Harvard Girl Liu Yiting: A Character Training Record was one of the phenomena of the book industry in early twenty-first century China. Initially published in 2000, six years later the book had sold 1.87 million copies, with over 70 additional printings; pirate editions and copycat tomes abounded. Harvard Girl is a how-to guide on childhood rearing and early education written by the parents of Liu Yiting, a Chengdu student who matriculated at the older of the two world-renowned universities in Cambridge, Massachusetts back in 1999.
The guide, which describes character-building techniques such as forcing one’s offspring to hold ice in their hands for extended periods of time and making them study in the noisiest part of a home to increase concentration, is credited with introducing the possibility of studying at elite colleges in the United States to many students in the PRC: the number of students applying to Harvard from mainland China increased by 1,100% in the decade following Harvard Girl‘s publication.
Yet despite the recommended activities in some parts of the book conforming to the command-and-control stereotypes that many associate with Chinese culture, Harvard Girl was in fact notable for its emphasis on critical thinking and independent thought. This seems especially ironic given that Amy Chua, the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School who is a scion of ethnic Chinese immigrants to the USA, has recently been making waves in the United States with a parenting guidebook-cum-memoir – Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – which espouses a radically disciplinarian, ‘Chinese’ style of parenting.
What seems to be happening on the ground in China is that traditional rote-learning models – while still very much the mainstream – are ceding ground at the highest levels to more flexible, ‘softer’ paradigms. This mixture of retention and innovation probably helps account for the Chinese surge in patent filings, with one Thomson Reuters study claiming that China may well overtake both the US and Japan in patent applications for the first time in 2011; expect many more students from the PRC to call at Harvard in the years to come.