "women can do anything", on the window. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Last month, about 40 people, mostly women, gathered at a salon in a meeting room near the bookstore, The Other Green, to talk about gender inequality in soccer. Amid the heated discussion about women's roles on the soccer field, amateur players from Beijing-based WM women's soccer club shared their experiences on how they have been excluded from the game because of their gender and hoped that every woman could enjoy the sport without fear.

WM is short for the club's slogan: "We women, the mighty Metaxus." Metaxu is a Greek term for "in-between" employed by French philosopher Simone Weil for her concept of intermediaries.

Xiao Da was a formidable player since primary school but was the only girl on the soccer pitch until junior middle school and was excluded from training at school because it didn't have a girls' team.

"Soccer is like a mirror of society, where numerous gender barriers need to be broken down," the 29-year-old says.

"The good news is that we are seeing increasing participation by women and girls in the male-dominated game."

Two women embrace following a talk event in the bookstore.(PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Chinese women's soccer team has been performing well in global grounds and earned respect nationwide.

During the heated discussion, Cui takes a back seat in a corner and listens to women's concerns, as he always does in these activities.

"As a man, my thoughts don't matter," he says, adding that it is important to let the women's voices be heard, and in the meantime he'd reflect on his male privilege.

A reader named Sha on the social media platform Xiaohongshu posts that she feels really touched to see a so-called "male feminist" and hopes there will be more.

"On our journey toward gender equality, men should not be excluded. And achieving the goal needs men as our powerful ally," she writes.

Cui was born in Yichun, Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, and felt the gender inequality at home, with all household chores performed by his mother and grandmother, while men held higher status in the family.

"I was raised by my mother and grandmother, who are kind and resilient, while my stepfather, in my mind, is a negative character, a role I always wanted to fight against," he says, adding that his childhood experience makes him feel more secure around women.

Book titles on display in La Otra. (WANG QIAN / CHINA DAILY)

Observing his female friends, he finds that these women do the laundry, cook and take care of the children at home every day, taking on even more work without getting paid or sufficient respect from their husbands.

"They are obedient, silent and frugal, and try their best to be good mothers, good wives, good daughters and good daughters-in-law but always forgetting to be themselves," Cui says.

This led him to the question that has troubled him for a long time: "Why they are so great but have such low self-esteem? Meanwhile, many men are ordinary but confident."

Cui graduated from Renmin University of China in Beijing with a degree in psychology in 2015. He became a movie critic for three years, and then a scriptwriter and theater marketer.

When he heard about Fembooks in Taiwan, which claims to be one of the first bookstores focusing on feminism in China, the idea hit him to likewise open such a bookstore to help people better access, understand and maybe embrace the concept. In late 2022, he quit his job at a State-run theater and prepared to open the bookstore.

Cui Qichao, bookstore owner. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Thanks to his friends' help and a space offered for free for one year, his bookstore opened in Longtang Space in downtown Beijing in April last year. It sold over 600 books the first month but only around 200 a month on average afterward.

To make ends meet, Cui moved the bookstore to its current location in the Banbidian No 1 Culture Industrial Park, which offers low rent and a free meeting room.

"My readers helped me a lot to decorate the new store. The manager of the park, who's a woman, supports my idea by offering me a good rental price for the place," Cui says, adding that women have always offered to help manage the bookstore.

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Readers sent flowers and cakes to celebrate the bookstore's reopening on March 8, International Women's Day, which made Cui break into tears.

"I hope one day, the bookstore can become a place where people can engage in different discussions in different thinking modes. It is where everyone can express their own voice," Cui says.

The manager, Sun Meng, has offered Cui two months of rent and the salon space for free.

"As a woman, I know how hard it is to balance work and life, and when Cui told me about the bookstore, the idea really caught me. It is not easy for a man to really try to understand women and their concerns," says Sun, who's also a mother.

Contact the writer at wangqian@chinadaily.com.cn