On a recent episode of NBC’s Little Big Shots, the 5-year-old Chinese piano prodigy Chen Anke (陈安可) stunned American audiences with her piano skills. On May 30, Pear Video released a detailed interview with Chen’s father, who claimed that “playing the piano is the only way to realize her [Anke’s] life values.”
On the big screen, meanwhile, the Bollywood blockbuster Dangal is a record success at China’s box offices. The movie is based on the true family story of an authoritative father who trains his daughters to become world wrestling champions. The film recently turned into China’s the biggest winner of the box office (1 billion yuan, equals $150 million).
The phenomenon of the ‘tiger mother’, a strict mom who pushes her children to be successful, became popular through the 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Recent trends seem to signal a reevaluation of the stern, disciplinary father. On social media, many wonder why these fathers are pushing their daughters, and for whose good they actually do it.
A TOUGH CHILDHOOD
“It’s very possible that she will hate me in the future.”
The hashtag “Chinese piano girl stuns American audiences” has occupied the top searching lists on Sina Weibo, with many users praising Anke’s talents and hard efforts.
“Having just learned to play the piano for two years and four months, Anke now is able to play the pieces of grade 10 [the highest level before the ARCT],” Chen’s father Dongzhi Chen proudly told a reporter. He determinedly expressed his goals to train Anke to be a piano master and “the second Lang Lang” to China.
Little Anke playing Bach and Mozart.
This is also what Anke told NBC’s host Steve Harvey when he asked the 5-year-old about her future dreams. But later, when he asked her the question “How did you start to play?”, she replied: “Dad wanted me to.”
Since her American television adventure, Anke has returned to her tightly scheduled life that revolves around the piano. She practices 4 hours a day, takes master’s classes at the Central Conservatory of Music, goes to concerts, and has dinner with fellow piano players. In the evenings when she has dinner with her dad, he makes her watch piano concerts on the computer.
In the Pear video (see video below), Anke initially almost seems to be a carefree girl- running around her dad like a butterfly. But the video report also shows how her father continuously sternly warns and commends his daughter to “listen to your father”, stop “fiddling around,” “stop wasting time and play the piano,” or to “show a happy face.”
The video also includes a short scene where Anke goes downstairs hoping to play with some friends, only to find herself alone: “My friends have probably all forgotten about me,” she says as she silently watches other children play on the basketball field.
“It’s very possible that she will hate me in the future. But I think it is the only way to realize her life values,” Dongzhi Chen says in the video: “I know this is the hardest route for her and I’ve expected the worst. But I believe if she can play the piano well, she will be smart and successful in doing other things too.”
“I want my daughter to explore the ultimate beauty of music for me.”
Being a student of conservatory of music was a dream of Chen himself, but it did not happen because Chen’s family did not have the money for it. He explains: “Therefore, I want my daughter to continue to explore the ultimate beauty of music for me.”
Chen’s story resonates with that of China’s highest-grossing Indian film Dangal (摔跤吧爸爸). In this true story, a former wrestler has the unfulfilled dream to win a gold medal for India. He swears to train his future son to achieve this dream for him. But when he only has daughters, he decides to train them instead to become India’s first female champion wrestlers.
The film has received much praise from Chinese audiences. The movie received the high score of 9.2 out of 10 on Douban.com, a popular Chinese reviewing website for films or books.
The great popularity of Dangal in China is not coincidental. China and India share some common cultural characteristics. Both countries attach importance to filial piety, emphasize patriotism in sports, and promote “painful education” (苦难教育). The latter is especially visible in Dangal, where the father makes his daughters get up at 5 AM every day for training and makes them cut off their long hair.
State-owned news media Xinhua recently published an article about family values that can be learned from this film. The article says: “These Indian girls had no choice of life at all. It was their father who forced them and offered them new possibilities. In the perspective of gaining skills and obtaining knowledge, education is painful and is against one’s own instinct […] Parents need to lead their children and show them the way, as they don’t have the ability to judge for themselves.”
On Sohu, a recent article that received nearly 20 million views called on Chinese parents to “form a community” with their children. It said: “The medal is a joint achievement shared by father and daughter. Studying is a process of co-operation.”
STRICT FATHERS, KIND MOTHERS
“If she would end up with a nine-to-five job, I would consider it a failure.”
In the Pear Video interview, the reporter asks Anke’s father if he will provide his daughter with more choices in the future. He answers: “She can have many choices, but this road [that I chose for her] will be doomed to fail if that happens.”
Chinese parents have a long-standing reputation for being strict, and for making huge sacrifices for their children’s education. Anke’s father is no exception; he is so determined to train a child music prodigy that he seems to be ready to deal with any hardships that might come. But why are these ‘tiger dads’ so desperate to push their daughters to become superstars?
Socio-economic reasons play a major role. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 76% of China’s urban population will be considered middle class by 2022. With this explosive growth of the emerging middle class, many Chinese parents see education as a crucial factor to improve the social mobility of their children.
For girls, this is especially important. The traditional patriarchal culture in China has negatively affected the social status of women throughout history. In contemporary society, their roles as wives and mothers are still often prioritized once they have babies. But as an indirect consequence of China’s one child policy, daughters have come to play a more important role in the family, generally receiving more parental attention and a better education than in the decades preceding the policy.
The role of the father in being the one who makes the most important decisions on children’s education comes from a long-standing tradition. An old Chinese saying “strict father, kind mother” (严父慈母) describes parenting in traditional Chinese society, where fathers are the stern disciplinarians who have more to say about their children’s education and than the mother. The mother’s role, traditionally, was defined by the persisting idea of “men rule outside, women rule inside” (“男主外，女主内”); meaning that women should be confined to the ‘inside’ sphere of family and home, occupying themselves with the household, while men deal with the ‘outside’ world of work, finances, community, etc.
The Chinese cultural concept of ‘mianzi‘ or ‘face’ also plays an important role. Representing a person’s reputation and prestige, parents gain ‘face’ when their children succeed. An ‘unsuccessful’ child would be a father’s shame.
As Anke’s father tells Pear Video: “If she would end up with a nine-to-five job, such as working in a musical instruments store, I would consider it a failure.”
FOR WHOSE GOOD?
“He just sits there and acts like he’s the kid’s almighty God.”
Debates on whether or not children with so-called ‘tiger parents’ are more successful in life than children with a more relaxed upbringing have been around for a long time. On the Weibo page of Pear Video, commenters also express opposite viewpoints, triggering heated discussions.
One comment, receiving the most likes, said: “If this little girl is truly happy to play the piano, and she sure seems to be very gifted and willing to do so, I don’t think there’s any reason to criticize her father.”
Others also praised Dongzhi Chen, writing: “This dad is really awesome. Anyone who has kids will know that you can never force a child to do something. The media always wants to point out [these stories about] fathers who will force their own dreams upon their children, but the fact is that if the kid doesn’t want to do it, it won’t happen – no matter how she is pushed by her dad. The reason why this girl is so good now is because of her father’s guidance and education.”
But there are also those who oppose to the father’s parenting style: “I really hate this kind of parent. It’s fine to lead or guide your kid if she excels in some areas, but I feel disgusted that he just sits there and acts like he’s the kid’s almighty God.”
Some disapprovingly say: “He already has himself, why does he need a second person like him?”
There are also commenters who say that watching Dangal has changed their outlook: “After I watched this film, my attitude towards these kind of parents has changed completely.”
Others agreed, saying: “This movie truly is an inspiration – it is an encouragement for the tiger dad (虎父).”
Additional editing by Manya Koetse
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