BEIJING — Four years ago, Zi fell out with his violin teacher. The artistic shakeup, which is how Zi's parents carefully describe it, led to his current love, the piano. Zi, who is now seven, spends every Saturday in a huge music studio with 45 private teaching rooms. Every Sunday, as part of a rigorous weekend march to hone and test his talent, Zi takes English and drawing lessons.
Just as the US went through a "superbabies" trend in the 1980s, China's success- oriented culture is now shaping super tykes. In a country where cars now clog city lanes, where in Beijing a huge new opera house and high rises are displacing city homes, where the Communist Party now mandates the concept of "shao kan," the good life - young urban Chinese parents are pushing their offspring to be all they can be.
As China, with its 1.3 billion population, expands the economy, and its ambition to be the dominant power in Asia - there is also a collective hope that the nation will benefit from a super generation of high-level learners. Weekend classes for 3 to 12-year-olds are a national obsession, as urban parents regularly spend a third or more of their income in hopes that junior will become a "dragon," a dominant character among peers. China is a country in a hurry to get ahead.
Public schools in larger cities offer weekend "math Olympics" - advanced math leading to geometry and algebra. There's a budding industry of private teachers, phone networks, price sheets, and private schools that offer dance, introductory physics, calligraphy, music, karate, tennis, and art. The most popular class: English.
"We need to give kids advantages now," states Ms. Chen, Zi's mom, who attends all his classes, and has been sizing up her son for boarding school abroad.
At the private Jie Jang arts center where Zi takes piano, parents are told their offspring will develop "the eight powers": rich imagination, rigorous thinking, bold expression, deep understanding, steady control, memory skill, harmony, and outstanding organizing.
Parents say their kids need such "extras" to get into a top middle school, which itself will lead to a top high school and college. In the early 1990s, China switched from a six day school week to five days, allowing the current boom in weekend warrior tykes.
In Taiyuan, capitol of Shanxi province, 80 percent of families with grade school kids send them to extra classes, notes a recent survey. Beijing neighborhoods echo with a new and often ironic use of an old Chinese phrase: "Wang zi chen long," or "chen feng." It means: "We want our son to be a dragon." (Or our daughter to be a "phoenix.") In Chinese, the meaning suggests a successful figure such as Bill Gates or Hilary Clinton - who can control his or her environment.
Still, the trend has a number of detractors, ranging from local health officials to grandmothers.
"The dragon is the No. 1, the top animal for boys, and the phoenix is No. 1 for girls," says a Beijing scholar of social trends. "These days people think if you aren't a dragon, you are a worm, and no one wants that. Parents all say they can ignore peer pressure and don't want to push their kids too hard. But they all do. I think this is partly due to vanity. Everyone wants to say their children are very successful."
In the People's Daily, a columnist named Lu Qin, China's equivalent of "Dear Abby," criticizes "overzealous" parents for the "Five Overs": being "overexpectant, overprotective, overspoiling, overinterfering, and overcritical."
Yet for now, 24/7 schooling is unstoppable. One Saturday at the Jang Jie center, Zi bounces around speaking English as hundreds of kids come and go. The studio is one of 13 in a franchise that started with a single accordion teacher in 1985, but whose insignias now dot downtown Beijing. Parents can choose one-on-one music classes for their budding Beethovens, deciding on "Triple A" instructors ($40 for 90 minutes). Or they can opt for classes of 2-10 with "F"-ranked instructors who charge 50 cents a head. The bona fides and rank of each instructor are posted outside the door.
Sunday at an elementary school adjacent to a small technical college, second-graders pile out of "math olympics," a subject that has taken the parental set by storm. Zhang Li Ying's daughter An Bei started taking English, dance, and drawing at age 4. But now that An Bei is 8, her mom has her in math; she takes piano as well as English. The math costs $25 a semester, which allows the family to pay $85 a month for piano. The two-income family makes about $500 a month, good for Beijing.
"An Wei will gather the extra points she needs to get into a good middle school," says her mother. "We can't afford for our kids to get behind." The affordability of the classes is summed up by one mother: "It doesn't matter whether we can afford it, we have to afford it. You just find a way to come up with the money."
Of course, the other side of this economic transaction is the supplemental income for many teachers and artists who officially make about $250 a month. Last November a story in the state-run Xinhua news service lamented the fact that many venerable college professors now tip-toe out to teach toddlers. In some cases, parents pay them more than they make at university. "It is sad to find professors willing to lower their status to tutor in this way," the news service noted.
Yet talent is highly valued in a nation where patriotic feeling is a deep well. As China anticipates what it feels will be its natural dominant position in Asia, a more accomplished new generation must be part of a proud new expression, several Chinese scholars confide.