After her outstanding performance at the Beijing Winter Olympics this month, 18-year-old freeskier Eileen Gu has become the definition of “the child next door,” a metaphor Chinese parents use to describe the type of kid they dream of having.
Many Chinese parents are known for obsessively trying to raise the perfect child and doing everything possible to ensure their admission into an elite university—the equivalent of helicopter parents in the US. The kids of such parents have been dubbed jiwa (鸡娃), or baby chicks, a reference to a banned 1950s Chinese treatment of injecting chicken blood to increase energy. The parents, meanwhile, are called “chicken blood parents,” or just “chicken parents.”
US-born Gu is setting a high bar for jiwa parents, and fomenting the anxiety generated by parenting in a country where opportunities for the young are starting to seem limited. She smoothly navigates being both Chinese and American, speaks fluent English and Mandarin, has an excellent academic record and admission to Stanford, is a successful model, and won two gold medals at the Games for China, where she is known as Gu Ailing.
But while many have vowed to push their children harder after seeing Gu’s success, others are questioning whether their efforts are meaningful given that Gu’s path was paved not only with talent, but also with privileges that they can’t possibly match. Many have pointed to the background of her mother Yan Gu, who came from an elite Beijing family and studied at the prestigious Peking University, before going to the US in her early 20s. With an MBA from Stanford and experience working in venture capital, the senior Gu had the financial resources and connections to build a life that allowed her daughter, who was raised in San Francisco, to move fluidly between the two countries, and to enjoy opportunities greater than those available to a kid growing up in China alone.
“Gu’s pathway to success through combining the best of the two worlds: the US and China, is simply unavailable to most urban families,” Ye Liu, a sociologist and senior lecturer in international development at King’s College London, told Quartz.
Chinese parents have long been obsessed with chasing role models to guide their parenting. One such example was Liu Yiting, who gained national fame thanks to her admission into Harvard around 2000, a time when few Chinese had the chance to study in the US. Harvard Girl, the book Liu’s parents wrote documenting their daughter’s journey to the Ivy League, became a bible for parenting.
“Perhaps Liu started the trend of jiwa…[after the book] many urban parents adopted intensive parenting style and aspired to drive their children to successful routes, which were particularly defined by academic successes,” said Liu, the sociologist.
Gu, meanwhile, has offered a new definition of success with her excellence beyond academics. While the achievement of Liu Yiting, who came from an ordinary Chinese family, looked replicable with long hours of study, Gu’s success lays bare the structural advantages most don’t have in a country that has become more unequal in recent decades.
Gu was just three when she was first taken skiing in the US by her mother, who herself was a part-time ski instructor at a time when few Chinese were proficient in winter sports, which tend to be fairly expensive. After seeing how interested Gu was in the sport, Gu’s mother would spend eight hours driving her to and from sk parks on weekends and school holidays. In the summer, Gu studied math in Beijing, where she also honed her Chinese when hanging out with friends in the capital city. Studying for 10 days in China is equivalent to studying for a year in the US, Gu has described her mother as saying.
Parents have also marveled at Gu Yan’s ability to let Gu have a happy childhood that allowed her time to both study and explore interests in a wide range of sports, including horse riding, rock climbing, and running—a departure from the strict “tiger mom” style of parenting adopted by some Chinese parents.
“Behind a happy child and their tolerant mother is a deep level of privilege: which is not only about relative advantages in wealth, but also about a low level of worry and anxiety about material things,” wrote columnist Feng Sheng.
Even the senior Gu’s insistence that her daughter get more than 10 hours of sleep every day seems a luxury to many kids in China, where normal schools can start at 7am and end at 9pm.
“Why can she [Gu] be so excellent? We are both females, why couldn’t I be like her? Both are mothers, why couldn’t I be like Gu’s mother? Is it because I’m too dumb or not working hard enough?” wrote a user on Weibo, accusing many Chinese education bloggers of creating such anxiety. Many bloggers have recently posted articles titled “how to become an Eileen Gu,” or “how to become a woman like Gu’s mother,” in which they urge parents to encourage their kids more, or push themselves to be more like the senior Gu, so they can offer their children more.
That’s easier said than done.
Beijing’s crackdown on tutoring last year has banned kids below high school from receiving after-school classes, which was a way for families to try to give their children a pathway to a better university and a better career. And let alone Olympic-level achievement, even the “normal” hallmarks of success—a good job, a house, starting a family—seem so out of reach to many young people that they are instead opting to “lie flat.”
Some have concluded that Gu’s success is actually proof that most jiwa parenting won’t work as it is not built upon kids’ real interests. The growing discontent about Gu as a role model is probably best illustrated by the comments that followed after famous TV host Bai Yansong urged parents to allow their kids to also sleep for 10 hours a night. “If China cancels the university and high school entrance examinations, kids definitely can sleep for that long,” said a top comment in response.
“Whether Gu’s success will cause anxiety all depends on different families’ attitude towards education. You have to know that not every family can offer kids such superb genes and a starting line as Gu,” said a Shanghai-based mother who has a young daughter.
“For my family, we are quite calm about Gu’s success, because we know she has totally different background and path compared to our kid,” she said.