How China’s young feminists are embracing and supporting one another

Society & Culture

Standing in front of muchroom pub in Chengdu, one feels a sense of openness. It all ties into the founders' goals of fostering a community where people feel safe to speak honestly and freely.

Illustration for SupChina by Chelsea Feng

Two years ago, while mostly working and studying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fēibái 飞白 and Zuǒyī 左一 witnessed a fresh current of online hostility toward women. The two friends came up with an idea to build a communal space for women, like a social agora. “We hoped to expand public discussions to offline spaces,” Feibai said. “At that time, I also attended some feminist events, but it felt like they were fighting a guerrilla war, since they never had a fixed venue where people could gather and raise people’s awareness of gender issues.”

In July 2020, Zuoyi and Feibai opened the pub muchroom in Chengdu (the bar’s name is lower-cased as a tribute to American author bell hooks). “There is a simple explanation for the name — it can be a communal space or a small, unassuming room where much happens,” Zuoyi said. “The pub allows us to have serious discussions, but it can also be used more casually.” Their goal is to eventually expand their community.

Like Feibai and Zuoyi, a growing number of young women across China are fostering their own feminist communities via online and offline activities. Take, for example, Echo Mao, a frequent visitor to muchroom, and Guō Zǎ 郭咋, a part-time waitress there.

Mao founded Women Standup (相当女子 xiāngdāng nǚzǐ) with her friends last year, providing a safe stage for amateur female stand-up comedians. She was inspired by Yáng Lì 杨笠, a notable standup comedian whose jokes about men irritated them, resulting in Intel pulling one of her ads.

Events in Women Standup began as online open mics before expanding offline. At the end of each show, there is usually an hour-long discussion in which comedians and guests address issues related to gender. “The online chats are more like heart-to-heart conversations between friends,” Mao said. “There isn’t a strict procedure, and there is no distinction between the host and the guest. Anyone who wants to say something can open their mic and say it.

“There have been many friends who told their very personal and private stories, including things they haven’t said anywhere else, just because this space makes them feel safe.”

Guo Za and several friends created Women Power of the World (女力天下 nǚ lì tiānxià), which hosts, among other events, debates on gender topics. “We wanted to host debates because a lot of what is on the internet is very toxic and not conducive to seeing multiple perspectives,” Guo Za said. “During the debates, participants listen patiently to other people’s opinions, and even if they disagree, they’ll listen sincerely and intently. People will also offer words of affirmation and praise, which makes our space feel warm and inviting.

“We’ve been very happy to see this, to know that perhaps we’ve opened up a small patch of cyberspace where our sisters can express themselves freely and safely.”

Guo Za and her friends also regularly invite guests to give virtual talks. Speakers have included women’s soccer player Lǎo Yáng 老杨 and rock star Yuè Tù 月兔, lead vocalist of the band Xiao Wang. Earlier this year, Women Power of the World began organizing offline events. On January 2, it hosted an on-site workshop in Beijing led by Xiào Jiā 肖佳, a prominent visually-impaired makeup artist. Xiao helped participants understand the concept of “non-visual makeup” and had them reflect on people’s anxieties over physical appearance.

Chinese feminists overseas are also working within the framework of mutual support. VaChina, a student society based in SOAS London, has become a nearly decentralized community where people can organize gender-related activities. The community has expanded beyond SOAS and now includes members from around the world. Since the beginning of the pandemic, VaChina has initiated online events such as virtual hangouts, mini talks, race and gender-related workshops, mental health workshops, etc.

Ā Wéi 阿维, one of the most active members, joined VaChina in 2019 when she was in her early 20s. After attending a three-month online anti-domestic violence training program organized by Sparking Women (星火计划 xīnghuǒ jìhuà), A Wei began to organize related workshops. She and other organizers created an anti-domestic violence resource kit with open editorial access, and started a writing therapy workshop. “In the workshop, participants shared a lot of their life experiences,” A Wei said. “It was a good opportunity to learn from one another and understand the features of domestic violence, the solutions, and self-care.”

Other notable women’s communities include Qinbao (琴包装机关枪的少女 qínbāo zhuāng jīguānqiāng de shàonǚ), whose founders — based all over China and abroad — focus on issues of gender discrimination and sexual violence in music. People also gather on Douban, a social networking website, to share industry-specific experiences and work opportunities. These communities provide women a hard-to-find safe space to connect and build solidarity.

Alas, many have expressed concern about the long-term viability of their efforts. Feminism has long been stigmatized in Chinese media. Organizers worry not only about how to sustain their communities, but also how to combat malicious behavior and harassment, from both online users and local authorities.

Before muchroom’s opening, Zuoyi and Feibai were visited by local police and had to cancel a scheduled launch party. The founders say they were summoned to the police station, questioned about their business license, and advised to not connect with any LGBTQ communities. The officer who had initially approached them showed up at muchroom later to accost them during an event.

Negotiating with the police has become routine for Feibai and Zuoyi. For months, the founders suffered under self-censorship and were afraid of trying anything. But they adapted. “I think our dealings with the cops has been a learning experience,” said Zuoyi, who listed some examples of how they’ve been able to wiggle around restrictions. “We feel like through this process, we’ve been able to widen, ever so slightly, our space’s freedom to do things.”

A flea market and coffee stall set up in front of muchroom last October. Photo provided by Feibai

Standing in front of muchroom, one feels a sense of openness. The front door is made of glass, with a terrace outside that welcomes customers to congregate. “Our terrace at the entrance is a symbolic place where people can freely socialize,” Zuoyi said. “Even though it’s cold in the winter, people are still willing to sit outside to drink and discuss.” The founders’ friends occasionally swing by to set up coffee stalls, flea markets, nail salons, divination stations, etc., all within the confines of the bar.

For Zuoyi and Feibai, muchroom aids in the practice of “living a feminist life.” They hope to form an ecosystem in which the existence of a feminist space can have a wider impact on the greater community. If this sounds grand — well, the founders know it. They also understand the importance of doing something small — maintaining an inclusive pub that represents what they believe is right, and along the way, connecting with people who are interesting and principled.

“I find it very rewarding that these small things we do are really having an impact on specific individuals — that it might cause someone to get too excited to sleep, or to drive her to reflect on a weird intimate relationship, or her identity as a woman,” Feibai said. “This is a concrete, visible thing that has a tangible meaning for me.”