Chinese and Western modes of upbringing

A book that’s recently been published is called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (2011). It is written by a Chinese woman called Amy Chua, brought up in the U.S.A. Her book was discussed in ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior’, an article in the Wall Street Journal. Interestingly enough, she previously published a book called Day of Empire (2007), in which she analyzed the rise and fall of different superpowers, including the Roman Empire, the Mongols, Nazi-Germany and the Dutch trade-empire. There she argued that one of the most important factors that can cause a fallback from superpower-status is the inability to unite the subjects into an overarching identity. I personally found ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior’ an interesting article (source can be found below). However, as a politician, former teacher, historian and philosopher, I have several points of criticism.

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up…

There are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting… The vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be ‘the best’ students, that ‘academic achievement reflects successful parenting,’ and that if children did not excel at school then there was ‘a problem’ and parents ‘were not doing their job’.” –Amy Chua, ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, 2011

Now as a teacher, what a blessing it would be if all parents were like Amy Chua! They would get mad if their children failed in obtaining the highest of scores, and consequently the pupils would be much more inclined to participate in the lessons and to pay attention. From personal experience, I can tell it’s usually about 20% of the pupils who are genuinely interested in what you are teaching (although this varies, depending on the enthusiasm of the teacher, the natural abilities of the pupil and the interestingness of the topic). 30% are out to sabotage your lesson and to create a stirrup for distraction. The remaining 50% ultimately don’t care and seem to dwell in a fluctuating haze of apathy. When I obtained my qualification as a professional teacher at 20 years of age, I decided that struggling against this apathy was a futile waste of my creative energies. Previously I had concluded that the idea that every pupil is a genius in a nutshell waiting to be awakened by a skilled teacher with a positive approach, is a politically correct fable fostered by the Socialist-takeover of my nation’s education system. So I quit teaching and instead began a career as politician, meanwhile pursuing two master-degrees simultaneously in university. Next to that I made a little money on the side as a part-time instructor of martial arts for children and adults.

However I have plenty of criticism towards the vision of Amy Chua. For example, when I was a teacher, zealous parents seriously wanted to have meetings to discuss test scores to levels of absurd detail; for example, 1 point out of 35. Of course I could prove my case, but this was a waste of 60 minutes. Another time, I gave a class an assignment about a Medieval farm village. The pupils received a leaflet with questions to answer and once that was done they could colour the pictures of the houses and peasants. A kid was mad that he did not receive a 100% score and decided that it had to be the colouring of the pictures that was incorrect. I reasoned that a 100% score for a simple assignment would distort their overall average. After all, this assignment was made for the purpose of giving them a chance to improve their average grade, and then they ungratefully got mad for obtaining 80% scores instead of 100% scores. If I would not have given them an opportunity to improve their average scores, the parents would have been mad at me and at the school, since they care more about the score outcome of tests than about the content of what their child has actually learned. Consequently the school-board would take it out on me. Cloak-and-dagger political games like these is why I decided to say goodbye to my career as a teacher. However these games are tied up with the mentality of “tiger-parents” like Amy Chua, who preach:

“If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.” –Amy Chua, ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, 2011

On the grounds of what I’ve written about my ‘achievements’, some might consider me a child-prodigy. And perhaps it’s because of that that I, of all persons, should be in the position to comment on Chua’s theories. My parents rarely interfered with my homework or school. My family is of a labour-class background. They didn’t really complain when I came home with some bad grades for music, French, or mathematics. I made my own priorities and decided to invest minimal effort into some subjects, and to focus fully on the rest. During the summer holidays to Spain I brought books with me to read on a variety of topics; literature, chemistry, the First World War.

When I was thirteen years old I had read 1984 and when I was fourteen I ordered and read The End of History and the Last Man. When I was fifteen I had already swallowed the oeuvres of Nietzsche and Edgar Allan Poe, and spent a lot of time reading in the library during the breaks at school. But it was always apparent to me that the need of achieving only 100% scores is hybris. When you are so knowledgeable about topics that your insights transcend beyond your teachers’, there’s no further authority to appeal to. I dare to say that I understand some theories better than my current professors, but there is no “Führer-professor” who transcends all other professors and who will publicly declare that I am right. Same thing with teachers. Best strategy is to have their sympathies on your side as an eager and apt pupil, and not to press your points even when you know you are right. You can gain on the short-term with this but you will lose out on the long run.

I’ve understood this since I was thirteen years old but it’s exactly what Chua fails to comprehend. If you rub your professors the wrong way, you won’t be selected for a promotion-trajectory. On my latest assignment about emperor Augustus, for example, my professors were in mutual disagreement about the topic. During the discussion which followed the grading, they couldn’t even remember what they had graded it. One claimed it had been an insufficient whereas the other didn’t know it at all. They let me off the hook with some clichés like “your piece didn’t get to the point” or “too much of it was based on manuals”. I privately disagreed but decided to let it be and accepted my sufficient grade. It wasn’t an 80%. I had doubts about the competence of one of the graders, but I had learned from experience that sometimes your work receives a much lower grade although you put much more effort into it, and the other way around, too. Bottom line is: They don’t judge your work by objective standards and as a student you can’t force them to.

“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.” –Amy Chua, ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, 2011

This is very dangerous and I owe it to the world to warn against this sort of reasoning. Getting a high degrees usually presumes conforming to the standards of the grader. When I was to write a piece about religion in the Medieval era, I wrote about Islam because I thought I could learn more from it, considering how extensively we had already studied Christianity. My grade was a 50%. When I changed my topic to the Catholic Church like the rest of the master-students, my grade went up to 75%. Naïve grade-pushing parents like Amy Chua should seriously spend some time studying the works of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

Appreciation for a work is tied up with the standards on which it is graded – so even though their research was unique and revolutionary, people at first rejected Copernicus and Galileo’s thoughts about the universe because their standards of evidence weren’t accepted. Likewise, you’re not going to get very far with an insightful dissertation about Darwinian genetics if you are going to push it on a university funded by the Vatican. Or what to think of a study in Eugenetics in post-war Germany?

The theories of Amy Chua seem absurd if you compare them to the real facts of the world. Why isn’t every Chinese civilian a world-class mastermind then? Why doesn’t China rule the world? I’ll tell you why! Because they are ruled by a totalitarian government based on Marxist dogmatism. Nobody ever stands up there with a unique genius idea, because conformity is the ultimate standard to everything. Now if we regard this remark:

“Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.” –Amy Chua, ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, 2011

The observation that the Chinese are less inclined to participate in team-sports seems to contrast with the collectivist character of Chinese society. I admit, China has produced some noteworthy philosophical and political figures – Confucius, Mao, Sun-Tzu – but what they haven’t produced is a Beethoven, a Leibniz, a Goethe or an Einstein. Why don’t they have an Edward Gibbon or a Newton? Because the Western spirit is different from the Chinese. A Chinese top-scholar is produced through repetitive drilling. A Western genius is born with an intrinsic fascination for some topic, and he consistently follows that fascination regardless of, rather than owing to, outside pressure.

“’Oh no, not this,’ I said [to my husband], rolling my eyes. ‘Everyone is special in their special own way,’ I mimicked sarcastically. ‘Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games’…

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that’.” –Amy Chua, ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, 2011

Like anyone who’s been a teenager, I sometimes had clashes with my parents where they called me names. But at such times what I felt for them was only a deep contempt. I heard their insult, but it left me untouched and cold – in contrast to them, their faces red with anger and emotion, their voices shouting. Calmly regarding this image, I felt they were beneath me. How easy it was to make them mad! And how effortlessly I maintained my stoic composure. I could read in their faces how powerless they really were to make me do something against my will. When they insulted me, I knew that any classification, any declaration they could make about my character, was devoid of meaning, because it was made by ants trying to fight the sun. Deep down I felt this pure power, a sheer imperviousness, that made any of their insults miscast to begin with. They hit me sometimes, when I was younger, and at those moments I thought: “A time will come when you will not be able to physically control me. What will you do then?” They gave up in the end. I continued my intellectual pursuits and began training in martial arts. And here I am today, with my political career, my teacher’s degree and my master studies.

“Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences. That’s why Chinese daughters can’t have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can’t go to sleepaway camp. It’s also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, ‘I got a part in the school play! I’m Villager Number Six. I’ll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I’ll also need a ride on weekends.’ God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.” –Amy Chua, ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, 2011

I get back to my previous point here: In the Chinese system, everyone is number six, and they conform to that. The only ones who are not number six, are the leaders of the Communist party. God help the Chinese who disagrees with this. As I tried to make a clear, a child that possesses a strong enough individual will to pursue drama against the wishes of his parents, is likely to become a brilliant actor. Western civilization gives room to this. The Chinese don’t.

Chua describes situations where she forces her daughter to play the piano. The daughter resists, but ultimately complies after being pressured and coerced. Maybe her approach works because the Chinese are by nature perhaps more docile and submissive. This makes them industrious, disciplined, and self-supplying, it must be said to their advantage. But if I compare her approach to my own surroundings, well, my parents constantly yell at my brother and pressurize him. Because he smoked pot, when he quit his college-education, because he didn’t spend enough time looking for a job. But it all had no effect, he continued to do as he pleased, regardless. Western people aren’t as malleable as Chua would have us believe. My brother did quit smoking pot, and he did find a new education for himself, but it was only after he had taken some time for himself and gained some responsibility.

Another example, a woman from my gym has a son. The son used to do kickboxing from time to time. However he was constantly in a fight with his mother, he stopped attending the trainings and he smoked more and more pot. He didn’t wake up in the mornings anymore and stopped going to school. His mother did everything; she punished him, she stimulated him by buying a card to do sports, by trying to wake him up on time, by making strict agreements with him and his teachers. But nothing worked. Ultimately he was placed outside of the house and now lives in some special group. People just aren’t as malleable as Chua thinks. Unless we are ruled by some Führer who arranges society so that everyone must go to the Jugendsturm after class. But we aren’t. So get over it and give up your illusions of the malleability of man.


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