Chinese Cinderella Summary

Adeline Yen Mah

Chinese Cinderella

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Chinese Cinderella Summary

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A story of triumph over adversity, confronting one’s roots, and the power of literature to help in finding one’s way in the world, this autobiographical tale of Adeline Yen Mah’s childhood during the Second World War begins with the unfortunate circumstances of her birth. As much a coming of age story as it is a vivid picture of early 20th Century China, Chinese Cinderella weaves personal experiences together with larger, historical events such as the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. Considered bad luck by her family for causing her mother’s untimely death in childbirth (a not-unusual conclusion in Chinese culture), her childhood goes from bad to worse when her father remarries an “evil” stepmother. Subtitled The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter and an outgrowth of her earlier memoir, Falling Leaves, Yen Mah’s story takes its name from a Chinese proverb: “Falling leaves return to their roots.”

Though she grows up wealthy and privileged, Adeline’s childhood is anything but easy. Adeline was originally named Jun-ling and her brothers and sisters are all given Mandarin names at birth, their stepmother, a French-Chinese woman named Jeanne Prosperi (also known as Niang) renames all of her children Francophone and Anglicized names. In addition to white-washing their Mandarin Chinese identities, her stepmother treats Adeline and her blood siblings with disdain, while visibly lavishing attention on Yen Mah’s half siblings. As a result, Adeline feels unloved, adrift, and unsure of her place in the world, though she does find some comfort in her relationships with her grandfather, Ye Ye, and her Aunt Baba. Sadly, they are ripped away from her when she is sent to Hong Kong for boarding school.

Adeline also finds solace in academic achievement, and literature in particular. Much to her and her family’s surprise, she receives awards and honors early on in her schooling for reaching the top of her class, is elected class president, and later wins an international playwriting competition after being inspired by King Lear in the wake of her beloved grandfather’s death. Adeline’s school life (being well-liked by her classmates and her success in academic pursuits) empowers her to persevere through her family’s continual mistreatment, and provides a safe haven for her ideas to flourish, though it is also at one point the setting for abandonment by her family. Indeed, the more Adeline succeeds and distinguishes herself, the more she incurs her stepmother Niang’s wrath. Though her father is impressed by her achievements (despite also forgetting her name at times), he refuses to send her to England to study something as frivolous as literature and creative writing, and will only allow her to go if she enrolls in something practical, such as medical school. Though her wishes are on one hand denied, the chance to study abroad still affords Adeline the opportunity to escape the oppressive clutches of her stepmother, and she seizes the chance to move away, eventually specializing in gynecology and obstetrics.

The social and historical landscape of China in the 1940s and 1950s figures prominently in the memoir, as Yen Mah’s story paints a vivid picture of the oppression, struggle, cultural assimilation, and fluctuation that defined early and mid-20th-century China. Events in Adeline’s life reflect events taking place on the national stage in Tianjin, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. For example, there is an obvious parallel between the Japanese occupation of China and the oppressive presence of Niang, Adeline’s stepmother. When she is elected Class President (earning her more disdain from her siblings and stepmother), there is another parallel between the larger historical theme of China’s identity coming under heavy influenced by the cultures of their conquerors, as well as the tension between open Democracy and controlling Communism. By the same token, major historical events influence the decisions that Adeline’s family–wealthy individuals, not eager to give up their wealth and social status to a Communist leader such as Mao Zedong–make on a personal level, as the victories of the Communist Party push them farther south. In this way, the direction of the author’s life is clearly shaped by historical events, while also mirroring them, making a profound assertion that the microcosm of individual lives is malleable and deeply influenced by events on the national scale.

Nearly silenced by years of mistreatment by her family, the horrors of WWII in China, and the social customs that suppress young Chinese women (Adeline’s grandmother herself was forced to endure the oppressive practice of footbinding), Yen Mah finally finds her voice through literature, and her memoirs represent a courageous act of reckoning with the past, asserting her identity, and locating her self-worth. Yen Mah’s story teaches readers that one must persevere through challenging and often isolating conditions, inspect the past in order to chart one’s growth, understand the circumstances out of which one’s identity was forged, and ultimately, make peace with painful memories.