Chinese aim for the Ivy League
By Tracy Jan
The Boston Globe
Sunday, January 4, 2009

BEIJING: The book spawned a genre, selling more than two million copies in China on the premise that any child, with the proper upbringing, could be Ivy League material.

Now, eight years after the publication of "Harvard Girl," bookstore shelves here are laden with copycat titles like "How We Got Our Child Into Yale," "Harvard Family Instruction" and "The Door of the Elite."

Their increasing popularity points to the preoccupation - some might say a single-minded national obsession - of a growing number of middle-class Chinese parents: getting their children into America's premier universities.

Because government policy allows families only one child, many parents feel immense pressure to groom their sons and daughters for success and, in the process, prepare a comfortable retirement for themselves. They fervently mine the expanding volumes of child-rearing manuals - "Stanford's Silver Bullet," "Yale Girl," "Creed of Harvard" - for tips on producing what the Chinese term "high-quality" children.

"Harvard Girl," written by the parents of one of the first Chinese undergraduates to enter the university on a full scholarship, chronicled Liu Yiting's methodical upbringing, which the book says instilled the discipline and diligence necessary for academic success. The tome has a place in many urban households with high school-age children, and new parents receive the book as a present from family and friends.

"Going to Harvard means that the way they raised their child was successful," said Yang Kui, publisher of the best seller. "People are willing to copy and learn how they did it."

The book, which features a photo on the cover of Liu posing with her admission letter to Harvard, espoused unconventional techniques for turning out an Ivy-caliber child. Liu's parents challenged the young girl to hold ice in her hands for as long as she could bear it to improve her endurance and made her jump rope every day for increasingly longer periods until she won a school contest.

They put toys out of her grasp when she was a baby to make her work harder for them, timed the girl's studies to the minute as soon as she entered elementary school and made her do school work in the noisiest part of the house to develop her ability to concentrate.

"It's a very Chinese kind of method. It's hard for Americans to understand," said Zhongrui Yin, a sophomore at Harvard whose own mother, Sharon, is about to release "From Andover to Harvard," which tells how his acceptance on scholarship to Phillips Academy, a residential private secondary school in Andover, Massachusetts, was a steppingstone to the elite university.

On a recent visit to Sharon Yin's apartment in Beijing, a dog-eared, highlighted copy of "Harvard Girl" lay on the coffee table. She bought the book immediately after seeing Liu's mother interviewed on Chinese television and, like millions of other parents, made her son read it when he was in the seventh grade.

A retired engineer, Yin, 48, hopes her book will help her start a second career as a child-development consultant. Like Liu's parents - who prodded an entire country to dare to dream of a free Harvard education at a time when few left China for undergraduate study - Yin hopes to inspire Chinese families to consider enrolling their children in American prep schools like Andover as an alternate path to a prestigious university. In China, college placement is determined solely by a score on the national entrance exam.

Aware of the increasing pressure on China's children, Yin is also pushing a more humane model of parenting.

"As prosperity happens so quickly in China, many parents want to see their kids surpass others, so they demand too much," Yin said in her kitchen as she gingerly flipped an egg dumpling sizzling in a wok. "These children carry the burden of great expectations."

She compared raising children to the perfectly browned dumplings. "You only get one chance," she said. "You can't turn the heat up too high or they'll burn."

Too many Chinese parents spend all their money enrolling children in after-school and weekend tutoring programs starting as young as first grade, with the hope they will outperform peers on school tests and academic competitions, Yin said.

Instead, she said, sounding like an American college counselor, parents should encourage children to participate in arts, sports and student council, activities not as valued by Chinese colleges but deemed to be of utmost importance by top American universities as they try to assemble a well-rounded freshman class.

Yin began documenting all aspects of her son's upbringing in a tiny brown notebook soon after he was born. After reading "Harvard Girl," Yin compared Zhongrui with Liu Yiting and decided her son was not as disciplined and needed to work harder in English and math if he was going to make it to the Ivy League.

"This book gave me self-confidence," Zhongrui Yin wrote in a journal that he started in middle school after discovering that Liu's mother also had her write in a diary. "Liu Yiting can get into Harvard. Why can't I?"

Students all over China have started chasing the same dream. In 1999, the year Liu Yiting entered Harvard, just 44 students from Chinese high schools applied to the college; two, including Liu, were admitted. Last school year, 484 Chinese students applied; five got in.

China's original Ivy League poster child earned a degree in applied math and economics from Harvard in 2003 and now works at an investment firm in New York. Liu, who once drew adoring crowds at her book signings, declined to be interviewed, but wrote in an e-mail message: "The driving force behind my parents' book's popularity is their educational theories, which consciously address Chinese parents' growing anxiety about proper family education."

Although many Chinese parents are grateful to Liu's parents for penning their treatise, others have called the book boastful and incited an Internet backlash.

It's a fate Zhongrui Yin hopes to avoid. The 20-year-old history major said he wished his mother would not publish "From Andover to Harvard." Though his photo appears on the cover, his full name is mentioned only once in the manuscript, in the preface.

"I didn't want to create a Liu Yiting phenomenon," Yin said.

"Basically, just for getting into Harvard, that girl became a national superstar. I don't want my life to climax just for getting into Andover or Harvard."