As women in China increasingly look to tackle entrenched gender discrimination in their rapidly modernizing country, one figure from abroad has proved a major inspiration for many -- Japanese women's studies pioneer Chizuko Ueno.

More than 20 books by Ueno, a 75-year-old sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, have been published in translation in mainland China, with total sales reportedly reaching at least 700,000 copies.

In 2022, Ueno even topped an Authors of the Year list compiled by Douban, the largest book review social networking service in China. Her "Genkai kara Hajimaru" (starting at the edge), which she co-authored with female Japanese writer Suzumi Suzuki based on correspondence between them, topped Douban's list of 10-best books that year.

Ueno's "Onnagirai" (misogyny), published in China in 2015, also ranked first in the Douban list of "Reprint Editions with Honorable Mention" in 2023.

More than 30,000 comments on the book, which looks at the many ways gender discrimination can be experienced in daily life, have been posted on the site.

Chinese language editions of books by Chizuko Ueno, Japanese women's studies pioneer and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, are sold at a Beijing bookstore on Feb. 1, 2024. (Kyodo)

"All of the things I have experienced over the last few years are covered in this book," one reader said, with another commenting, "You can find examples of cases in modern Chinese culture in every paragraph."

Although Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, had called for the equal treatment of men and women during the Cultural Revolution launched in 1966, famously saying, "Women hold up half the sky," the posts reflect widespread dissatisfaction among women with their place in society.

An Ueno fan in her 30s, who works as a Chinese-language teacher in Beijing, said she got to know about the Japanese professor through a video of a famous speech Ueno made at a University of Tokyo entrance ceremony in 2019 that went viral in China.

In the speech, which has garnered more than 1.2 million views on China's Bilibili video-sharing site, Ueno pointed out that Japan's top university was not immune to gender inequality issues, also telling new students, "An unjust society awaits you, where hard work will not always be rewarded."

The language teacher, who requested anonymity, said she agreed with the Japanese scholar after witnessing the discriminatory treatment of women in job recruitment.

"Among my graduate school friends, men quickly found decent jobs at government offices or banks although their academic results were not the best, while women were often asked during interviews whether they have plans to get married and have children," she said, describing the situation as "unfair."

While she was in charge of recruitment in the personnel department at a Chinese design firm, she said, her boss would press her to hire men as women were deemed physically unfit for designer jobs which often require a lot of overtime.

The teacher, who read one of Ueno's bestselling books about single people in old age, said she was surprised to learn Japan has a feminist like Ueno because of her overall impression that Japanese women are "gentle," with a tendency to shoulder household duties, as compared with "strong" European and American women.

An anonymous Ueno fan in her 30s -- a mother of two in Beijing -- said she felt enlightened by Ueno's works, which explain feminism as the idea that "the vulnerable can be respected," instead of a concept that encourages "weak" women to become as strong as men.

A full-time worker raising preschool-age children, she spoke of encountering gender issues at her workplace following the birth of her first child. She said her supervisor did not provide enough support for her and that she often had to work until late at night.

The stressful environment made her feel "insecure" and she now thinks the government should give more support to working women and that husbands should be more involved in household affairs.

Ueno's books "helped me to wake up," the mother said, adding that she believes many Chinese women had been ignorant of gender problems. The works were "useful" as they talked about life's challenges and gave her the confidence not to blame herself for personal difficulties.

In an online talk with Chinese gender studies scholar Li Yinhe in June last year, Ueno said she believes the rise of interest in feminism in China reflects a common trend in East Asia where birthrates have been declining, and daughters can be as cherished as sons, especially if they are an only child.

With the change in times, a greater number of women in Japan, South Korea and China are less inclined to put up with gender discrimination, Ueno argued. Daughters raised by mothers who had endured unfair treatment "began to fight for their rights, and naturally became interested in affirmative action," she said.

Chizuko Ueno, renowned sociologist and honorary professor of the University of Tokyo, makes a congratulatory speech to new students at the university's entrance ceremony at the Nippon Budokan on April 12, 2019. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Masako Furuichi, an associate professor of Japanese language and culture at Peking University, said the popularity of Ueno has centered around highly educated Chinese women in their 20s and 30s living in big cities who were raised as only children.

Those women, whom she dubbed "a winners' group," can now choose whether to get married or have kids but are often torn between their many choices, Furuichi said. She also referred to their struggle amid intensifying competition for jobs after the economic situation worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furuichi said in a lecture in November that even male Chinese students have taken an interest in Ueno's message and are studying feminism, probably because they consider themselves to be "losers" in a society that encourages everyone to become strong.

The Chinese public was exposed to the concept of feminism when Beijing hosted the 1995 World Conference on Women, a U.N. gathering for gender equality that drew some 17,000 participants from across the globe.

But Furuichi added that interest in feminism studies triggered by the conference all but fizzled out in the 2000s, due in part to the fact it was a trend led by the government and had not taken root in Chinese society.

Communist-led China has been tightening control of civic groups advocating women's rights, treating the feminist movement as a politically charged issue. The future of China's own feminist research "hinges upon whether or not this Chizuko Ueno boom is something transient or not," Furuichi said.

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