Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Amy Chua

Bloomsbury, pp.235, 16.99

Amy Chua, Tiger Mother and John M. Duff Professor of Law at Yale, was born in the Chinese year of the tiger, and a tiger, she says, ‘the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspires fear and respect’. She describes her own personality: ‘Hot- tempered, viper-tongued, fast-forgiving’.

Amy Chua, Tiger Mother and John M. Duff Professor of Law at Yale, was born in the Chinese year of the tiger, and a tiger, she says, ‘the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspires fear and respect’. She describes her own personality: ‘Hot- tempered, viper-tongued, fast-forgiving’. I missed the last quality in this disturbing book; she should have written ‘monomaniacal’. Here is what she says were

some things my daughters were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover; have a playdate [whatever that is]; be in a school play; complain about not being in a school play; watch TV or play computer games; choose their own extracurricular activities; get any grade less than an A; not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama; play any instrument other than the piano or violin; not play the piano or violin.

Fascinated by what I supposed could be a parody, or the confession of someone writing from a prison for child-abusers, I read on to find that Chua claims — falsely — that all Chinese mothers insist

your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math. The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they eventually win a medal, and that medal must be gold.

Born in America of Chinese parents, Chua was brought up to understand, as Confucius stipulated some 2,500 years ago, that everything must be done to honour one’s parents, a code she was to bash into her own children. American-style self-expression, fun, and doing OK were out. Chua could never sleep at friends’ houses, get less than an A, and when she got second prize in a history contest, her father said, ‘Never, never disgrace me like that again.’

She and two sisters went to Harvard and Yale, and the fourth sister, born with Down’s syndrome, won two gold medals at the Special Olympics. At Harvard Chua read applied mathematics ‘because I thought it would please my parents, and mechanically switched to economics because it seemed vaguely sciencelike’. She went to law school where she worked ‘psychotically hard’ [she employs a kind of slang in which words like psychotically are used jokily], and ‘just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorise it.’

Stepping off the rails just once, she married a Jew, but he wasn’t observant and was a brilliant young law professor, who throughout Chua’s book occasionally questions her manias — no other word will do — but invariably cowers before the resulting abuse, which she quotes. Their first daughter, Sophie, Chua claims, knew the alphabet when she was 18 months old, was tutored in Mandarin, read Sartre when he was three, and was forbidden to learn to drum — ‘which leads to drugs.’

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By practising the piano many hours daily according to the Suzuki method, Sophie became a virtuoso; aged 13, she played at Carnegie Hall. Lulu, the second daughter, rebelled violently, aged three, against the piano, and was thrust outside in skimpy clothes on a freezing day. ‘You can’t stay in the house if you don’t listen to Mommy.’ Chua soon grasped that her daughter ‘would sooner freeze than give in,’ and allowed her to come in from the cold because ‘I might be locked up by Child Services’ — another jokey throwaway. ‘But Lulu had under- estimated me. I was just rearming. The battle lines were drawn, and she didn’t even know it.’ Lulu was made to learn the violin instead.

At one of her own birthday parties Chua rejects her daughters’ cards; the girls are four and seven. She recalls:

‘What if I gave you this for your birthday, Lulu? Would you like that? I get you magicians and giant slides that cost me hundreds of dollars. I get you huge ice-cream cakes shaped like penguins. I deserve better than this.’ I threw the card back.

The striking aspect of this chapter, titled ‘The Birthday Card,’ is that Chua, as she frequently is throughout her book, appears unaware that she sounds cruel and unhinged.

Years later, during a family holiday, in a restaurant in Moscow’s Red Square, Lulu, now a teenager, begins howling, ‘I HATE YOU’ at her mother, and shouts so that everyone can hear:

You don’t love me. You think you do, but you don’t. You just make me feel bad about myself. You’ve wrecked my life. I can’t stand to be around you. I’m not what you want — I’m not Chinese. I don’t want to be Chinese. I can’t stand the violin. I HATE my life.

When Lulu starts breaking glassware, Chua runs out of the restaurant,

a crazy 46-year-old woman sprinting in sandals and crying … past Lenin’s mausoleum and past some guards who I thought [joke coming!] might shoot me.

But Lulu wins, and to her mother’s shame takes up tournament tennis. Chua immediately starts doing ‘research’ on tennis. Lulu finds out. ‘No Mommy — no. Don’t wreck tennis for me like you wrecked violin.’

In her final chapter Chua says that her daughters read the whole manuscript and assured her how grateful they were for their educational regime. After the book became a scandal in the US, 18-year-old Sophie wrote in a New York newspaper, using the same not-funny sarcasm she learned from her mother:

They think you’re serious about all this, and they assume Lulu and I are oppressed by our evil mother. That is so not true. Every other Thursday, you take off our chains and let us play math games in the basement.

Every Saturday at my local swimming pool a little Chinese boy is coached professionally; he is already an excellent swimmer. Last week, at 9 a.m., after his hour-long lesson, I heard his mother say: ‘Bobby, you’re still not lifting your right elbow high enough. Hurry up with that shower. You’ve got two hours of calligraphy, and an hour of extra math. If you don’t finish before lunch you won’t get your 15 minutes of free time.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, China, Cultural differences, Diaries, Yale