Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter

PoC Status Update: 6/9

“Mama died giving birth to you. If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive. She died because of you. You are bad luck.” (p. 3)

Chinese Cinderella has all the ingredients of the classic Western fairy Cinderella story: a dead mother, an uncaring and indifferent father, evil stepmother, unkind stepsiblings (even biological siblings), rejection and abandonment. So what makes this tale written by Adeline Yen Mah so special, so unique, despite its universal and common theme? My answer: This is no fairy tale. And there are no fairy godmothers to make everything better and turn pumpkins into coaches, mice into noble steed. This heartbreaking narrative of Adeline is her own story, carefully built together from the fragments of her past and teased out from the memories of her bitter childhood. I also believe that this complements Fats’ post on the picture book of A Cinderella Story from China by Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young perfectly.

The Evil Stepmom, Cruel and Spoiled Siblings, The Indifferent Father, and the Absence of a Plump, Rosy-cheeked, Absentminded Fairy Godmother. Adeline’s Chinese name is Yen Jun-ling (Chinese surnames come at the beginning of a person’s name). She was also called Wu Mei which means Fifth daughter. She had an older sister (Big Sister) whose Western name is Lydia, three older brothers and two younger step-siblings.

Adeline’s siblings – guess where she is in the photo. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Among Adeline’s four older and two younger siblings, she was closest to Third Brother who occasionally treated her with kindness. In contrast to your endearing family squabbles where siblings often make each others’ lives miserable as part of the daily routine – Adeline’s experience was quite out of the ordinary.  Her siblings’ treatment of her was tainted with malice rather than harmless mischief, an intention to destroy and maim rather than build a tougher outer shell to withstand cruelties from outside the home, the insults are meant to pierce through her heart and kill her spirit rather than carefree, playful banters that can be dismissed with a playful swat on the behind or body-wrestling on the carpet. These sibling encounters do not end in raucous laughter – but in tears, bloody noses, a dead duckling, multiple slaps on one’s cheeks and pee masking as orange juice. Being an only child myself, the cruelty astounds me and renders me speechless.

This, however, pales in comparison with how they were treated by their beautiful stepmother, whom they were asked to call Niang (which means Mother in Chinese). Based on Adeline’s description, she sounded like a real peach:

Our stepmother, whom we called Niang, was a seventeen-year-old Eurasian beauty fourteen years his junior. Father always introduced her to his friends as French wife, though she was actually half French and half Chinese. Besides Chinese, she also spoke French and English. She was almost as tall as Father, stood very straight and dressed only in French clothes, many of which came from Paris. Her thick, wavy black hair never had a curl out of place. Her large, dark brown eyes were fringed with long, thick lashes. She wore heavy make-up, expensive French perfume and many diamonds and pearls. (p. 4)

The evil stepmother from Disney’s Snow White seemed to be a more fitting image than Disney’s Cinderella’s wicked stepmother

I don’t think their father had a chance with this kind of powerful young beauty who knew exactly her place in the scheme of things and demanded unswerving loyalty, allegiance, and obedience most of all. It was clear that Niang’s two children (Adeline’s step siblings) would be better than all five of them from the first marriage combined:

… they were already ‘special’ from the moment of their birth. Though nobody actually said so, it was simply understood that everyone considered Niang’s ‘real’ children better-looking and smarter than her stepchildren – simply superior in every way. Who dared disagree? (p. 10)

The moment that they moved to their grand mansion in Shanghai from Tianjin, it was quite clear how things would be like: the rules were laid out as soon as they have stepped onto their house (which never really felt like a ‘home’ to me as I read through the entire book) – “Everything was ornate, formal, polished and hard.” (p. 24)

They were all lumped together in the third level, they are not allowed

Evil stepmother from Disney’s Cinderella

to receive visitors nor are they allowed to visit their friends’ homes. They could only enter and leave the house through the back door (since the front door is exclusively meant for Father’s guests and the two youngest siblings and Niang, of course), they are not permitted to enter the rooms in the second level (where the master bedroom is, along with the bedrooms of the two privileged siblings) without prior permission. While the two younger babies were given the best clothes, Western food (bacon and limitless eggs, and yes omelette and ham), and overall preferential attention and treatment – the five step siblings were consigned to outdated old-fashioned Chinese clothes (making them the butt of jokes in their elite school for the wealthy), congee for breakfast, and strictly three meals a day only. They are not to waste their father’s money since he works extremely hard to make sure that they are given the best education that money can buy.

Any word of dissent from the children could incur the wrath and rage of Niang which would inevitably involve their father’s displeasure, disappointment, and yes the classic slaps in the face from Niang. The house was like a minefield, one wrong move and an explosion might ensue. Allegiances shift and turn along with favors incurred from one side to the next. One thing was for certain though – Niang controls the moon and the sweeping of the tides.

Adeline in all her childlike innocence

Adeline’s downfall (and strength) was her clear-sightedness and innocence (or is it naivete) in articulating things as they are and standing up for what she believes in – which made her Niang hate her even more, going to the extent of throwing her to two boarding schools like an orphan – like the unwanted and unloved child that she was.

Ye Ye and Aunt Baba. Fountainhead of love, guidance, and inspiration. While there were no magic wands, potions, and spells enunciated in rhyme with toads’ feet and dragons’ tails – Adeline had her Ye Ye (her paternal grandfather) and Aunt Baba (her paternal aunt, sister of her father) to give her courage and wisdom amidst all the abuse, emotional turmoil, and indifference shown by her father. And yes, the final act of abandonment with her being thrown off into boarding schools even in the middle of civil unrest (no, she was never visited by her family nor were stuff sent to her, no mails were allowed by her Niang, and no summer trips back home – school was home).

Adeline’s Loving Aunt Baba – photo taken from the book.

Whenever I discuss resiliency in my class, I always quote from the literature which states that it is important to have a strong social network to promote resiliency – and this does not necessarily have to come from one’s biological parents. The presence of one caring adult can make a world of difference to an aching child’s heart. Whenever Adeline would lapse into a pity party, her grandfather would snap her out of this with words such as these:

“You mustn’t talk like that! You have your whole life ahead of you. Everything is possible! I’ve tried to tell you over and over that far from being garbage, you are precious and special. Being top of your class merely confirms this. But you can vanquish the demons only when you yourself are convinced of your own worth.” (p. 181)

As Adeline herself noted: “Please believe that one single positive dream is more important than a thousand negative realities.” (p. xii)

Chinese Values, Festivals and Giving Face to Family. One of the highlights of this book is being privy to Chinese customs, traditions, and values. The preface includes a few lessons in Chinese to provide an overview of the chapters with Adeline explaining that Chinese is a “pictorial language. Every word is a different picture and has to be memorized separately.” In one of the chapters, Ye Ye taught Adeline the importance of knowing her own language despite the fact that English is the language of commerce and the future. According to Adeline’s grandfather:

‘You may be right in believing that if you study hard, one day you might become fluent in English. But you will still look Chinese, and when people meet you, they’ll see a Chinese girl no matter how well you speak English. You’ll always be expected to know Chinese, and if you don’t, I’m afraid they will not respect you as much.’ (p. 151)

This love for one’s language and ancestry is something that I can attest to being here in Singapore for more than two years now. And I do have an appreciation of how ancient (and yes, extremely difficult) the language is. One of my dreams is to learn Chinese and Arabic someday when I am not driven by time, deadlines, and ruled by schedules.

The book also describes funeral rites, how marriage was arranged during Big Sister’s time, the importance of paying homage to one’s elders and those who have passed on, and bringing pride and honor to one’s family and proving one’s worth through hard work, diligence, loyalty, and excellence. It is never an individual’s pride and glory that matters – it is the honor that you bring to your family and ancestors.

Adeline’s Ye Ye dressed in Chinese robes – and her younger step-sister. Photo taken from the book.

The celebration of the Chinese New Year was likewise mentioned twice in the book. Adeline noted that this was a time when new clothes were worn to signal new beginning for the coming year. Family lunches were arranged and time was devoted for the family. I also remember feeling hungry as I read the book with all the delectable dishes that she describes in her narrative (toasted buns, sausage rolls, chestnut cream cake – among others). One of the highlights of staying here in Singapore is the food food food. And yes, the celebration of Chinese New Year is always huge – with the extended holidays, all shops being closed, and most of the people traveling to nearby countries for rest and recreation.

Click on the image to be taken to the source

Books and School as Lifeline to Sanity and Well-being. The book begins with Adeline receiving an honor in kindergarten class and ends with an international award being bestowed on her at age 14. This book interests me for so many reasons, and this clear leaning towards excellence and talent would be one of them (my field being in gifted education). Somehow it reminds me of Mao’s Last Dancer which was also featured here in GatheringBooks.

I am a firm believer in the power of books to heal. I may call it bibliotherapy as a clinician, others could call it book clubs, teachers can facilitate book discussions in class – it’s all one and the same. Fiction Can and Does Heal, as James Hillman aptly puts it in his book.

In Adeline’s story of strife and pain and helplessness, she found refuge in her books and in coming to school where people understood her and valued her for who she is.

I was always happy when our rickshaw approached the imposing red brick building of St. Joseph’s. I loved everything about my school… My classmates made me feel as if I ‘belonged.’ Unlike my siblings, nobody looked down on me. (p. 13)

This is how lovingly Adeline describes their school library and her books:

Jefferson’s Library – click on the image to be taken to the source

I sauntered into the library and picked out a few books. What a beautiful room! Away from all the noise, giggles, and excitement. My haven. My sanctuary. The place where I belonged! My real world! (p. 166)

And this is how Adeline describes her reading:

“I read because I have to. It drives everything else from my mind. It lets me escape to find other worlds. The people in my books become more real than anyone else. They make me forget.” (p. 180)

and writing:

To me, writing was pure pleasure. It thrilled me to be able to escape the horrors of my daily life in such a simple way. When I wrote, I forgot that I was an unwanted daughter who had caused her mother’s death. Instead, I could be anybody I wished

Click on the image to be taken to the source

to be. In my narratives, I poured out everything that I dared not say out loud. I was friends with the beautiful princesses and dashing knights who lived in my imagination. I was no longer the lonely little girl bullied by her siblings. Instead I was the female warrior Mulan, who would rescue her aunt and Ye Ye from harm. (p. 53)

Adeline also felt that if she earns enough As and if she consistently obtains the top honors in her class that eventually she would gain her father’s and Niang’s love and respect. Thus, she led a double life – one in school where she pretended that she came from a happy and loving family – and another one at home where she is the perennial ugly duckling, unloved and unwanted by parents and siblings:

But if I tried to be really good and studied very very hard, perhaps things would become different one day, I would think. Meanwhile, I must not tell anyone how bad it really was. I should just go to school every day and carry inside me this dreadful loneliness, a secret I could never share. Otherwise, it would be over, and Father and Niang would never come to love me. (p. 55)

Historical Context and Timeline. The story’s setting was during Adeline’s childhood in the late 1930s and early 1940s when Tianjin, China was still divided into foreign concessions despite the fact that the Japanese army ruled the entire country outside these foreign concessions. Adeline’s powerful and rich family lived in the French concession where they were ruled by French citizens adhering to the French laws and constitution.

Eastern part of the French concession in China, click on the image to be taken to the image source

This was how Adeline explained it in her book:

The conquerors parceled out the best areas of these treaty ports for themselves, claiming them as their own ‘territories’ or ‘concessions.’ Tianjin’s French concession was like a little piece of Paris transplanted into this center of this big Chinese city. Our house was built in the French style and looked as if it had been lifted from a tree-shaded avenue near the Eiffel tower. (p. 5)

The Park in the French Concession of China – source for both images is Cornell University Library, click on the image to be taken to the source

Things changed drastically when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and declared war on the US and UK. At the time when Japanese troops invaded the foreign concessions, Adeline’s powerful father has already fled to Shanghai where he was joined by Adeline and her siblings two years later.

Even when the Second World War was at an end and Japan has surrendered, this was still a time of political and civil unrest for China with war erupting between the Nationalists and the Communists. At the height of the civil war, Adeline’s parents brought her from Shanghai to abandon her to a missionary convent school, St. Joseph’s, in Tianjin, which was sure to be attacked by the invading Communists. In essence, she was left there to die.

St Joseph’s in the 1940s – click on the image to be taken to the websource

The administrators and the teachers were astonished about Adeline’s “enrolment” in the school while everyone else was fleeing and leaving the city:

“Didn’t your parents tell you the Communists don’t believe in God and hate foreigners? A Chinese student in a foreign convent school is seen by them as a member of the same religious order and will be persecuted along with the nuns if they win the war.”

I could only stare at her dumbly as she continued.

“What are your parents thinking of? Everyone is fleeing Tianjin for Shanghai or Hong Kong. And here you are coming from the opposite direction!” (p. 129)

End Notes and the true Chinese Cinderella. I was struck by Adeline’s authenticity and simplicity in language which tugs at one’s heartstrings, releasing a few unwilling tears, despite one’s attempts to be worldly and cynical, having seen it all. As a reader, you can sense her pain and you are able to celebrate her little joys with her.

Adeline (who became a medical doctor) also tells her readers that

Ye Xian, the Original Chinese Cinderella – click on the image to be taken to a blog post on Ye Xian

while the story of Cinderella was thought to have been invented in Italy in 1634, there was a Chinese version (Duan Cheng-shi’s Ye Xian or Yeh-Shen as Fats’ previous post indicated yesterday) which predates the Italian tale by eight hundred years.

Despite her misfortunes, she never sounded resentful, angry, distant or vengeful in her life story narrative. It was a matter-of-fact retelling of her pain for the world to see and hear. Yet it was done with such grace and acceptance. A true testament to the power of the human spirit and the capacity to overcome. Truly a perfect post for our Chinese New Year Special and another official entry to the PoC Reading Challenge. Kung Hei Fat Choi to one and all.

Sources for the images:
Adeline’s photo - http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=311&author=208
Adeline and her siblings – http://shawneeisamazing.glogster.com/adeline-yen-mah/
Adeline’s photo - http://mvmsreader.pbworks.com/w/page/7927219/Chinese-Cinderella-H-Block
Adeline’s Niang - http://adelineyenmah.com/about
Adeline’s photo as a young child - http://www.flickr.com/photos/14149603@N02/1440507568/

44 Comments on Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter

  1. Hey,
    This Story Is Quite Interesting, Its About A Young Girl Who Struggles To Get Her Parents Love, She Has An Evil Step Mother That RUINS Her Life…

    Like

  2. Looks like you used the photo of St. Joseph from my Flickr account. My mother was in the same school at the time of the Mrs. Mah. My mother family lived in Tientsin throughout WWII and until communists took over.

    Like

    • myragarcesbacsal // February 26, 2011 at 8:51 am // Reply

      Hello Wen. Good to see you here. Yup, I actually backtracked to your Flickr account through the image. I am sure your mother must have a lot of stories from during this time. I am quite fortunate to have found your photo, it was difficult finding pictures that would make this review come alive, and your lovely image truly helped.

      Like

  3. i have met adeline before she is an angel

    Like

  4. i touch this story..[from philippines]

    Like

  5. Wow, Adeline Yen Mah is one of the most inspirational and intelligant woman i have ever heard of, her life story is just amazing i was hooked withen the first page of her book which i have read 4 times. i cringe everytime i read it and feel so awfully upset for adeline when she is in the precence of niang, she must have been a cold blooded woman when she was around. i learnt alot from her book, thank you

    Like

  6. great…i luv this book…i cried most of the tym…u r a gem Adeline…i hope that every unwanted child struggles lyk Adeline but at the same tym i pray that no child is unwanted…

    Like

  7. prefer to stay anonymous // October 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm // Reply

    adeline yen mah is a fabulous athour. she weaves her past into the pages and words of the books like
    magic . she must be so brave to do all that. she is one of the best authors of our time and teaches us that we should not take love and warmth of family for granted .

    Like

  8. I have just completed the book Falling Leaves, which has left me feeling very ignorant of others sufferings. I was very moved by the book and writings. LARA
    UK

    Like

  9. my great grandmother, grandmother, and mom were all born in China. Though my great-grandmother never got her feet bound because she lived in a poor part of China where farming was necessary. In a way, she was lucky but in another, she was not. When the Japanese were invading, she told me that she hid in the mountains with the rest of her family. She died a few years ago in 2007.

    Like

  10. Hi This report is truly inspirational fo all children to use as a guide about Chinese Cinderella. I’m in year 7 and i was wondering if you could give me some notes about chapter 12 which concentrates on Big Sisters wedding thanks.

    Like

  11. Ma. Angellee faye Nicolas Pagaduan // February 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm // Reply

    your so intelligent Jun-ling you are my idol

    Like

  12. i love adeline yen-mah

    Like

  13. Thank you for stopping by my blog. Hope you visit again.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

    Like

  14. love the book. thanks for the info. yessss.

    Like

  15. Jonathan M // April 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm // Reply

    What was the father’s full name in chinese? I know in English it is Joseph Yen (嚴), but how do you write Joseph in chinese?

    Like

  16. Tse-rung Yen
    is the fathers name

    Like

  17. She is soo inspirational , she reminds me of Jaimy Rodemeyer :’(

    Like

  18. What a story! Thank you

    Like

  19. lorna balila // May 24, 2012 at 10:42 pm // Reply

    its very fantastic! I like it so much.may the god bless u always..

    Like

  20. Rose Tyler // May 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm // Reply

    Hi,
    I have hearing of this book for the first time. I heard it just last week in year 7, we had to read this book. Everyone enjoyed the book and we all the same expression on Niang – a cruel, evil stepmother who is selfish to her own step daughter. When I think of Adeline, I think of Cinderella.
    Is Adeline still alive? I would really like to know her much better than through her stories.

    Like

  21. I also loved Wild Swans

    Like

  22. Tanvir Kaur // July 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm // Reply

    Hi,
    I love this book. I am only 12 years old but I have read it more than 50 times probably. It is the best book I have read in years. I have read man books because I am a really big reader and this books tops all of them.

    Like

  23. Maryam Studholme // August 8, 2012 at 8:27 am // Reply

    Adeline Yen Mah’s childhood is a very moving and touching story that never fails to bring tears to my eyes, no matter how many times i read it. Though she may have been unwanted in the past I think she was a great woman and i’ll forever look up to her and think of her as a role model.

    Like

  24. I can’t wait to read this – thank you for bringing it to life for me in your review!

    Like

  25. Looking forward to following you and your blog posts. Thanks for the like today on my blog.

    Like

  26. Adeline child own story, is a very powerful, entertaining and persuasive story about the polemical aspect of the unwanted daughter or sons, I enjoy the most when her own father forgot about her everywhere, its a very good and sad story.

    Like

  27. a complete description of the book an the message given by adeline also a very good structure like it very much

    Like

  28. Daniel Avila // October 4, 2012 at 9:44 pm // Reply

    I really enjoy this book. I think that Adeline really open herself emotionally through this book, and that her really accomplished to show her feelings trough the book. And this really makes “Chinesse Cinderella” a really special book.
    I think that the part that I enjoy most of the book was after she gets pneumonia, when Ye Ye gave her trust, and then she dedicates her winning price story to him. I really feel the connection that they have.

    Like

  29. Omar D. Serrano A. // October 4, 2012 at 9:44 pm // Reply

    It’s a perfect story-telling of Adeline’s experience concerning to her life in the book. This blog has explained me the chinese culture and its effects on a young girl. Its interesting and useful your blog presentation. Well Done.

    Like

  30. Maria Paz Morales // October 9, 2012 at 6:17 am // Reply

    I really liked this book. I think Adeline hill a long and painful chapter of his life by writing “Chinese Cinderella”. This blog shows very well what is basically the story about, and is very complete, because shows us the point of view of one person abut the book, and also have images related with the story.

    Like

  31. Krijan Mysterio // October 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm // Reply

    This book is awesome and it i’m not the kind of person who cries at sad parts but who looks at his shoe and wonders how it will feel if I were sufferenig it

    Like

  32. Wow I love this! Ok .. I shall be following you so I can find it later when school isn’t sucking the life out of me! This is a really insightful book review though i absolutely enjoyed reading it!

    Like

  33. What would you say were the weaknesses of this novel and the way it was written, if any?

    Like

  34. Hi I truly enjoyed your review and felt it was the best I’ve ever read. Thank you for your great insights on this wonderful book!

    Like

  35. Has anyone tried to ask the remaining siblings or the children of Lydia what they thought of this book?

    Like

  36. Wonderful post!

    Thank you for visiting my blog today. I appreciate the time you took to stop by. May your day be filled with joy and peace.
    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

    Like

  37. Reblogged this on Part of my life and commented:
    Some might think that Adeline Yen Mah’s story are very heart warming. My literature teacher thought that she complains quite a lot in the book of “Chinese Cinderella”. I was pretty annoyed with the author as i was being tested the book, homework on “Falling Leaves”. I would like it if it was for leisure reading though.

    Like

  38. Ze [anonymous] coz TC // July 18, 2013 at 6:00 pm // Reply

    This is a great book, especially as I empathised with the author’s feelings with some of my experiences in life. It really touched me, and even though I am 13 years old (or maybe BECAUSE I am 13 years old), I shared her emotions and felt like crying at various parts (I could only BARELY hold myself together).

    This is a great book, and also above is a great review. Thanks for amazing the review, it is so good it is actually a part of my homework sheet.

    Like

  39. she is strong minded and determind

    Like

4 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. February Round-Up: Reading through the Month of Love and Announcement of 1st batch of Whodunit Winners |
  2. The 2011 Reading Challenge Round Up |
  3. Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter « Book Discussion Guides
  4. IMM(34): More Book Bargains and Library Love «

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