Parenting in Beijing's 'Upper East Side'
The richer you are, the less Chinese you raise your kids
I’m Jordan Schneider, Beijing-based host of the ChinaEconTalk Podcast. In this newsletter, I translate articles from Chinese media about tech, business, and political economy. If you were forwarded this email, for free weekly updates free to…
This week’s podcast featured Jake Sullivan, former National Security Advisor to Joe Biden, Director of Policy Planning at State and senior policy advisor on the 2016 Clinton campaign. My overeager interjections aside, this was one of ChinaEconTalk’s best episodes. Jake is the most reflective former Obama official I have had on the show. While on occasion he sounded like he was still on a campaign, for the most part, he admirably leaned into the uncertainty facing US foreign policy in 2019.
Here’s one reaction to the episode from a Chinese national currently living in the US.
A few years ago the book Primates of Park Avenue took a lighthearted look into the social mores of New York’s richest families. The following article argues that a similar form of late-stage capitalism pervades China’s most exclusive zip codes. In Shunyi, a recreation of suburban America just north of Beijing International Airport, overeducated stay-at-home moms shuttle their children from private school interviews to lacrosse practice, all the while deathly afraid of falling behind.
What strikes me is that even in 2019 with a ‘rising China’ and Xi pushing cultural confidence as a core value, the more money you have, the less Chinese you want to raise your kids.
This was translated with the help of Erik Stahle. Let me know if you want to contribute as well, I have a small budget for this.
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The Mothers of Shunyi-hattan
9/15, by Gong Jingqi in ‘Protagonist’
She breaks it down for me: every apartment in the area costs around 20m rmb [3m usd], every car is at the very least a Rolls Royce or Bentley, and everyone is wearing a down jacket that costs 1k rmb or more. Leaving the country, they can only be found in first-class, and they fly wherever they like. Everyone’s life is so hard to differentiate, it is so hard to find something that shows that you are better than everyone else. Even relationships between husband and wife in this system are impossible to differentiate. “Everyone goes in and out the same, and on the outside, they all look incredible, fortunate and courteous.”
In a villa in the Shunyi, Beijing neighborhood of Houshayu lives a very interesting mother. Houshayu lies about 20 km from the city of Beijing, and is the area with the highest concentration of wealth in all of China. In 2003, when the 5th ring road was just being built, a group of wealthy people and celebrities were getting together to create a new neighborhood at the intersection of Beijing Capital Airport and the Wenyu River. Today its residents include people like Gong Li (actress), Wang Fei (singer), and Feng XiaoGang (director).
Spending 200k rmb every year, the wealthy residents send their children to the private schools of Houshayu. The famous parents of these schools include Robin Li (CEO and Founder of Baidu), the actor Li Yapeng, Olympic medalist Tiang Liang, and many more. Financial freedom is an invisible line in this town, separating Shunyi from everywhere else.
However, the mothers of this neighborhood don’t completely rely on their husbands; there are women who are CFOs, CEOs of hedge funds, and people responsible for United Nations work. However, this was their identity before coming to Shunyi. Today, they have given up everything for their most important job: being a mother.
These women have the ability to manage their own resources, but they often worry more about how to take care of children. The latter half of their lives are spent with their children, and at the same time as trying to control their children’s lives, the women’s lives have been changed completely by children.
In such a highly competitive environment, chasing perfectionism, all mothers are made to enter a state of nervousness: they are nonstop racking their brains to devise the perfect strategy for their children. In the face of the impossible, they will just respond by working harder and harder.
Upper East Side Shunyi Mother
“What should I wear for the interview?” As this thought came into my mind, I realized the disbelief I was in about this rare situation. But the situation I was about to face was just a group of mothers. However, the worry I had around my clothing was not baseless. Wednesday Martin spent 5 years researching the mothers of the Upper East Side – the richest mothers in the U.S. In her book ‘Primates of Park Avenue’, she warns, after moving her family to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she came across disdain for her fairly often. For example, when she went to apply for an apartment while in a regular ‘intellectual’ dress, she was mistaken for someone’s secretary.
Going into Houshayu, there are people that count the value of Wang Fei’s 700+ square meter villa. Looking into it, you would find that it would take roughly 1,000 years of work to afford. Due to the stereotypes around wealthy people, and their unfamiliarity with Shunyi, only hearing stories of these families, netizens have dubbed them ‘The Upper East Side mothers of Shunyi’.
At the end of August, at Shunyi International School’s pool, I came across some ‘Shunyi mothers’ picking up their children. What stood out to me was that they weren’t all wearing flashy clothes, as this would be looked down upon. Most of the women were wearing cartoon shirts that look like they got them from their boyfriend. However, this casual clothing is hiding something: the Bvlgari necklace and Gucci shoes they are also wearing. In addition, every one of these around 40-year-old mothers is tall and slender, looking effortlessly beautiful.
Even though I was wearing my most expensive dress, on the inside I was just thinking “Please don’t mistake me for a tutor or someone’s secretary.”
It was after this that I came across Shunyi Mother Bao Ruiru. The 40-year-old woman wasn’t wearing any makeup, not even wearing any lipstick. You can tell that she must not laugh very often, because there isn’t a single wrinkle on her face. Before coming to Shunyi she was a hedge fund manager, where she earned roughly 2m rmb [300k usd] per year. After having a child at 35, she decided to give her career up to become a full-time mother. “Unemployed or with money, you can have everything you need, but having a connection with another soul is much more important.” Bao Ruiru looks up at me laughing and says, “Young women will never be content.”
5m rmb [700k usd] is a rather important reference point in this neighborhood. This is enough to ensure that the mother doesn’t have to work. Bao Ruiru estimates, telling me “about 70% of the women here are full-time mothers,” and as the families get richer, sometimes even the father doesn’t have to work. The case of both being full-time parents is about 30% of the families. The father could be the CEOs of companies that successfully listed on the stock exchange or the Managing Partner of a banking company. Many residents have private jets or raise horses. In addition, many households have drivers, maids, bodyguards, and personal doctors.
The treatment one receives in these households is entirely different. As soon as we finished eating our fruits, it was followed immediately by some Spanish ham, thinly sliced to perfection. Bao Ruiru’s husband announced, “Please try this, it is cut by the lady of the house herself.”
When you have everything, the only thing left to take care of is the kid
Every morning in neighborhood where Bao Ruiru has her villa, a bus comes to pick up more than 50 children to bring them to a few of the famous private schools in Shunyi: Shunyi International School is where people without Beijing residence send their children, Dingshi School follows the American education system, Dewei School follows the British system, and so on. These private schools founded about ten years ago give the wealthy in Beijing a path to avoid the gaokao system and integrate directly with the international education system. Bao Ruiru tells me this: “Bringing Western education to your front door keeps us from having to separate from our children, this comes from the bottom of my heart.” Really, these rich people plan their lives around their children studying and work for them, as many of the villa neighborhoods are right next to the schools.
Some elements are so unbelievable, it sometimes feels as if you enter a ‘fake China’ while here.
These homes will not get in the way of your line of sight, as they are only 2 or 3 floors. Whether it is a villa, a coffee shop or otherwise, they all have a classic European style. At the schools, children are running around playing and yelling in English. At the end of the school day, as the principal brings the children out, parents greet them using well-practiced American English asking, “How are you today?”
The mothers in Shunyi recall fondly, when first moving in, they were delighted to hear the sound of honking cars replaced by birds, and see cars calmly stopping in the streets. It’s almost like living in a small town in a foreign country, much more relaxing than most places in China, especially so close to Beijing.
However, if you see this place as a wonderful utopia, the mothers will be quick to let you know how incorrect you are. The town only has one or two theaters, one market, and the restaurants are few and far in-between. After 10 pm, there are no people on the streets. Perhaps it is because they have reached such a different level of life. In addition, because it is so far from downtown, it is essentially an island. In this small island society, all differentiation has disappeared.
As a resident for about five years, Bao Ruiru observes that, once you think about it, you realize everyone goes to the same hospital, they all get their hair cut near the same European market, the place completely empties during summer break, as everyone is on vacation. “So what ties everything together at the end? The children.”
Children, so to speak, are the only uncertainty, and they represent your genes, abilities, and future potential. This is quite similar to the attitude on the other side of the Pacific. As Wednesday Martin describes in her book, amongst the richest mothers in the U.S., “In such a small and competitive environment, raising a ‘successful’ child is the best thing a parent can do, as it reflects well upon your personal character.”
In Houshayu, everything is done for the children. If there is a mother in this neighborhood that is too dedicated to her work, she will be cast aside. You cannot just leave your children to the maid or pick just any teacher to take care of them. If you live in an apartment in the city and make your children take the bus, mothers will righteously tell you to make the father commute into the city, as your kids will be able to sleep in longer that way. Not taking care of your children is unjust, “What is the point of coming to Shunyi otherwise?”
Being a mother is a high-risk job that you will sacrifice everything for
The most eye-catching frame in Bao Ruiru’s living rooms is occupied by a photo of her two children. The children are on a cruise ship by the water with huge smiles. Having it in such a central position gives the feeling of it being a trophy. On the other hand, in another location there are tens of gold and silver long-distance running medals, hanging like a screen of jewels in the room.
This is the same image that one sees presented in ‘Primates of Park Avenue’, with trophies and diplomas in Upper East Side households being placed in only the most eye-catching locations. However, it is not just to look good, it is because they live their lives for this recognition. As Wednesday Martin writes, “In the Upper East Side, being a mother is a high-risk job that you will sacrifice everything for if not successful, because being successful or a failure is all on the mother’s shoulders.”
However, everything is not decided by the mothers, as their children must be accepted and selected by this world as well. The mothers of Shunyi all experience this unforgiving and cruel environment. If your child is difficult, does not play well with others, or, for example, is seen hitting another child, sorry, your child won’t be chosen. This is seen in the bilingual schools as well. With these schools, teachers will tell parents directly, “Your child’s English isn’t good enough.” For example, if a teacher tells a story in English and asks a group of children a question, and only one child raises their hand to answer, sorry, the rest of the children are eliminated.
Every April, parents will receive acceptance letters from the various schools, but most mothers are too afraid to open the letter. Instead, they will pick it up and feel it: if it is a thin letter, then their child has been rejected, if it is thick, then they’ve been accepted. “The first time I saw my cute child, the only thing I wanted was for him to be well balanced, happy, and healthy, but now, I need him to be able to read English.”
As kids get older, their mothers are racked with more and more anxiety. A student that this year transferred over from a public school to the 4th grade came home with 4 points out of 8 in math. There is no accompanying ranking, and the homework isn’t often very similar to the test; this is a common facet of the American education system. However, copied over to China, making parents that were raised in the killer educational environment of the 1970s, raising their kids through another system causes a great deal of worry. They wonder, does 4 points mean they did well or not? They can teach the Chinese math system to their children no problem, but how about English language math’s obtuse angles and trapezoids? Mothers feel rather helpless in this regard.
As Wu Shezhi describes, you need to feel the rocks to cross a river. Private schools are only 10 years old here, so there are no forefathers.
WeChat has become a place for people to express their anxiety. Bao Ruiru opens her phone and tells me, pick any Shunyi mother, and they will be in about 20 of the same groups. The topics will range from purses to analyzing self-driving cars, from AI to plastic surgery. But of course, the topic they speak about the most is studying, extending advice to each other to help their children.
They will, of course, discuss these topics and many more in the coffee shops of Houshayu as well. Some things that come up will be the finances of the family and other more common discussion topics of any coffee shop around the world. However, the main focus is still on the children, quickly coming up with new ways to rear their children. “Did you hear this? There are some mothers that will buy a limousine just so their children will have more time to sleep on the way to class, or do homework in the car,” one mother jealously told Wu Shezhi.
These mothers will use the class year and school name of their child to introduce themselves to other mothers, their WeChat names are even ‘[child’s name] + mother’.
Having money and choices can be a curse
Even without a cultural foundation, the children of Shunyi 20,000 kilometers from European aristocracy, are learning to ride horses, fence, and golf. With these dazzling training options, Shunyi mothers only have one standard for their kids’ education: “climb the vine.” These activities are closely tied to the requirements of the Ivy League. “You have to compete, you have to get the grades, you have to get the achievement to apply to top schools.”
Some spend 100,000 yuan to learn lacrosse (“it’s a pole that has a basketball net, it’s played with your hands, some American thing”—from the mother’s notes). Because it’s not a very popular sport, its easy to get to the Ivy League relying on it. Another kid’s child started playing tennis in junior high with a coach from Columbia and ended up getting accepted there. “If a dad knows an ice hockey coach at a certain school, well, then that kid is going to start learning ice hockey.” [Sure sounds like there was money changing hands…will the FBI be digging in Shunyi anytime soon!?]
Here no one learns ping pong or the bamboo flute. Once at a drama class, the kids and teachers were having a blast. Afterwards, one mother said to the teacher, “if you’re laughing so happily how can you learn anything?”
Resources are always top-notch. Olympic champions teach swimming. Foreign faces are common, hailing from Harvard and Yale. Mothers also trust Tsinghua and Beida teachers.
In Shunyi, few mothers consider themselves qualified to be ‘Shunyi Mothers.’
A Terrible Cycle of Death
Bao Ruiru, watching one internet tycoon’s kid shine at a talent show, illustrates the anxiety and frustration of Shunyi mothers: if your kid isn’t in the .1%, if their classwork doesn’t produce masterpieces, then that’s proof that you’ve failed as a mother. If your kid doesn’t go to the Ivy League, then in this circle you’re an abject loser.
It’s curious why a group of people who have enough money for several lifetimes are still so insecure. It’s like in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where the Red Queens says you have to “run very hard just to stay in the same place.”
A group of “rich and hardworking” people who have no quit in them, who are disciplined and perfectionists, internally want to be the best while also operating under intense social pressure.
One day, Bao Ruiru’s daughter came home with an assignment to ask her parents what they do and how many hows a week do they work. When hearing these questions, Bao Ruiru realized, my daughter doesn’t know what I do. Thinking back on her lifestyle, with its three-hour lunches, and both parents picking up her daughter at three pm, thought, “We really don’t do all that much.”
Nowadays, Bao Ruiru’s social circle is entirely heads of families. Where she once angrily objected to mothers who did astrology and charity or managed their kids’ training, as soon as she stopped earning money, she spent all her time raising her kid. But later, the first time she went to a reading club and overheard other parents talking about work issues, she got really jealous.
At that moment, Bao Ruiru called to mind a terrible circle of death: she is doing her utmost to raise her daughter, and if she goes to an Ivy she’ll have a relatively leisurely and comfortable lifestyle. But what will be the point of it all? “She’ll just end up walking down the same path I did.”
Painting of the Week: Han Gan’s Night-Shining White, 韓幹 照夜白圖, 750 or so
We’re taking a break from landscapes this week with this stunning Tang dynasty horse.
From the Met:
A leading horse painter of the Tang dynasty, Han Gan was known for capturing not only the likeness of a horse but also its spirit. This painting, the most famous work attributed to the artist, is a portrait of a charger of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56). With its burning eye, flaring nostrils, and dancing hoofs, the fiery-tempered horse epitomizes Chinese myths about Central Asian "celestial steeds" that "sweated blood" and were actually dragons in disguise. The seals and inscriptions added to the painting and its borders by later owners and appreciators are a distinctive feature of Chinese collecting and connoisseurship. The addition of more than one thousand years of seals and comments offers a vivid testimony of the work's transmission and its impact on later generations.
What an eye!
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