Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

14 comments

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua book cover
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) is a parenting memoir written by Amy Chua; a Yale Law professor and Chinese-American, who is married to novelist and fellow academic, Jed Rubenfield. In the book Chua examines the application of Eastern parenting principles in her own life as she attempts to raise her two daughters the ‘Chinese way’. The Chinese mother, as defined by Chua, demands the best from her children, and believes that they are capable of extraordinary things. Thus, she invests her own time heavily in her children’s education and goes to extreme lengths to ensure that her children achieve their potential and, more than that, beat all their peers into second place. Chua’s almost fanatical belief in the eastern model of rote learning and restricted socialising leads to some fascinating confrontations with her two daughters; the dutiful Sophia and the rebellious Lulu. Chua demands the best and is willing to use corporal punishment, emotional blackmail, and downright stubbornness to make sure her girls spend the required time studying and practising their musical instruments (piano and violin respectively) each night. Sparks fly as the tiger mother does battle with her culture-torn cubs; the results are explosive.

Much of the debate surrounding this book is based on the contrasting parenting styles of ‘Western’ and ‘Chinese’ parents. However, an anecdotal account such as Chua’s, is never going to provide reliable evidence for or against and so there is little sense lingering on the various merits of the two methods – instead one has simply to enjoy the book as a spark for debate, and a quirky read. Parenting is one of the most emotive subjects available to an author, and Chua plays on this perfectly, writing provocatively and arrogantly, and subtly asking the reader to measure their parenting against her own. For many, the lengths that Chua goes to will appear shocking, perhaps even bordering on child abuse, for others they will simply represent a mother who is prepared to expend a great deal of energy and money to ensure that her children make the most of their lives. Certain passages have become infamous; Chua shutting a 3-year-old Lulu out of the house on a freezing day for refusing to practice violin; rejecting homemade birthday cards because they are sub-standard; or telling Sophia that she is “garbage” (and being proud of it).

Sadly, the book is full of statements which one suspects are only half truths (Sophia was reading Sartre at 3, for example), and one becomes increasingly dubious about the remembered dialogues, which seem too perfectly formed and, when one examines them closely, contain inconsistencies and improbabilities aplenty. One can’t help but feel throughout that Chua has sensationalised her story and the marketing campaign, which has patently courted controversy, would seem to reinforce this idea. Some commentators have suggested that Chua intended the book to be self-deprecating or amusing, but if this is the case then she is either way off the mark, or has a seriously underdeveloped sense of humour. The other problem with Chua’s narrative is that she is incredibly condescending, judgemental and at times offensive; at one point she suggests people who follow astrology are mentally deranged, at another, when chastising her children and warning them against racism, she suggests that they wouldn’t want to be like all the fat Americans that they mix with everyday. In general the writing is average, with too many sloppy or dull passages, and a timeline that is badly defined.

Parents will undoubtedly pick Chua’s memoir up, eager to join the debate, and enjoy being shocked or provoked by her writing. However, too much about the book doesn’t add up and, as Chua unashamedly admits to being economical with the truth at one point during the book, it's easy to imagine that many of the key scenes in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother are re-imagined, exaggerated: more or less moulded into the anecdote that Chua requires them to be. Enjoy the debate, evaluate your own position to parenting, but don’t overestimate this book; it’s a slick piece of marketing, but is ultimately hollow.

I'm probably not the key demographic for this book, having never been a parent, and definitely never planning to be a mother, Chinese or otherwise. However, even to my naive and responsibility-free eyes, this felt like a lot of fluff and not a lot of insight. Good marketing, pretty average product.


Useful Links
Reviews of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother on Amazon (US)

14 comments:

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

This does sound interesting even if only for sparking a debate. I'm not a parent myself but I'm a teacher who teaches quite young children and so I'm interested in parenting styles as I see a big range!

I didn't know she was married to Jed Rubenfield...

Andre M. Smith said...

Why is the art of music required to endure the ill-informed antics of such inartistic imbeciles as Amy Chua? Her lust for fame as an old-fashioned stage mother of either a famous violinist (yet another mechanical Sarah Chang?) or a famous pianist (yet another mechanical Lang Lang?) shines through what she perceives as devotion to the cultivation of the cultural sensitivities of her two unfortunate daughters.

Daughter Lulu at age 7 is unable to play compound rhythms from Jacques Ibert with both hands coordinated? Leonard Bernstein couldn’t conduct this at age 50! And he isn’t the only musician of achievement with this-or-that shortcoming. We all have our closets with doors that are not always fully opened.

And why all this Chinese obsession unthinkingly dumped on violin and piano? What do the parents with such insistence know of violin and piano repertoire? Further, what do they know of the great body of literature for flute? For French horn? For organ? For trumpet? Usually, nothing!

For pressure-driven (not professionally-driven!) parents like Amy Chua their children, with few exceptions, will remain little more than mechanical sidebars to the core of classical music as it’s practiced by musicians with a humanistic foundation.

Professor Chua better be socking away a hefty psychoreserve fund in preparation for the care and feeding of her two little lambs once it becomes clear to them both just how empty and ill-defined with pseudo-thorough grounding their emphasis has been on so-called achievement.

Read more about this widespread, continuing problem in Forbidden Childhood (N.Y., 1957) by Ruth Slenczynska.
________________________

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

Andre M. Smith said...

Professor Chua is a woefully ill-informed parent, one ignorant of just what is happening in some parts of education in America. Fully confident in her presumed success as a writer with an editorial staff at Penguin shadow boxing for her and unapologetically wearing her signature plastic smile for public appearances, the Lawyer Chua is trying to persuade and convince; on both counts controversially, but with enough negative reactions to cause her subsequently to attempt a dilution of the intensity in her initial self-congratulatory tirade by latterly asserting that her writing is merely one person’s experiences of some trying times in motherhood. To gain working points among the Old-Boy network, the prime lubricant of Yale, Professor Chua initially claimed that she is a Tiger Mom as Chinese maternal type; Fierce! When that showpiece veneer didn’t sit well with mothers who are the real thing, i.e., mothers from China, this faux cat altered the validity of her claim to violence by stating that she is a Tiger Mom because she was born in 1962, a Year of the Tiger. That a tenured Professor of Yale can – must? – openly justify her self-classification with superstitious underpinning should provide anyone what is needed to draw a conclusion about the level of intellect afoot in Yale Law School. Professor? Indeed!

Any of Chua’s public statements of the purposes of her work evolve to fit the tenor of the evolving criticisms directed at it. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/amy-chua-tiger-mom-book-one-year-later_n_1197066.html It has passed, in her own words, from (1) practical handbook for parenting to (2) tongue-in-cheek (whatever that’s supposed to mean), to (3) memoir, (4) satire, (5) parody, (6) “a coming of age book for parents” (7) “the book is about a journey”; and who knows what else as she makes the rounds of the book circuit trying to snare yet more unsuspecting purchasers into her net. That she can, without blushing, class a single work with such a range causes me to wonder what kind of grade she got at Harvard for her command of the English language. She’s Trollope (the author), Pope (the author), The Wicked Witch in Hansel und Gretel and Gullible’s Travels all penned together into one oversized Pamper. Anyone who can’t read the monetary cynicism driving the kaleidoscope of this whole Tiger Mom scam and its spurious, unproven claimed insights into parenting, with variant latter-day reflections by the author herself, deserves to have paid full retail price for this book.

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” http://bettymingliu.com/2011/01/parents-like-amy-chua-are-the-reason-why-asian-americans-like-me-are-in-therapy/
Stamp collecting, fishing, lazing about on a summer day, science club, Brownie Scouting, baseball, birthday parties, church annual picnic, kite flying, visiting relatives, kissing, jumping rope, student council, insect classification . . . Away with this woman! “Fun” must be one of the more overused, misunderstood words in the American lexicon. Chinese parent = The Model Minority? In China?

“I’m happy to be the one hated.” http://bettymingliu.com/2011/01/parents-like-amy-chua-are-the-reason-why-asian-americans-like-me-are-in-therapy/

“If I could push a magic button and choose either happiness or success for my children, I’d choose happiness in a second. http://amychua.com/

That’s it perfectly stated in Tigerese: Either / Or; not both. Amy Chua is a chameleonic con artist. PT. Barnum certainly was right, one “. . . born every minute!”
________________

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

Andre M. Smith said...

An integral amalgam of defining examples of narcissism that Professor Chua has instilled in her two daughters is self-advancement with sexual provocation. Her public signature posture is one of excessive toothiness, for a university professor exceedingly vulgar displays of long legs, and breast projections that might have won her Blue Ribbons as “Best in Show” as a candidate in any Sweater Queen contest during the 1940s or ‘50s. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/sweater-queen-contest She never misses an opportunity to increase the image of her breast size by folding her arms under them; in one oft-reproduced photograph she actually appears to be elevating the left one nudged up by a folded arm. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/Amychua4.png

The elder Chua daughter, Sophia, has learned her lesson well. http://www.nypost.com/rw/nypost/2011/01/18/entertainment/photos_stories/sophia_chua–300×450.jpg and http://www.facebook.com/amytigermother?sk=photos#!/photo.php?fbid=230907580253565&set=o.134679449938486&type=1&theater,

Birds of a feather . . . A coop of nesting trophy wives!
_______________________

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

Andre M. Smith said...

There is a recurring theme without solid core that continues to recycle on the question of Amy Chua and her style as a mother. J.G. (unfortunately anonymous, as are most of the endorsements of Professor Chua) has written

I think it’s easy to take cheap shots at Chua, but it’s hard to argue that the average American child needs less discipline, less direction or less respect for others.

It might seem amusing to mock her (her “cushy job” and “hottie husband”), but harder to actually consider the points being made in a non-defensive way, without trying to paint yourself as the “cool mom” who prefers three martini playdates?

p.s. It seems ironic that an Asian-American female who went to Williams (fulfilling a fantasy of Chinese parents everywhere) would paint her parents as laissez-faire and herself as moderately motivated.
Posted by: J.G. | January 18, 2011 at 02:31 PM http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2011/01/chinese-moms.html

I, for one, have no interest whatsoever in her “cushy job” and “hottie husband.” Nor do I have any objection to her having become a millionaire from the sales of her book and that she will be well on her way to becoming a multimillionare once the planned translations of it into thirteen of the world’s languages have been completed. My uncompromising objections to Professor Chua are two-fold: her abuses of young children pursued to further her own narcissistic urgencies and her deep commitment of abuse of the art of music – of which she seemingly has no knowledge whatsoever – for reasons having nothing to do with that art. My shots at her are far from what J.G. calls “cheap shots.” They do in fact go to the heart of the problems with her that remain my chief concerns.

J.G. and most of his fellow travelers in their tepid defenses of Professor Chua continue to focus on her inherited emphasis of the sorry state of public education in The United States. What else is new?

As with most of the ringing endorsements of Amy Chua, those from J.G. are clearly from a mind not wholly engaged. He has written ” it’s hard to argue that the average American child needs less discipline, less direction or less respect for others. In his tangled syntax I’m quite sure he means – at least I’m hoping he means – it’s hard to argue that the average American child does not need more discipline, more direction or more respect for others.

J.G. has written further, “p.s. It seems ironic that an Asian-American female who went to Williams (fulfilling a fantasy of Chinese parents everywhere) . . . “ Again, but this time TWO thoughts from nowhere! What has Williams College to do with Amy Chua (Harvard, A.B. ’84)? And since when has Williams even been on the “fantasy” palate “of Chinese parents everywhere?”

Professor Chua usually receives the quality of defense she deserves.
____________________

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

Andre M. Smith said...

I checked Asian. I had heard it was harder to apply as an Asian, so as a point of pride, I had to say I was Asian. http://jadeluckclub.com/true-picture-asian-americans/

In almost every list, pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris (Greek), is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others. It is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins#Pride

1) Tiger Sophia, you may have checked Asian which does have a “tax,” however you also got big bonus points for being a legacy many times over. The upshot is that you had help getting in unlike these Asian Americans below who live at the poverty line and don’t have Ivy League parents with deep pockets.
2) By checking Asian when, actually, you are of mixed race, you have taken a spot away from those who don’t have the benefit of applying to a less competitive race slot. Thanks to you, someone who[se] life could be completely changed did not get a spot. http://jadeluckclub.com/true-picture-asian-americans/
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Matthew 25:29

Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, the daughter of a mother of mixed Asian ethnicity of no known religious involvement and a secular — whatever that means — American Jewish father has, ostensibly been raised as a Jewess in an atheistic family positing itself as . . . ? When she applied for admission to Harvard she descended into a pride of Asianness to avail herself of an ethnic quota advantage.

This duplicitous young woman is, indeed, her mother’s daughter! http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=230907266920263&set=o.134679449938486&type=1&theater
__________________________

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ Sam (Tiny Library)

Well this is certainly an approach that you probably don't come across too often, so it's an interesting insight from that point of view.

No, it's an odd thing. Up until about half way through the book she just refers to her husband as 'Jed' and then all of a sudden it's Jed Rubenfield, acclaimed author. Really bizarre!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ Andre M. Smith

You've certainly made a lot of interesting points. I can't say I disagree with all of them, although some are beyond the realms of my knowledge to comment on.

Clearly you've put a lot of thought into the problems, as you see them, with Chua's parenting style and her memoir. I wonder what it is about her that inspired you to such a detailed critique?

Overall, some perceptive points. I'd be interested to hear other readers' responses to your views.

Tasha Goddard said...

Interesting review, though I disagree with a lot of it, in particular the complaints about economy with truth - as I mentioned in my own review (thanks for coming and reading it, by the way), it is rather impossible to not be economical with the truth in writing about one's own life, to whatever degree. You pick a particular aspect of it, and you can't go into every minute detail. Yes, this will mean a certain bias, but I think you have to take that as read with any memoir. (Not that I read many of those, so might be wrong.)

I do agree that she has a somewhat condescending air, but I also see a lot of what might come across as condescending as actually being self-deprecating and laughing at her own attitude.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I think you're right, when writing about your own life you can only shine a light on certain elements. But for me, the elements which Chua drew out felt as though they were crafted for her purpose to me; all part of the overall marketing strategy. Still, that's completely my subjective and unfounded opinion :)

I enjoyed your review, and thanks for returning the favour. I think perhaps I didn't appreciate or 'get' Chua's sense of humour. If the book was self-deprecating that past me by, bar her ambitions for the dogs.

trippingdifferently.com said...

Thanks for coming over & reading my review of this book. i like your review - it is fair & professional & clearly states what is your viewpoint & acknowledges where others might differ from you.
Seeing as you have read my review already, i don't have to repeat here how i feel about the book.
i just wanted to say that i think you have to have similar cultural references to Chua to see her point of view & where she is coming from. The things she says in the book really have their roots in being Chinese more than being a mother so it does make it difficult for some to completely comprehend what she says.
And i really do believe that she is most definitely taking a laugh at herself with this book.
Is she out to make a quick buck? Maybe. Did she exaggerate the truth? Perhaps... but memory isn't at it's best 20/15 years after the events.
Thanks again for an interesting review & exchange of thoughts.
BTW, Lulu refused to play the piano at age 3 (she wasn't playing the violin till later) - just a little typo to update.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

No problem at all – I think this is one of those books where it really helps to get other people's opinions; as you say, Chua's cultural background is pretty removed from my own, and so any insight I can glean from other reviewers can only help me understand where she is coming from.

It sounds like to have quite a level-headed view of the book and I appreciate that. A lot of reviews I've read have become too focused on the reviewers personal views about child-rearing, and I think it's a mistake to approach a book review in that way. We all have different opinions, and it's a beautiful thing that we can share them – it's just not worth getting too hung up on the differences.

Thanks for pointing out the violin / piano error – I'll check that out! Thanks.

Jasmine Werneburg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Selwyn said...

Hey Jasmine - thanks for stopping by and commenting. It certainly seems this book provokes some strong opinions!

I'm not sure if your comment is more directed to previous commenters or the review itself. Hopefully, my review doesn't come off as judgmental about Chua's parenting techniques, because I tried to avoid that (mainly because it's covered elsewhere, and I didn't take the book as a serious parenting manual).

As I say, I'm pretty removed from Chua's cultural background, so I can only comment from my own perspective: in no way an absolute judgement.