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3 June 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 10:25am

DON’T PUBLISHTiger mothers — extract

By Tanith Carey

Liu Weihua and Zhang Xinwu make Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, look like a pussy cat. Long before Amy was making her daughters practise their musical instruments four hours a day, Liu and Zhang were credited with turning their daughter Yiting into an overnight celebrity in their native China.

Not for dancing or singing on a TV talent show, but for being the paragon of everything a Chinese child should be. Yiting brought honour to her family by winning a full scholarship to Harvard. The resulting book, Harvard Girl, became a must-read manual for Chinese families seeking the holy grail of a place at an Ivy League college or Oxbridge. It went on to sell two million copies and spawned 70 copycat versions, including Yale Girl and Ivy League’s Not a Dream.

Yiting’s parents started early. While she was still a baby, they placed toys out of her reach to make her try harder to get them. At primary school, they encouraged her to hold ice in her hands for endurance. At the same time as Harvard Girl became a bestseller, the first results of the Programme for International Student Assessment were published. Thirty-two countries put forward groups of 15-year-olds to be compared in maths, science and reading.

In the early days China did not take part. It entered the children of Shanghai, where about 80 per cent go to university, for the first time in 2009. It was an impressive debut. Shanghai, with a population the size of Ghana, entered the chart at No 1. The result triggered a wave of panic among western nations.

And yet China’s success comes at a cost. In China, children spend more than a month longer in school per year than children in the UK. The school day lasts nine hours, with breaks for eye massages to reduce eye strain and physical activity to aid concentration. Nor are children thriving under the pressure. A survey of nine-to-12-year-olds in the eastern province of Zhejiang found that more than 80 per cent worried “a lot” about exams, while two-thirds feared punishment by their teachers.

Some see no way out. A 2009 study found that 24 per cent of 2,500 students in Shanghai had thought about killing themselves, mostly in response to exam stress. Last March, a boy apparently threw himself out of his classroom window rather than deal with the shame of not excelling in his university entrance exams.

As western governments strive to make their schools more Asian, Asian governments are trying to make their schools more European. The phrase gaofen dineng has passed into general usage, meaning students who get high scores but never learn to take initiative.

And while we fret here about poor maths results, the Chinese also point to another test, which did not grab the headlines, finding that, in tests of creativity and imagination, their children came fifth from bottom. Changes are under discussion at the Chinese ministry of education. More and more parents are seeking to educate at home.

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“It’s a test-oriented education system, which means that students are taught from a very early age how to beat tests,” says Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at Beijing’s Tsinghua University High School until September last year. “The failings of [the] system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning.

“One way we’ll know we’re succeeding in changing China’s schools is when those scores come down.”

This is an edited extract from “Taming the Tiger Parent” , published by Constable/Little, Brown (£8.99)