Amidst China’s Suppression of Local Feminism, a Japanese Feminist Scholar Dominates Bestseller Charts

by Gabriel Martinez
Feminism in China

In recent years, the Chinese government has espoused increasingly traditional social values, urging women to concentrate on family and child-rearing. This has been accompanied by a suppression of civil activism and legislative measures aimed at eliminating foreign influence.

Against this backdrop, it is unexpected that a 75-year-old Japanese feminist academic, who is neither married nor a mother, would become an internet sensation in China’s heavily restricted cyberspace.

Nevertheless, Chizuko Ueno, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, has become a cultural phenomenon. She first gained prominence in China in 2019 following a speech where she criticized societal expectations that compel women to conform to cutesy behaviors and to downplay their achievements.

According to Leta Hong Fincher, a research associate at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute who specializes in gender issues in China, Ueno’s widespread appeal mirrors a growing interest in women’s rights.

A decade ago, China was home to a vibrant feminist movement that engaged in bold protests, such as occupying men’s bathrooms to advocate for more female-friendly facilities, or marching in blood-stained bridal gowns to bring attention to domestic violence. However, this activism has been stifled under the tightened controls of President Xi Jinping’s administration, which has prioritized conservative family values to boost birth rates.

Ueno did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article.

Her written works have seen tremendous sales in mainland China; more than 500,000 copies were sold in the first half of 2023 alone, according to Beijing OpenBook, a sales tracker. Her oeuvre, available in 26 different titles as of September, covers a broad spectrum of issues, including misogyny in Japan and feminist approaches to the challenges faced by an aging society.

Her collection “Starting From the Limit,” a correspondence with writer Suzumi Suzuki, was listed as one of the Books of the Year in 2022 by Chinese review platform Douban.

Ueno’s choice to remain single and childless has made her a role model for her fans. Edith Cao, a writer who spoke anonymously for fear of government repercussions, stated that Ueno’s success had emboldened her decision to stay unmarried. Similarly, graduate student Yang Xiao found Ueno’s example alleviating her worries about singlehood and inspired her to travel alone to bolster her self-confidence.

However, views about relationships among Ueno’s Chinese followers are far from uniform. Earlier this year, an online altercation erupted when a video blogger asked Ueno if her single status was due to previous hurt from men. The inquiry led to extended online debates about feminism and matrimony, accumulating over 580 million views on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

Hong Fincher suggests that Ueno’s avoidance of Chinese topics is likely the reason her work has evaded censorship. While feminist ideologies are not expressly prohibited in China, authorities remain wary of all forms of activism.

Law enforcement frequently pressures bookstore and café owners to cancel feminist events, according to multiple organizers and founders. Moreover, online references to movements like #MeToo are frequently removed, and feminists with public profiles are targeted by nationalist bloggers as foreign agents.

Activist Huang Xueqin, a significant figure in China’s #MeToo movement, was recently tried for purportedly instigating subversion of state authority. She stands accused of writing “seditious” articles and conducting training on “non-violent movements.”

As Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist based in the United States points out, the climate for protest and campaigning has become untenable in China, restricting feminism to individual initiatives and small groups. However, she believes the widespread popularity of Ueno’s ideas has managed to keep feminism within the “lawful” mainstream.

Megan Ji, a financial analyst aged 30, said her encounter with Ueno’s work was transformative and gave her the courage to confront her boss during an inappropriate incident at an after-work gathering. Although this report could not independently verify her account, Ji chose to remain anonymous to avoid potential repercussions at her workplace.

Guo Qingyuan, a 35-year-old copywriter, noted that reading Ueno made him reconsider his perspectives on women. He discontinued conversations objectifying women and began selecting children’s books for his daughter that avoided reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Despite this surge in feminist thought, Cao, the writer and advocate for victims of domestic violence, notes that books alone cannot resolve systemic issues.

Two years since China recognized “sexual harassment” as a legal ground for lawsuits in 2019, a study by the Beijing-based Yuanzhong Family and Community Development Service Center found that only 24 such cases were recorded in a national database. Researchers also found 12 other cases filed under different legal provisions.

While Ueno’s brand of feminism may not wield direct influence to alter laws, it has nonetheless nurtured a grassroots movement. “Even if her words can’t bring about policy changes,” says Cao, “they have certainly fueled an undercurrent of change.”

Contributions to this report were made by AP researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Feminism in China

What is the main focus of the text?

The main focus of the text is the influence of Japanese feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno on Chinese feminism, despite government restrictions and the suppression of civil activism.

Who is Chizuko Ueno, and why is she significant in this context?

Chizuko Ueno is a 75-year-old Japanese feminist scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. She gained prominence in China for her critical speech on societal expectations for women and the pressure they face to conform to traditional roles. She has become a significant figure in the Chinese feminist landscape due to her open stance on remaining unmarried and childless.

How has the Chinese government’s stance on feminism evolved in recent years?

The Chinese government has shifted towards promoting more conservative social values, encouraging women to focus on family and child-rearing. This shift has been accompanied by crackdowns on civil society movements and the introduction of laws aimed at curbing foreign influence.

What impact did Chizuko Ueno’s work have in China?

Chizuko Ueno’s books have seen substantial sales in mainland China, with over half a million copies sold in the first half of 2023. Her writings cover various feminist topics, and her openness about her personal choices has made her a role model for many Chinese women.

How has the Chinese government reacted to feminist activism?

The Chinese government views activism with suspicion and regularly exerts pressure on bookstores, cafes, and online platforms to suppress feminist events and discussions. References to movements like #MeToo are often deleted, and feminists are sometimes labeled as foreign agents by nationalist bloggers.

Has Chizuko Ueno’s feminism led to policy changes in China?

While Chizuko Ueno’s feminism has gained widespread popularity in China, it may not directly influence policy changes. However, it has sparked a grassroots movement and encouraged individuals to question traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

What challenges do Chinese feminists face in their activism?

Chinese feminists face significant challenges due to government restrictions and the inability to engage in large-scale protests or campaigns. Feminism in China has become more of an individual and small group initiative.

What are the limitations of Chizuko Ueno’s impact on Chinese feminism?

Although Chizuko Ueno’s work has inspired many, it cannot single-handedly address systemic issues. For instance, despite legal recognition of “sexual harassment” in China, the number of cases filed remains relatively low, indicating broader challenges in addressing gender-based issues.

How has Chizuko Ueno’s influence affected individuals personally?

Some individuals have found inspiration and empowerment through Chizuko Ueno’s work. They have used her ideas to confront workplace issues and challenge gender stereotypes in their personal lives. However, personal anecdotes should be taken with discretion, as they are not independently verified.

What is the significance of Chizuko Ueno’s avoidance of writing about China?

Chizuko Ueno’s decision not to write about China may be a key reason her work has escaped censorship. While feminist ideas are not banned in China, any form of activism is viewed with suspicion by authorities.

Who contributed to this report?

AP researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.

More about Feminism in China

  • Chizuko Ueno – Learn more about Chizuko Ueno, the Japanese feminist scholar mentioned in the text.
  • Chinese Feminism – Explore the history and context of feminism in China.
  • #MeToo Movement – Understand the global #MeToo movement and its impact on China.
  • President Xi Jinping’s Policies – Read about President Xi Jinping’s policies emphasizing conservative family values.
  • Leta Hong Fincher – Learn more about Leta Hong Fincher, a researcher mentioned in the text, and her work on gender discrimination and feminism in China.

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Reader123 September 29, 2023 - 5:25 am

wow, Chizuko Ueno is rly pop in China, even tho she’s old and not married or got kids. China’s gvt, yikes, they going super tradish, suppressin fem movmnts, lawz, no foreign stuff, smh.

FeministWarrior September 29, 2023 - 7:16 am

Chizuko Ueno rox! She talk abt women’s rights in China, v important now. No talk about China, clever.

ActivismQueen September 29, 2023 - 10:47 am

China gvt so bad, stoppin all activism. Ueno’s books sell like cray in China tho. But need moar action, not just books.

CuriousMind September 29, 2023 - 11:14 pm

What’s #MeToo? Gotta find out more abt China’s feminism and stuff.


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