Yale law professor Amy Chua succeeded spectacularly in making America hear her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Thanks to Chua and the online chatter that exploded after the publication of her memoir of raising her two daughters Chinese-style in Connecticut, there can be few parents in the US today who do not have a position on what the New York Times dubbed “extreme parenting”.
Chua’s book has also been a bestseller in China, under the intriguing title Being a Mother in America – a Yale Law Professor’s Child-raising experience. But it’s a murder case in Xi’an, the ancient city best known for its terracotta army, that has triggered a bitter re-examination of the legitimacy of tiger mom parenting among the Chinese.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that 21 year old piano student Yao Jiaxin topped China’s most hated list in 2011. On October 20 of last year, Yao ran into a young woman while driving home. That was an accident. It’s what happened next that is shocking. When he got off his car, he found out that the injured victim was noting down the car’s license plate number. It was then “within three seconds” that he made a decision that altered his life for ever. Fearful of future blackmailing, Yao took out a dagger and stabbed the woman to death – six times – before fleeing the scene. Three days later, escorted by his parents, Yao turned himself in and confessed to his crime. The open trial that started in March this year made him a celebrity overnight.
First people were puzzled. No one could imagine how the same fingers that played Beethoven and Mozart so gracefully could end a life so ruthlessly. Soon public outrage seized whole nation. People started to ask: why? And the voices arguing that what Yao did was testimony to the bankruptcy of harsh parenting became louder and louder.
During the open trial Yao offered glimpses into his upbringing:
“Ever since I was a small boy, my life has been filled with either classroom study or piano practice. My mother would watch me playing piano. If I did not meet her expectations, she would whip me with her belly belt … my father’s concern was my school grades. For a long time, he would lock me in a dark room underground to focus on my studies. I could be let out only for meals or to go to the bathroom.”
The strategy got results. Yao was accepted into one of China’s best music schools, the Xi’an Music Conservatory, to study piano.
What happened, says Sun Yunxiao, deputy director for the China Research Institute for Youth, is that Yao was alienated into a sheer piano machine. Sun, who was voted the “2011 Man of Chinese Education”, argues that the essence of family education is the education of love [rather than skills]. First, parents should offer their kids genuine love; second, parents should guide their kids as to how to love others.
This echoes many western parents’ fundamental belief that to nurture love and self-esteem goes beyond anything else in parenting. Amy Chua simply doesn’t buy that: “Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.”
That’s why Chua never hesitates to embrace the much tougher Chinese way, at least as she defines it: “…Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t… Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.”
Which fits Yao’s parents’ mindset perfectly, if not Yao himself. Yao started to learn piano at age four. His parents at times struggled to pay for his costly piano classes but that investment paid off since Yao made steady progress, culminating in his entry to the conservatory. Yet Yao could hardly remember a moment when his father ever said anything positive to encourage him. Instead, he had to savor comments like: “you are so ugly” and “no one will like you.”
In a rare interview with China Central Television, Yao admitted that he was in constant despair and depression, “I often thought about committing suicide at junior high school, since I couldn’t find hope or meaning in life,” recalled Yao.
In his popular blog, the scholar Yi Zhongtian argues that the key failure of Chinese style education is the lack of love and humanity. “Many parents choose to conceal their love and wear a stiff face, not letting their kids feel their love, not to mention to reward that love. By doing this they wish their kids every success, but instead, they are killing the capacity to love.” Yi makes no bones about the fact that he holds this kind of parenting responsible for producing someone like Yao who had lost the ability to feel basic sympathy with fellow human beings. Yi’s post on Yao has attracted nearly 900,000 hits. One comment was long enough to be an article itself. It argues that in China today: “one’s material success is prioritized above any spiritual education about kindness, equality, respect and tolerance. The whole culture is pushing egotism, chasing after fame and wealth recklessly.”
Not everyone, however, sees things in these black or white terms. Feng Daqing, a Beijing-based playwright has excellent parenting credentials: her daughter was just accepted by the prestigious London School of Economics. But she refuses to attribute Yao’s horrendous actions to how he was brought up. “Parenting is a highly individualized thing, and you can never set up a formula for others to copy,” says Feng. What she does accept is that China has become a battle field for survival and this has forced parents to press their kids even harder. She cherishes memories of her parents taking her and other children from the neighborhood for a story-telling walk after dinner. That doesn’t happen today. Nobody has the time.
For Yao and his parents, the expression of love did, finally, happen. On the way to the police to confess his crime, Yao was told by his mother, that “papa has always been proud of you”. During the ten-minute final farewell before his execution on June 7, Yao told his parents that he hoped they would become his children in their next life so that he could finally repay their love by taking good care of them.