Published: January 8, 2011
Ms. Hou (whose name is pronounced Ho Ee-fahn) is an astonishing phenomenon: at 16, she is the new women’s world chess champion, the youngest person, male or female, ever to win a world championship. And she reflects the way China — by investing heavily in education and human capital, particularly in young women — is increasingly having an outsize impact on every aspect of the world.
Napoleon is famously said to have declared, “When China wakes, it will shake the world.” That is becoming true even in spheres that China historically has had little connection with, like chess, basketball, rare earth minerals, cyber warfare, space exploration and nuclear research.
This is a process that Miss Hou exemplifies. Only about 1 percent of Chinese play chess, and China has never been a chess power. But since 1991, China has produced four women’s world chess champions, and Ms. Hou is the one with by far the most promise.
At this point, I have to put my sensitive male ego aside. You see, Ms. Hou gamely agreed to play me after I interviewed her. She had just flown into Beijing after winning the world championship, and she was exhausted — and she shredded me in 21 moves.
Most dispiriting, when I was teetering at the abyss near the end of the game, her coach nudged her and suggested mischievously that we should switch sides. Ms. Hou would inherit my impossible position — and the gleam in her coach’s eye suggested that she would still win.
I protested that I could survive being beaten on the chess board by a schoolgirl. But to be toyed with, like a mouse by a cat — that would be too much. Ms. Hou nodded compassionately and checkmated me a few moves later.
At 14 she became the youngest female grandmaster ever. She’s still so young that it’s unclear just how remarkable she will become.
Women in general haven’t been nearly as good at chess as men, and the world’s top women are mostly ranked well below the top men — but Ms. Hou could be an exception. She is the only female chess player today considered to have a shot at becoming one of the top few players in the world, male or female.
Cynics sometimes suggest that China’s rise as a world power is largely a matter of government manipulation of currency rates and trade rules, and there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of rigging or cheating going on in every sphere. But China has also done an extraordinarily good job of investing in its people and in spreading opportunity across the country. Moreover, perhaps as a legacy of Confucianism, its citizens have shown a passion for education and self-improvement — along with remarkable capacity for discipline and hard work, what the Chinese call “chi ku,” or “eating bitterness.”
Ms. Hou dined on plenty of bitterness in working her way up to champion. She grew up in the boondocks, in a county town in Jiangsu Province, and her parents did not play chess. But they lavished attention on her and spoiled her, as parents of only children (“little emperors”) routinely do in China.
China used to be one of the most sexist societies in the world — with female infanticide, foot binding, and concubinage — but it turned a corner and now is remarkably good at giving opportunities to girls as well as boys. When Ms. Hou’s parents noticed her interest in a chess board at a store, they promptly bought her a chess set — and then hired a chess tutor for her.
Ye Jiangchuan, the chief coach of the national men’s and women’s teams, told me that he played Ms. Hou when she was 9 years old — and was stunned. “I saw that this kid was special,” he told me, and he invited her to move to Beijing to play with the national teams. Three years later she was the youngest girl ever to compete in the world chess championships.
It will be many, many decades before China can challenge the United States as the overall “No. 1” in the world, for we have a huge lead and China still must show that it can transition to a more open and democratic society. But already in discrete areas — its automobile market, carbon emissions and now women’s chess — China is emerging as No. 1 here and there, and that process will continue.
There’s a lesson for us as well. China’s national commitment to education, opportunity and eating bitterness — those are qualities that we in the West might emulate as well. As you know after you’ve been checkmated by Hou Yifan.