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.

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