WETZSTEIN: ‘Tiger mother’ saved her cubs

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Recently, a Chinese mother’s memoir set off a national shouting match about her “tiger mother” parenting style.

Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale University, said she pushed her two daughters to excel, even if she had to threaten them (with burning their favorite toys), call them names (like “garbage”) or deny them outings with friends.

I have a sincere compliment to give her (see below).

But my very first thought about all this was whether “tiger mothers” were equally severe with their sons. I have long read about China’s “little emperors” and wonder whether anyone dares threaten or belittle these pampered sole heirs.

My second thought is that Chinese girls must be among the most unlucky people in the world.

Assuming they are allowed to live (instead of being aborted or killed at birth), Chinese girls are born into a world where they are a scarce commodity.

China, after all, has at least 32 million “excess” young males, thanks to its “one-child” policy and strong preference for sons. This astounding number is like having the entire population of Canada composed of males age 20 or younger.

But China has long had unnatural sex imbalances. What happens in the wake of such social distortions? Listen to Quanbao Jiang, a scholar from Xi’an Jiaotong University, who spoke about China’s “bare branches” at an international population conference two years ago.

“Bare branches,” or men who cannot find spouses and form families, have existed throughout China’s history, primarily because of the widespread acceptance of infanticide of baby girls.

“People in all social classes were involved in infanticide,” usually keeping a first daughter but leaving “no chance of living” for subsequent sisters, Mr. Jiang wrote.

The acceptance of polygamy in high-status social classes, which allowed prosperous men to take several women as wives and concubines, also created millions of “bare branches,” particularly in China’s lower classes.

Since marriage is “the symbol of adulthood” in China, the “bare branches” could never be regarded as full adults, Mr. Jiang wrote. Not surprisingly, “bare branches,” who had no land, no property, no wives or children, ended up as outcasts. Many joined forces and turned to antisocial behaviors, earning them reputations as “threats to the morality of marriage and family, and social stability.”

Mr. Jiang’s entire paper is fascinating, but let me jump back to the Chinese girls. What happens to the surviving girls — regardless of whether they had “tiger mothers” — when it came time to marry?

For many Chinese girls, marriage came at a young age — often 16 — and often to older, wealthier men.

A Chinese girl may have even been assigned, or adopted into a family, at a very young age, as a future mate for a son, in a practice known as “child daughter-in-law.”

Other paths for girls into marriage were to be bought, or exchanged (a daughter for a daughter) by families, or simply stolen. “Families at the bottom of society often kidnapped females for brides by force; sometimes they kidnapped widows,” Mr. Jiang wrote, citing a 2003 study.

And, of course, (except for the kidnapping), these were the approved marriage arrangements.

Other common practices in a world with tens of millions of “bare branches” included committing adultery with other men’s wives, visiting the thriving prostitution business, or turning to sexual assault or homosexuality.

China’s adoption of modern abortion technology has led to countless more sad fates for female fetuses. A recent Associated Press article said China had at least 9.2 million abortions in 2008, up from 7.6 million in 2007. Many abortions today are to single Chinese women, since they view having a baby (of either sex) out of wedlock as worse than aborting it.

After reading this history of China’s man-woman problems, I have a simple appreciation for the Yale “tiger mother.”

No matter what else she did to her girls, she gave each of them an extraordinarily precious gift — a sister to call her own.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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