Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

It’s hard to tell what Amy Chua was thinking when she wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Is she seeking approval for her parenting methods, which she unwittingly but directly claims has successfully raised approximately 1.3 billion of her fellow “countrymen”? The fact that Chua was born in America and that her parents explicitly and repeatedly condemn multiple aspects of her parenting style as too harsh and unthinking kind of undermines this theory.
Chua tries to help us out from the start with her intro (also featured on the cover!):

This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.

But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.

What does this mean, precisely? It means that you have to read about 90% of terrible decisions and harping before Lulu, Chua’s younger daughter, snaps and tells Chua that she’s doing everything wrong, and that her overbearing nature has meant that she has taken the fun out of everything that was once loved. Chua responds to this by giving Lulu a small degree of choice, which she herself manipulates from the shadows. It takes her more than sixteen years of parenting to accept even the smallest change, and even then the thought of Lulu doing her own thing without parental intervention “pains [her] every day”.


Chua has a good daughter, Sophia, willing and pliable, and a bad one, Lulu, who doesn’t take well to hours upon hours of drudgery and abuse disguised as motivation.

I love being able to count on Sophia. She has wells of inner strength. Even more than me, she can take anything: exclusion, excoriation, humiliation, loneliness.

Chua doesn’t realise that Sophia and Lulu are so good at taking these things in the outside world because they are regularly taking them from their mother at home. For the most part, she seems remarkably self unaware. Several times, teachers make her leave the room while her children are performing, and she does not notice that it is her absence that makes them perform better. Chua is told by her husband to stop insulting her children (after she calls Lulu a “pathetic, self-indulgent coward”) and she writes “which I wasn’t even doing, I was motivating her”.
She hilariously speaks out against human rights on multiple occasions, asserting that children should not have them. She stays awake worrying about the individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, as if to wonder how she can prevent the children of today from finding out that they exist. She’s not here to be her childrens’ friend, she’s here to prepare them for the future. If that means preventing them from eating or using the toilet until such time as they have perfected a piano piece, then so be it.
If it means fighting with your children every day, then why not parent them this way? If you repeatedly pull your daughter out of school to make her practise violin because you personally do not think the lessons she is missing are important even though she openly states that she hates you doing this, why, you’re mother of the year!

One jarring thing that many Chinese people do is openly compare their children. I never thought this was so bad when I was growing up, because I always came off well in the comparison.

I felt that [my mother-in-law] was generating sibling rivalry by looking for it. There are all kinds of psychological disorders in the West that don’t exist in Asia.

Yes, Asian cultures aren’t troubled by pesky “human nature”, nor do the people who live in them suffer from such things as individuality or personalities. Everyone in this “Asia” of which Chua speaks is the perfect automaton, each another brick in the wall of the perfect society. Why can’t Sophia and Lulu be like this? Why can’t they take endless hours of drills? Why can’t they follow five hours of violin practice with another three and a half when they get back to their hotel room?
Chua only wants what is best for her perfect little angels, which is to quash their enjoyment of everything so that they can achieve true perfection, ultimate musicality and the abandonment of the self.

Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

How Chua can write something like this and continue to claim to have friends is beyond me. Chinese people are uniformly happy and successful in all aspects of life. Western people live in a pit of disappointment, and have never achieved anything. This is the literal extrapolation of everything Chua has written. That her husband was raised by Western parents (Jews[!], as she never stops pointing out – and her sister married a Jew, too!), that he considered his childhood idyllic and that he ended up successful and respected appears to escape her at every turn.
There’s only one way for Chua, and to consider anything else is to lose the battle that is having a “Chinese” mentality in the decadent and permissive liberal dystopia that is the United States.

”You can’t do what Daddy and I did,” my mother replied. “Things are different now. Lulu’s not you-and she’s not Sophia. She has a different personality, and you can’t force her.”

Naturally, Chua accuses her mother of being “brainwashed” by her Western friends.
If Chua had framed this book in any way other than saying “Chinese parents are literally the best. Suck it, Westerners”, there wouldn’t be so much of an issue. Yes, she would be a fiercely terrible mother, but she’s speaking for a monoculture that doesn’t exist. Has China produced 1.3 billion people who are top of the class? No. It is physically impossible for everyone to be number one. I’m sure that not all 1.3 billion Chinese people are tying for first, either (“tying for first” is another form of shame altogether). There are variations in people, and there are variations in parenting styles.

It is offensive for Chua to paint all Chinese people as vile cretins of her ilk. There is literally nothing to back up her parenting model as being “Chinese”, especially as her own mother disagrees with it. The fact that she gives some indication of her own upbringing, which directly contradicts some of the stuff she does herself, makes me wonder where the hell she got any of her practices from. Her parents were strict with her but never to the point of insanity – or at least this is what the book suggests. I’m inclined to believe Chua on this count because her parents never had the amount of disposable income that Chua has access to in order to make her childrens’ lives a living Hell. Chua was also given some space to make mistakes once she graduated from high school, but there is a distinct impression this won’t be the same for her own children when the time comes.

Chua is a woman largely of her own construction, desperately grasping for cultural excuses for her more vicious excesses. Anyone reading this book and thinking that Chua is representative of anything but herself needs to re-evaluate their position on the world. There are almost certainly variants of Chua in the wild, but she is more unique than she gives herself credit for – and thank God for that.
There is a vague narrative drive to this book but it’s mainly a series of vignettes and anecdotes. How we’re supposed to take the book is a mystery: Amazon lists it under “Memoirs” and “Asian American Studies”. It is therefore not a parenting manual. I’ve read it, though, and wonder why anyone would. It needs the “Chinese” gimmick to sell, because otherwise people would quickly grow bored by the frankly offensive observations made within.
Particular lowlights are the time that she forces her children to express their grief over their paternal grandmother’s death in a way she considers aesthetically pleasing, and her hijacking of her (observant) daughter’s Bat Mitzvah into being a violin performance piece.

In literature, Chua is the kind of mother who looms over the protagonist daughter, who comes out of it on top despite her tyrannical mother – or the mother and daughter reach some sort of understanding and we see what sort of environment produced such a monstrous parent. Chua comes from nowhere. Sadly, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not fiction. I cannot impose my fictive expectations on it. However, Chua is a woman who wants the word to bend to her will and her preconceived notions. She claims to speak on behalf of Chinese women the world over, and I refuse to accept that she is the sole representative of at least 650 million people.

Like every Asian American woman in her late twenties, I had the idea of writing an epic novel about mother-daughter relationships spanning several generations, based loosely on my own family’s story.
… Unfortunately, I had no talent for novel writing …

Chua’s prose is very much in the style of Amy Tan without the warmth, humanity or basic comprehension of the universe – and I’m talking proto-Tan here, The Joy Luck Club era, when she was just starting out. That Chua’s writing is a faint echo of a good writer’s work proves nothing except that maybe she has read Amy Tan (who indeed gets name-checked in the above quoted section). This seems doubtful, as Chua does not give a hint of being a cultured soul – especially as excerpts from one of Sophia’s essays are included and are more affecting than anything Chua has to offer.

Chua listens to classical music, yes, but does she understand it? Apparently she does have a fairly technical ear despite no apparent playing ability of her own. What is best about her love for classical music is that she dismisses the gamelan out of hand as a mindless “fetishising [of] the exotic” on the part of Debussy. This somehow turns into a denunciation of “Yellow Fever”, and the disclaimer that her (white, Jewish) husband “did not date any Asian women before me”.

The point is that she has fetishised classical music to the exclusion of every other form of artistic expression. If you can’t do it on a piano or a violin, it’s not worth listening to. If your daughter wants to play tennis instead of the violin, what the hell does she know? Nothing is worth doing unless you can get a medal for it. Nothing is worth earning a medal for unless it receives Chua’s approval (when she finally does allow Lulu to play tennis, Lulu loses games and simply doesn’t care – all the proof you need that she is anything but a simple clone of her mother).

The book is full of pointless digressions, arguments not actually expanded on, and each page instills in the reader an inability to feel any empathy for Chua. Parents might think “yes, daughters are difficult”. Even if this is the case, and it likely is, most of the difficulties described arise from specific decisions that Chua has made. She argues that children are extensions of the self – so why won’t these phantom limbs do her bidding? At times in the early sections it seems that she’s simply taking the piss and can’t possibly mean anything that she’s written, but the book is too dense and Chua’s convictions too layered for me to believe that the finished work is absolutely what she believes. My initial laughter turned to worry, and eventually into rage. Chua is simply not a nice person, and not even her coda detailing the writing process and running every page past her family can convince me otherwise after having consumed the whole thing.

I am not a parent; perhaps I shall never be. But I have a vague idea of humanity and how to treat other people, and the way that Chua treats her children is not humane. Amy Chua loves her dogs unconditionally, but her expectations of Lulu and Sophia are infinitely more performative. The level of disgrace and shame that she tells her daughters that they have inflicted on her on a regular basis suggest that they will never truly be good enough. The “Western” ideal that we have to some extent accept and love our children for who they are is a fallacy based in weakness, or so she would believe.
I cannot be so presumptuous as to say that Amy Chua does not love her children, or that her children do not love her. I can say that she has created a home that is depicted as much less harmonious than it could have been simply if she had been someone else entirely. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother shows that Chua has the capacity for love, but singularly lacks the ability to meaningfully express it.
Any criticism levelled at Chua or her book is ultimately irrelevant: despite all evidence to the contrary, Chua is likely to go to her grave believing that she has always been right. Do her a favour and don’t read her book. If you somehow end up passing your eyes over these scant 256 pages, I hope you haven’t paid Chua for the privilege and the honour of being exposed to her “Chinese” (Lulu would say, and has said, “diseased”) mind.
(But you probably have, it’s freaking number nine in the Amazon bestsellers ranking. Which isn’t Number One! Not good enough, Ms. Chua!)

One Response

  1. Julie Kinnear February 11, 2011

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