updated 10 May 2012, 08:48
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Thu, Jan 27, 2011
China Daily/ANN
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Is she a tiger cub?

Yale law professor Amy Chua raised plenty of hackles recently with her description of the Chinese Tiger Mother - a subject that set off a flurry of furious and divisive debate and earned her death threats. But while the rest of the world marveled at Chua's authoritarian ways and even doubted the truth of her narration, Chinese parents and children identified with her story - in varying degrees perhaps, but always with fervent empathy.

What Chua described is an exaggerated version of what goes on in every Chinese family that respects scholarship and cares about the children's future.

In most cases, however, the parents also subscribe to another set of Chinese values - that of striking a balance in the Middle Way.

Take China's latest chess prodigy Hou Yifan and her mother Wang Qian. While her mother is the robust pillar behind her discipline and achievements, there is also a lot of support and sacrifice in the nurturing process.

Hou, 16, was born in Xinghua, a small city of about 1.5 million people in Jiangsu province. Like most only children, she was allowed the luxury of many extra-curricular activities at an early age.

But, she showed no interest in calligraphy, singing lessons or playing the erhu, and deliberately broke several ink-stones so her parents would stop forcing her to practice calligraphy. They finally tried chess, to see if it would appeal to her already obvious intellectual capabilities.

Her mother's robust support is what props up China's latest chess prodigy, Hou Yifan, and allows her to exploit her full potential.

"She fell in love with chess," says Wang Qian, 43. "But we didn't expect her to become a national champion, let alone world champion." Her child was then barely out of nursery school.

The expectations grew as Hou soon outpaced her peers. In just two years, Wang realized her daughter needed better instruction and she took the young child to Tong Yuanming, a famous chess coach in Jinan, Shandong province.

Tong agreed to coach the girl, but it meant Hou would have to move 700km north to Jinan, then a 15-hour train journey away. Wang contemplated her options for one week, and finally made the decision to quit her job as a nurse and go north with her 7-year-old daughter.

It meant she would have to give up a decent income and leave her husband, Hou Xuejian, in Xinghua. He would stay on at his job as a procurator at the local government offices to support the family.

Her decision was based on her daughter's precocity. Hou would continue to go to school in Jinan and because she had started school at 5, she was two years ahead. Even if it did not work out and they had to return to Xinghua after two years, Wang figured there was nothing to lose.

"But what about yourself? You had to give up your career and you were only 33," I asked.

"I think it was the normal thing for any parent to do. When you find your child has a special gift, you just cannot stay and watch it all go to waste."

But mother and child would soon be moving, again. Two years later, 9-year-old Hou had already won the Under-10 World Championship and was about to become the youngest ever to be recruited into China's national team - in Beijing.

The tiger mother was about to be up-staged by the dragon coach. Training would be strict and very disciplined, and the pre-teen would be groomed to the best of her ability.

It was not an easy decision this time for head coach of the national team, Ye Jiangchuan.

"There was some opposition when she entered the team because she was so young and her mother had to live with her, which could disrupt management," Ye tells China Daily.

"But I found she was unusually talented. She had excellent potential and training with the high-level players in the national squad would definitely help her exploit that ability to the fullest."

For Wang Qian, there was no hesitation. By now, she knew her daughter's future was in chess. From 2003 to 2007, she lived with her daughter in a 10-square-meter dormitory room at China's Chess Academy, and they could only see Hou's father a few times a year.

The sacrifices paid off when young Hou Yifan, at the age of 12, became the youngest player in the Women's World Chess Championship in Yekaterinburgand, the Chess Olympiad in Torino in 2006. She also became the youngest national champion in China.

In 2008, she was the youngest finalist in the history of the World Championships, losing to the Russian Alexandra Kosteniuk in the final in Nalchik, Russia.

As part of the preparation for last month's World Championships in Turkey, Hou played in a men's national competition in May with the exclusive approval from the organizers, and pitted her skills again in June against the best 10 male players in China.

To top it all, she played six games against former world champion Anatoly Karpov in a series of matches organized by the Chinese Chess Federation at Sanya in Hainan. She lost 2.5 to 3.5 but gained "a lot from the master".

Her coach explains her success.

"With her talent and diligence, she would have won the world championship sooner or later, but it would definitely not be so soon if not for the training and the competitions," Ye says.

As the regimental training in the national squad sculpts her daughter into a world champion, her mother still supports her unquestioningly in the background, and it was maternal encouragement which boosted Hou before her championship game.

"I told her it took (Alexandra) Kosteniuk seven years to go from runner-up to champion. And that she need not feel pressured." It worked. Hou Yifan defeated defending champion Kosteniuk to take the title.

Hou's parents may sacrifice everything to make sure their daughter gets the best training possible, but they do not press her to win every game.

"The media labels her a genius and enjoys listing all the records she has broken, but that's not what I care about. I just want her to live a happy life," Wang Qian says. "If she wins, I'm happy of course, but if she doesn't make it, I'm still proud of her because she is a kind-hearted and humble child."

The sacrifices are beginning to pay off, both with Hou's list of trophies and a family reunion. Her father quit his job three years ago and came to join them, and they now live in a small apartment near the chess academy.

"He thought hard for a long time before coming to Beijing. Our child was without her father since she was 7 and we just decided to make up for it as soon as we could," Wang says.

"She's already 16 and more independent. Who knows? Perhaps in a couple of years we can go back home."

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