Amy Chua and Misplaced Chinese Pride

Amy Chua’s book on the superiority of Chinese mothering strategies (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) reminds me of Amy Chua’s 2002 World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.

I haven’t read either book, but have absorbed enough excerpts and commentary by her and others to have their gist: Chinese culture promotes superior achievement rarely attained under misguided western liberal ideals.

Chua will protest that this is not what her books say at all. She will argue that her 2002 book is all about the dangers unleashed by suddenly giving the masses the power to exercise majority will over their own nations. That may be her nominal premise, but her book’s logic and interest rely on the existence of staggering concentrations of economic power amassed by ethnic Chinese in emerging southeast Asian nations like the Philippines and Indonesia (along with Jews, Indians and Lebanese in Russia, South America and Africa).

Amy Chua’s Chinese mothering book simply ports the same theme to a different context. The United States is hardly a nation struggling to emerge into the modern world, but it’s a nation emerging from a painful recession and caught up in angst about how well we’re preparing our young for the challenges posed by rising Asian giants — mainly China.

Chua’s book fuels the notion that Chinese Americans like herself and her daughters have attained rarefied levels of success by virtue of a superior culture. Of course, Chua denies this, claiming that it’s merely a memoir. But the book’s marketing thrust is to sell the idea that the achievement of Chinese Americans — and by extension that of other Asian groups — can be scaled up to every American family who decides to adopt Chinese mothering strategies. “Let me be your model to success,” is the implicit message.

Set aside for the moment the flaw in her first book, namely, that there is some less painful way for nations to emerge from primitive dictatorships into the light of capitalist democracies. (I suspect hundreds of millions of Russians, Indonesians and Filipinos would take issue with her.) Also put aside for another discussion the wisdom of pounding kids into scholar-musicians so they can measure up well against the prejudices of overworked admissions committees at elite universities.

Let’s focus for the moment on Chua’s tacit premise that superior Chinese parenting accounts for the spectacular levels of economic and professional success enjoyed by Chinese immigrants because, after all, that phenomenon is the nuclear fuel that powers both books. Without that core of presumed fact, no one would pay attention to the rest of Chua’s ideas.

In fact, the implicit notion that Chinese culture and attitudes produce individuals of superior ability is a fallacy, and an obvious one. This piece isn’t long enough for me to parse the many misconceptions that contribute to this belief, but let me point out the very obvious fact that an entire giant nation full of Chinese mothers fell time and again to imperialists from far smaller nations with mere non-Chinese mothers like Mongolia, Britain, France and Japan.

And the fact that roughly a third of Chinese mostly in coastal China have recently built a thriving export economy does nothing to support Chua’s implicit premise of superior Chinese mothering. Modern China is as much a product of communist party dogma — which, for three decades, viciously rooted out much of traditional Chinese life — as traditional Chinese mothering.

To the extent Chua’s premise of hyper-effective Chinese mothering depends on the success of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. and southeast Asia, two facts must be noted: (1) a high degree of class selection has been at work in Chinese emigration of the past century; and (2) their success owes as much to opportunities offered by their new environments as to the culture they brought.

As to the first factor, even today few Americans recognize that people like Amy Chua’s immigrant parents are a far cry from the masses of immigrants who peopled America from Europe, Africa and Latin America. They weren’t starving farmers or slaves but the members of China’s highly educated elite. Chua’s own parents were both scholars who eloped to MIT! And even Chua doesn’t seem to recognize how rare such people are among China’s population at large. That degree of education — and what it implies about their genetics — would be found in a miniscule percentage of any population.

In ascribing the many genetic and cultural advantages of such backgrounds to the fruits of her over-the-top parenting strategy shows Chua’s lack of grasp of objective reality. If she understood that her parents represented perhaps the top 0.1% of China’s population in terms of genetic and cultural advantages, Chua may not feel comfortable ascribing her and her daughters’s academic success to parenting style. Chua has been prone to make grossly inaccurate statements in support of her arguments. For example, in discussing her 2002 book on democracy and capitalism in emerging nations she told interviewer Harry Kreisler of UC Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies that Bill Gates’s personal fortune amounted to 40% of the personal wealth of all Americans. Anyone with any grasp of economics (and Chua has a degree in economics) would know that even at the height of his wealth, Gates’s personal fortune would have been no more than 0.1% of American personal wealth.

Chua also refuses to recognize that much of the narrow academic and professional successes enjoyed by a disproportionate percentage of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. — as well as in southeast Asia — is a product of an immigrant mindset determined to fit into niches offered by societies whose value systems aren’t centered around academics and business success. Were that not the case, China itself would be more uniformly prosperous than any other nation on earth according to Chua’s premise about the virtues of Chinese mothering. Even today China remains a nation struggling to emerge from the decline and ruin brought on by the kind of peculiarly constricted hierarchical culture Chua’s mothering strategy would inculcate.

Conversely, if the U.S. were a nation of Chinese mothers, the new generation of Chinese immigrants would have no more opportunities here than they had in China — even if they come equipped with mothers like Chua evidently is. The majority of America’s most important Asian achievers were Chinese children who did not toe the line Chua drew for her kids. Goldsea’s pages are full of such examples. And I suspect even the majority of high-achieving Chinese American professionals who do fit the doctor-lawyer-banker mold didn’t have fascistic mothers and resent Chua’s presumption in speaking for Chinese mothers.

Fortunately, Amy Chua’s book is unlikely to turn the U.S. into a nation of Chinese mothers grinding out professional students and perfunctory musicians. It’s better the way it is — a society tolerant enough to make room for those seeking their own paths rather than be squeezed into narrow channels defined as success.