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Revisiting ‘Harvard Girl’: Lessons Learned from a Tiger-parented Superstar Turned Career Woman

Today, the public detests Liu Yiting’s story and the tiger-parenting it represents.

By NewsChina Updated Apr.1

Netizen Comments: 
Today, the public detests Liu Yiting’s story and the tiger-parenting it represents. This significant shift in attitudes explains two things: people no longer consider high academic qualifications as the sole criterion to evaluate a person’s excellence and success, and people are beginning to question whether it is appropriate to excessively educate a child and whether a good educational background can determine a person’s destiny.  

• The “Harvard Girl” obsession among Chinese parents in the 2000s did not stem from a deep understanding of the true value of a Harvard education. Rather, it was fueled by the allure of the American dream, which was strong in Chinese society at the time. Now, clearly the aura surrounding the American dream has largely faded.  

• Liu Yiting’s story serves as a mirror, reflecting the overly homogenous and utilitarian natures of our educational goals in the past. Today, parents and educators should shift their focus from creating more Liu Yitings to nurturing more independent, diverse, creative and happy children. Source: Zhihu 

Expert Comments: 
Xiang Biao, professor of anthropology at the University of Oxford: The Liu Yiting myth represents a very extreme example of fetishism for individual success and the ideology of meritocracy... This mindset can have the grim consequence of a homogenous lifestyle. It creates a perception that this is the only worthwhile way to live, and other lifestyles don’t matter. Source: Jiemian.com  

China Youth Daily, State-run newspaper: The new generation of Chinese people has more diverse ways to realize their dreams. That’s the basic reason behind the diminishing influence of the Liu Yiting myth... Today, a degree is no longer a necessary prerequisite for success. Many young people without a strong educational background excel in their chosen fields such as vlogging, livestreaming and e-commerce.  

Southern Weekly, Guangzhou-based news outlet: The decline of the Liu Yiting myth shows the evolving views in Chinese society toward higher education over the past 25 years. During the rapid growth of the 2000s, people believed that a degree from a top university would guarantee a successful life. In the 2020s, with the economic slowdown, more people are questioning whether a good academic qualification will automatically lead to a well-paid job. People are now beginning to see higher education in a more rational and balanced manner. 

In 1999, Liu Yiting was a scholastic superstar. The high schooler from Chengdu, Sichuan Province had been accepted to four prestigious US universities, ultimately choosing Harvard to pursue applied mathematics and economics. Her success made national headlines, leaving every student in China – and their parents – wanting to know her secrets.  

Seeking to cash in on their daughter’s fame, parents Liu Wenhua and Zhang Xinwu published Harvard Girl Liu Yiting (2000), in which they revealed the rigorous “tiger-parenting” approach that produced their prodigious child. The book’s impact was undeniable, selling over 2.6 million copies that year. For comparison, the Chinese version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold nearly 350,000 copies.  

Liu is once again making headlines, this time for what people are calling a lack of success. On January 19, 2024, an article titled “Harvard Girl Liu Yiting Reduced to an Ordinary American Middle-class Woman” took Sina Weibo by storm. The article shed light on Liu Yiting’s life in the US, where she now works as an investment banker and is married to a lawyer.  

While Liu’s achievements comfortably seat her in the US’s upper-middle class, this revelation sparked intense discussions among Chinese netizens over her level of success. Some argued that Liu’s career is commendable, pointing to her position as a partner at a reputable New York-based investment company and her husband’s success as a law firm partner. However, many others said that compared to the huge influence of the book, Liu’s resume seems “ordinary,” pointing out that Liu had not returned to China to contribute or become a leading figure in her field in the US. These discussions have brought the tiger-parenting method championed in the book and the narrow definition of success it propagated into the spotlight.  

Liu’s story, once considered an exemplar, now faces scrutiny for the message it conveyed to Chinese parents and educators. Some argued that this mindset has led parents to follow the prodigy-making formulas outlined in the book without question, disregarding the individuality and diversity of their own children.