After a busy day at her Beijing clothes store, Liu Yanche comes home, sits in a comfortable chair and listens to the sweet sounds of a Mozart concerto. She then begins to talk to herself out loud, or so it appears. The 28-year-old voices her views about the day, about life and her hopes for the future. But she is not alone.
Liu, who is eight months pregnant, is one of a new generation of pregnant Chinese women who practice fetal education - taijiao - with a renewed sense of ardency, believing it will make her child smarter and more responsive from birth.
This old practice has become popular again with young mothers anxious to give their only child the best possible start in modern China. Today's parents want to give their children an early advantage in the high-pressure gauntlet of tests that funnel a few outstanding students from middle school to high school to a good university and finally to a prestigious job at a large company.
For families who practice taijiao, the nights and weekends of extra classes and supplemental training start early, with prenatal sessions of Mozart and Bach, recordings of classical essays, and programs of stimulation with sound, light and movement. Others use taijiao as a way to relax and bond with the child they have not yet met.
MK Chin, a nurse-midwife at United Family Hospital Shanghai who has delivered over 3,000 babies, believes taijiao is a beneficial, common sense practice that gives infants a good intellectual start.
She says that fetal development is very much influenced by the mother's immediate environment, especially sounds.
However, she cautions it is not enough: "It's very important for pregnant women to put taijiao into perspective. It's not just about pregnancy." She maintains that for fetal education to be effective, parents must persist in providing a stimulating environment of speech and music through infancy and early childhood.
According to Chin, taijiao has surged in popularity in the past four to five years and become a high-tech consumer niche as well as a set of beliefs about prenatal care.
Expectant mothers in big cities can choose from hundreds of books and training schedules, special CDs of classical music and essays, prenatal supplements, and prenatal training classes under a taijiao program.
In practice, women bring varying expectations to their pregnancies and carry out taijiao to varying degrees, such as Liu Yanche. She runs a clothing stall at a market near Dongsishitiao and started taijiao three months into her pregnancy.
Her goal is to make her child smarter. Her taijiao program consists of talking to her unborn baby and listening to music, both classical music, bought especially for the purpose, and her favorite tunes.
"I just say what I'm thinking about, nothing special or fixed," she says. "Talking to my baby makes me feel blessed. It gives me a feeling of togetherness, especially when I pat on my belly and I feel him respond."
She says fetal education not only gives her the opportunity to have a more intelligent baby, but will also make it part of the family earlier by doing activities together while still in the womb.
Zhen Ying, a 30-year-old Beijing journalist, is six months pregnant. She started thinking about the programmatic types of taijiao such as listening to classical music at four months, but began chatting with the fetus from early in the pregnancy. She uses their talks as a way to mitigate the effects of her feelings on her fetus.
"I apologize to him if I was nervous or had an intense feeling like fear or worry, because negative feelings affect babies." However, she doesn't expect taijiao to have an effect on her child's intelligence.
"I don't expect him to be smarter. I tried to read poems to him but I realized that not even I enjoyed it, so how could he enjoy it? Also Bach, classical music, I don't like it. I just want him to be relaxed in the womb.
"Everyone wants her baby to be a child prodigy. Mozart's music is the most popular because he was a child prodigy himself. I just want the child to be who he is."
She believes parents who undergo fetal education in an effort to make their child smarter are doing it in response to the social pressure. She says many modern Chinese parents feel they must have a high-achieving child.
Chin, the nurse-midwife, agrees. She says that the pressure is so high that parents will spend 1,000 yuan (US$132) to raise their child's IQ by one point.
At a maternity clothing store near Dongdan, two clerks debated the effectiveness of fetal education, with the argument divided cleanly by generation.
Ms. Ma, 43, says that although taijiao practices such as music and essay recordings are popular among her customers, especially the younger ones, she doesn't believe in it herself. She did not practice taijiao during her own pregnancy. She attributes its popularity to modernization.
"Everything is more advanced than it used to be, including pregnancy, and people value success and achievement more than they used to, so taijiao is a result," Ma says.
Liu Wei, 26, believes the opposite. She says that fetal education is not only an effective way of making your child smarter, but both a cause and a product of the increasingly complex social worlds of urban China. "Kids are smarter now, everything is more technological, and kids can do really complex things at a really early age."
Experts such as Chin believe that the motivation behind the new intensity in practicing taijiao comes from the drastic reconfiguration of the family resulting from the one child policy, coinciding with increased economic competition brought on by the transition to a market economy.
With two sets of extended family counting on a single child to carry on the family, support them in their old age, compete in the educational and job markets, and supply drawings for the front of the refrigerator, the pressure to have a smart, healthy, high-achieving child seems inevitable.
"In the past, besides work and family, there wasn't anything, so people didn't need taijiao," says Liu.
The increasing complexity of contemporary social life has led to the pressures of ambitious childhood education spilling over into the womb, Liu adds.
(China Daily August 22, 2007)