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.
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)
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
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’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).
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.
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.
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:
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)
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
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.
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)
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.
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
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/