When Chinese pianist Lang Lang was nine, he moved with his father to Beijing so that he could prepare to sit the entry exam for the Central Conservatory of Music.
For a year and a half they rented a tiny room with no heating, where the Shenyang-born Lang took instruction from teachers attached to the prestigious school.
In his memoir A Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story, Lang recalls how his father forced him to practice late into the night with blankets draped over him for warmth.
His mother, who supported them financially, stayed behind in Liaoning province. As her husband’s hopes of their son grew, she was even banned from visiting so that Lang could concentrate on practicing.
All of this is widely known about Lang, now 38, and is why he is such a source of fascination for many Chinese. But the news that Hollywood director Ron Howard – whose past films include Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind – has been hired to direct a film about the pianist’s life has reignited a debate over the ethics of so called ‘tiger parenting’ – in which parents push their children to achieve elevated goals.
Although the tiger parenting style is still common in China, there has been a subtle shift away from it in recent years as parents realise the damage it can wreak if it is pursued too rigorously.
Chinese educational authorities have also encouraged parents to ease up on their kids – banning the most onerous extra-curricular academic competitions and setting limits on the amounts of homework that children should be asked to complete.
Many younger parents now look at how Lang’s father, Lang Guoren, hothoused his son’s training on the piano as a cruel form of upbringing.
Among older generations – especially those whose education was prevented or interrupted by the Cultural Revolution – there is more understanding of why a father might push his son to achieve greatness, especially in a field that had been denied to the parent.
Lang’s father was a gifted erhu player but his education was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Later he tried to resume his education, ranking first in the entrance exams for the Shenyang Music Institute. But it emerged that Lang senior had lied about his age during his application and he was barred from taking up his place.
The younger Lang recalls in his memoir that his father went to extreme lengths to get him to practice, even urging him to commit suicide after his first tutor had dropped him. Supposedly he tossed a bottle of pills at the young musician, telling him “die now, rather than live in shame”.
At that moment – with his father urging him to jump off the balcony – Lang said he considered quitting the piano altogether. But the pair reconciled.
“The new film should be called ‘Seeking Freedom from Musical Tyranny’,” one weibo user commented.
“How are they going to portray his father’s cruelty?” asked another.
On Zhihu, China’s leading qustion and answer platform, others pointed out that the intensity of Lang Lang’s upbringing was an exceptional case and that most children of tiger parents don’t go on to achieve the heights that their parents want for them.
“There is only one Lang Lang, but there are many Lang Guoren-type parents,” warned one contributor.
“Lang Lang’s success isn’t just down to his father: the child also had to have talent, dedication and work hard,” wrote another.
At this point even the Beijing News stepped into the debate with a commentary bemoaning how “some parents are too stubborn with their children’s education, based on their own failures”.
“There are so many children getting ‘tiger dad’ and ‘tiger mom’ educations now, but a large number of them will not succeed. Some of the children who achieve their parents’ goals may regard the excessive hardship as valuable when looking back at their childhoods. But those who fail won’t view it this way, and may even see it as a torture and destruction to themselves,” it warned.
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