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'Tiger Mom' comes to China

Amy Chua (right) and her daughters meet with Chinese reporters in Beijing.
Amy Chua (right) and her daughters meet with Chinese reporters in Beijing.Adrienne Mong

BEIJING—The school term may be coming to a close for summer, but education remains a hot topic.

At least that’s the way the China Times sees it.

The Taiwan-based newspaper invited Amy Chua, author of the controversialBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, to Beijing for several public speaking engagements earlier this week.

“She uses the Chinese way to educate her kids, and it’s very successful,” said Shao Jian Biao, the deputy editor in chief atChina Times.  “But parents here in China have been trying the western way, because they thought it was better.  A lot of parents are confused.”

East or West?

Monday morning saw a small group of Chinese reporters—all of them female—turn up a hotel business center, eager to get Chua to expound on her views on raising children.

“I’m a mother, and I read her book very carefully,” said Shen Feng Li, Vice Director of Shanghai Morning Post.  “In China, we pay a lot of attention to education.”

A Chinese translation ofCourtesy Citic Press

At a corporate gathering in another hotel, the audience was again largely female.  “I have a little boy, and I read her book.  I agreed with it,” said a stylishly-dressed executive who did not want to give her name.

For any parent who might have been living under a rock this year, Chua’s book was excerpted in theWall Street Journal in January with a headline that served as a wake-up call (of sorts) to Americans already anxious about a rising China: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”

As it turned out, her book isn’t really about how the Chinese make better parents.  It’s a much more personal account of the challenges facing a mother wanting the very best for her children.

“I actually wrote this book in a moment of crisis, when my younger daughter, Lulu, turned 13, became a teenager, and rebelled against my very strict parenting,” Chua explained.

In fact, Chua took great pains to set the record straight.

“A lot of people in China…misunderstand.  They think [the book’s] like a parenting guide, and they don’t realize it’s supposed to be funny,” she said. 

The book, which was translated into Chinese and available almost immediately after its release in the U.S., was titled “Being a Mom in America” in China.

Among the greater misunderstandings amongst Chinese, Chua continued, is that “they don’t realize that at the end of the book I actually change and loosen up….  Many people in China only saw the opening about these strict rules, and they thought I was telling everyone, ‘Hey, everybody should do this.’”

Amy Chua (right) and her daughters meet with Chinese reporters in Beijing.Adrienne Mong

Nonetheless, many people here disagreed with the parenting method Chua described in her book.

“An overseas Chinese wrote a book about China and teaching” so people were curious, said Dr. Henry Wang from the Center for China & Globalization, a think tank in Beijing.  But “people feel that even now the Chinese parents may not be that restrictive, or as harsh, or perhaps more demanding.”

“I think today’s parents in China have a different perspective and attitude than she does,” said Shen.  “I’m not sure her method would work here.”

Better to be balanced

Chua agreed.

“There needs to be balance,” she repeatedly told audiences.  “I think when the children are very young, the Chinese way is very good.  You have to guide them, teach them, to have respect, to have self-discipline [and be] hard-working.  But when they’re older, you have to be freer.”

In fact, the Yale Law School professor at times sounded evangelical about mixing East and West.

“I think China and America have opposite problems,” she said.  “The Chinese school system is already very strict….  But in America, it’s very free, everybody’s playing all the time.  So I felt I had to be stricter.”

Ultimately, audiences were curious about Chua’s daughters, 18-year old Sophia and 15-year old Lulu.  After all, their success—as students, as individuals, as daughters—would ultimately give credence to her choice of parenting style.

At the smaller gathering of reporters, Sophia (who calls herself a Tiger Cub and writes a light-hearted but thoughtful blog of her own) parried questions in fluent Mandarin with poise and confidence.

When a reporter asked the teenager whether she regretted “spending all that time practicing the piano,” Sophia rejected the notion.  “Not really….  Now I’m grown up.  I have a lot of time to do what I whatever I want, and I have the confidence to know that I can be good at it,” she said. 

Moreover, said the 18-year old, who will start college at Harvard in the autumn, “I think I will also be a Tiger Mother.  Maybe I will give my children more choice to choose their own activities.  When they’re very little, if they don’t like the activity I’ve picked for them, I won’t make them continue.  Whatever they want to pursue is fine.  As long as they’re very good and work very hard at it.”

Spoken like a true cub.