Pampered as infants and toddlers, many Chinese children discover that life begins to change around age 3. Three-year-olds are given responsibilities -- sweeping the floor, picking up sticks for fuel, weeding or picking vegetables in the private plot and washing the rice before cooking.

Punishments become harsher. Children who misbehave often are cuffed, screamed at or beaten, sometimes with bamboo sticks.

Children who fight or steal are liable to receive particularly quick or harsh punishment. Such activities disrupt the tight web of relationships that rule life here and cause great unease among Chinese parents.

As a child grows up, his father's manner becomes more aloof, his role in discipline more important.

"Most children are scared of their fathers," one immigrant told an American research team. "Fathers are strict -- but they don't say much, and they don't often lose their tempers and curse, or the child would get used to it. If the mother spanks the child and he cries, the father will say: 'Why are you crying? Stop that crying!' and the child will stop. Fathers are more venerable, while mothers are more sympathetic.

"Fathers rarely joke with children or play with them. No father would play Ping-Pong with his child -- we just don't have that custom."

A cold, firm fatherly hand prepares a Chinese child for a military style of leading and following that will infuence the rest of his days. All important activities, even matters as private as study, dating or writing a book, are regularly done in groups.

Classrooms I have visited in urban Shanghai and Canton and rural Hubei and Guangdong all run on an identical 19th century system of strict discipline, each child sitting straight with both hands behind his or her back. The teachers usually are cheerful and the atmosphere far from oppressive, but each student seeking attention must move only one hand above his or her head; no wiggling or pleading is allowed. They must stand and recite at attention.

An American den mother would find breathtaking the organizational structure of the Young Pioneers, the Chinese equivalent of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Each primary school has a Young Pioneer corps, divided into platoons for each classroom and squads for each row of the class.