The Bookstore Giving Shanghai’s Women a Room of Their Own
SHANGHAI — Wang Xia still denies that she runs Shanghai’s only feminist bookstore. When she started the business in 2020, she claims that she didn’t even know what the term meant.
“The word ‘feminism’ was very unfamiliar to me,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. “I still insist that my bookstore is a women-themed bookstore.”
For Wang, running the business has been quite an education. It has not only changed her life, but also thrust her into the center of an often highly charged debate over gender equality in China.
When the 46-year-old quit her job in finance and founded her bookstore three years ago, she just wanted to create a space where women like herself could feel free to express themselves. And the business has done exactly that, fostering a community of tens of thousands of women from across Shanghai.
But as the store’s success and public profile have grown, things have gotten more complicated. Wang has had to learn how to maintain control of her own narrative — and work out how to steer clear of some potentially controversial territory.
It’s easy to see why Wang’s business has prospered. A three-story space just across the road from the trendy Tianzifang neighborhood, Xinchao Bookstore styles itself as the city’s first and only independent women’s bookstore.
The interior resembles a set from the “Barbie” movie. Between bright pink walls, rows of bookshelves are stuffed with titles by female authors ranging from Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters to the Japanese feminist Chizuko Ueno.
The first floor is the main shopping area, divided into sections with titles such as “her art” and “her literature.” Upstairs, there is a suite of cozy reading rooms and a loft, which Wang uses to host book talks and other events.
Despite opening at the height of the pandemic, Xinchao has not only thrived; it has quickly become a local cultural hub. It runs monthly book clubs focusing on female works, women’s writing groups, and seminars on a range of women’s issues.
The store claims to have created a reader community numbering more than 50,000 people, and it’s become a fixture on lists of Shanghai’s must-visit hangout spots. Consumer brands regularly try to partner with Xinchao on campaigns.
In many ways, the store arrived at the perfect time. There has been an explosion in interest in gender equality issues in China over recent years, especially among younger women. Ueno and other feminist authors have found a massive audience, as have a multiplying number of gender studies podcasts.
For Wang, the timing was more of a happy accident. At the time, she was largely unaware of this wider cultural movement spreading across the country; her motivation for opening her store was mostly personal.
Wang grew up in central China’s Henan province, a part of the country where traditional values are deeply rooted. In her family, there were eleven girls and no boys. Neighbors used to joke that it was a “household without offspring.”
Wang had to learn to be tough and independent from a young age. At 20, she moved to Shanghai, found a job in banking, and got married, and started a family. For the next two decades, she balanced the tough demands of her job and the pressure of raising her children.
Friends and family called Wang a “strong woman” — half-admiringly and half-disparagingly. Though Wang hated the label, she embraced her responsibilities for a long time. But as she approached middle age, she began to realize that something of herself had got lost along the way.
She had all the trappings of a middle-class life: a house, a car, a good job, a family. But she increasingly felt “suffocated,” she says. Her identity had become subsumed into her titles: wife, mother, career woman.
What about herself? What was Wang Xia actually like? When she thought about it, it dawned on her that she had no idea — and the same was probably the case for many of her friends.
“Chinese women often feel anxious because they have forgotten themselves and their needs as they adjust to the changing roles of daughters, wives, and mothers,” says Wang. “The biggest issue for Chinese women is that they don’t really have their own space.”
By this time, Wang had made enough money to be financially comfortable, and so in 2017 — the year she turned 40 — she quit her job and spent some time reconnecting with herself.
In her isolated childhood home, books had often been her only company, but for the past 20 years she’d had little time to read. So, Wang threw herself into the world of literature once again, and began attending a wide range of book clubs and talks.
She quickly noticed two things: She loved these events; and so did a lot of other women her age. The attendees at most book clubs were usually at least 80% female, Wang estimates. There was clearly some kind of pent-up demand here — a spiritual need was being left unfulfilled.
“Why do women need to grow up in this era?” Wang recalls asking herself. “Why is ‘female growth’ a special term, but no similar term seems necessary for men?”
That’s when the idea for Xinchao — a name that roughly translates as “warm home” — began to crystallize: a community for women, where female growth was the sole focus. In 2020, Wang secured a loan and opened her first location.
Since then, Wang has been working day and night to make the business a success, usually sleeping just four or five hours a night. The store’s impact has far exceeded her expectations.
In an era when most bookstores are struggling to survive, Xinchao has gone from strength to strength, thanks largely to the profits from its many events, Wang says. It now has a reader community — which includes online followers and offline customers — numbering more than 50,000, of which around 80% are women aged between 30 and 50, Wang estimates.
She has been able to hire several full-time employees to help her run the store, whom she instructs to go out of their way to give customers a warm welcome. Wang says that many of her customers have become genuine friends.
“We want to emphasize the warmth and beauty of women,” she says. “The hope is that women can make each other feel warm, and care, accept, and tolerate each other.”
Bian Xiaoping, a retiree from Shanghai, says that Xinchao has changed her life. For the past few months, she has been taking part in a book club with a dozen other women at the store, where they read the classic Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber” line by line, and discuss the plot and themes together.
For Bian, the group has been a revelation. As a child, she wanted to read but didn’t have access to many books, and her formal education was cut short due to the “cultural revolution.” She often felt like she was part of the “least educated generation in China.”
But the store has allowed her to finally indulge her long-neglected passion for learning, Bian says. In October, she even traveled to Beijing to attend a “Dream of the Red Chamber” event, where she met Wang Liping — the composer who created the score for the iconic 1980s TV adaptation of the novel.
“I’ve discovered a whole new world since I came here,” Bian says.
Wang says that she has also been transformed by the experience of running Xinchao. Her conversations with her customers have educated her on a whole range of issues — especially the many systemic issues that women still face in Chinese society.
As a younger woman, Wang had never thought much about the inherent gender inequality embedded in traditional girls’ names such as Zhaodi — “Brother Requested” — and Shengnan, which roughly translates as “Surpass Men.” Now, she sees all those names that emphasize strength and martial values as problematic.
“It shows that parents expect their sons or daughters to exhibit a male personality or behavior from birth,” Wang says.
The same is true of public titles, Wang notes. It was only when she started talking with her customers that she began to see how expressions like “female doctor” or “female professor” — which are commonly used in China — can preserve and even reinforce gender bias.
Yet, at the same time, Wang is at pains to stress that Xinchao is in no way anti-men. Men are welcome in the store and all the events it runs, she says, though she admits that they are a pretty rare sight. A while ago, a man walked into the store, took one look at the pink decor and groups of female shoppers, and walked straight back out, she recalls with a laugh.
Similarly, Wang is clear that she doesn’t view Xinchao as forming part of a growing feminist movement. Feminism has become a controversial term in China in recent years, as online debates between feminist and anti-feminist groups become increasingly heated. Chinese social platforms have stepped up efforts to curtail “gender opposition,” and a number of feminist groups have shut down.
Instead, Wang prefers to style her business as a sign of Shanghai’s development. On a wall in the store, the slogan “a city needs a women’s bookstore” is written in large letters. Wang says the fact that Xinchao exists is evidence that the city is “women-friendly.”
“Space represents power, and female bookstores represent civilization,” she says. “The presence of women’s bookstores in a city indicates the high status of women there.”
When asked about the struggle to promote gender equality in wider society, Wang also treads carefully. The barriers facing women were built up over centuries, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to disappear overnight, she suggests. She tries to just focus on the practical things Xinchao can do to help women, such as supporting female authors with publishing and selling their work, and celebrating the achievements of women in the store.
“By having a women-friendly bookstore, we support women, we see their power, and we accompany women in their development,” she says.
Today, Wang says she has made peace with the idea of being a “strong woman.” She is proud of the fact that she is financially independent, and that she calls the shots at home. Luckily, her husband is relaxed about letting her take the lead, she says.
In media interviews, she is often asked how she manages to balance work and family. Wang usually replies bluntly that she doesn’t. Work has always come first, and she’s no longer ashamed to admit it.
When she was younger, she was always focused on paying off the mortgage, and left a lot of the childcare to the nanny, Wang says. Now, she takes her son — who is in middle school — to the bookstore, so he can get a feel for what she does.
In Wang’s view, the best thing she can do is focus on her own development. Growing Xinchao will ultimately benefit her family, her customers, and women in Shanghai more generally. But to do that, she needs to read more books and grow as a thinker, she says.
“In the future, I hope to make Xinchao the best women’s bookstore in the world,” Wang says.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: The stray cat adopted by Xinchao Bookstore stands in front of the book shelves, Shanghai, Nov. 2, 2023. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)