Just as the January snows came down across America The Wall Street Journal created its own perfect storm with an excerpt from Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, under the red-rag title 'Why Chinese Mothers are Superior'. 5000 posts hit the paper's website within a week, and 7100 soon followed. 333,000 people shared the article on Facebook, which buzzed with comments about that Chinese-American mother who routinely thwarted her daughters by banning play-dates, sleepovers, and shopping malls, and by pushing them to excel in the most illiberal way. As if to defy the death of the book Chua's memoir promptly sold millions of copies.
Why should a story of an ambitious, middle-class, high-flying, second-generation Chinese woman who put her children's achievements before nearly everything else, be of interest to so many? A woman who never gave her daughters choices, openly treating them as extensions of herself. A woman who flouted the last 100 years of child development theory, which promotes independence, individual choice, creativity, and the questioning of authority. A woman who remains convinced, despite upheavals, that passing on to her daughters her own very personal vision of a valuable life is central to her role as a mother.
What then is all the hoo-ha really about, if it's not just about banning school plays, computer games, and junk food? The Wall Street Journal and Chua's publishers were canny. They chose an excerpt that reflects Amy Chua at her most cocky. 'I was the one', she admitted later, 'that in a very overconfident immigrant way thought I knew exactly how to raise my kids'. The 'Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior' excerpt, with its list of do's (A grades) and don'ts (no TV), worked. Overnight Amy Chua's book shot up the charts. However many of those baited by the excerpt never went on to read the memoir, and so never followed what Chua describes as 'the full arc of the story', which is all about 'how I was humbled by a 13-year old'.
Nonetheless Amy Chua does make a number of explicit attacks on what she calls Western parenting. Her sharpest accusation is that we're lazy - or permissive, as it's politely known. In her view we idolize our children's independence, and promote their free choice, because it suits us to do so. It takes the pressure off us to let them go their own way. It's much easier, she points out, than supporting them through the lengthy process that internalising self-discipline involves. And yet in failing our children in this way we rob them of their potential, which Chua believes can only blossom with our active, demanding, prodding support.
'All these Western parents', she writes, 'with the same party line about what's good for children and what's not – I'm not sure they're making choices at all. They just do what everyone else does. They're not questioning anything either, which is what Westerners are supposed to be so good at doing. They just keep repeating things like "You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion" when it's obvious that the "passion" is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours and eating all that disgusting junk food' (p227).
'Miss Chua' has been criticized for joylessly coercing her daughters in the name of musical and academic excellence. In a way these critics are right. Amy Chua is relentless and at times manic in her worship of musical mastery and intellectual achievement, and her story does at times read more like a rant than a memoir - although a pretty marvellous rant in our oh-so politically correct era.
While the opening chapters of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother could be read as yet another stick to beat Western mothers' backs with - more fuel for the pyre of maternal guilt, continue reading and a more complex picture emerges. Ranting aside, Chua's memoir is a personal and fairly measured reply to two questions that beset mothers all over the world, regardless of their cultural background. How do we know what's best for our children? And how do we help bring this about for them? What's striking, even shocking, about Amy Chua's memoir is the complete confidence with which she answers these questions, as if with a snap of her fingers. We know what's best for our children, she says, from what we know about what's best for ourselves. And we know how to bring this about through an understanding of how our own parents helped to bring this about for ourselves - or failed to.
And then we look at Amy Chua, with her long glossy hair, attractive family, and professorship. And we ask ourselves, what if she's right? This is the aspect of Chua's memoir that has created a real stir, the idea that we ourselves might have fallen short of our promise because when we were young our parents held back from pushing us beyond our 'preferences'.
Chua's memoir is a stinging critique of the easy-way-out parenting that many of us end up adopting. The Chinese way, in contrast, is the path of greatest resistance, according to which you should never allow your child to give up, no matter what. True self-esteem arises out of mastering things that you don't think you can do - not from being praised, in the Western way, for things that you already knew you could do.
'Chinese parents', Chua writes, 'believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away'. None of us would argue with these qualities - who wouldn't want them for their children? It's the hardness with which Chua pursues them that recoils us.
Chua's choice of the violin for her younger daughter reflects her belief in the importance of embracing difficulty. But it's not just difficulty that she admires. 'The violin', she writes, 'symbolized excellence, refinement, and depth - the opposite of shopping malls, mega-sized Cokes, teenage clothes, and crass consumerism'. Obviously many Western mothers reject crass consumerism, too. This is hardly remarkable. What has unsettled the countless mothers who have read this memoir is something else. Chua's commitment to introducing her daughters to 'excellence, refinement, and depth' is unsettling, given that these are qualities that, as Western mothers, we often struggle to introduce our children to.
The violin is just as powerful a symbol for Amy Chua as for her daughter Lulu. 'Unlike listening to an iPod', she writes, 'playing the violin is difficult and requires concentration, precision, and interpretation. Even physically, everything about the violin - the burnished wood, the carved scroll, the horsehair, the delicate bridge, the sounding point - is subtle, exquisite, and precarious'. Above all she is drawn to the violin, and to classical music, because it symbolizes 'respect for hierarchy, standards, and expertise'. (It does seem ironic that in her quest to instil civilized values in her daughters Chua is drawn to, even seduced by, classical music, steeped as it is in Western culture.)