Falling Leaves Summary

Adeline Yen Mah

Falling Leaves

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Falling Leaves Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah.

Falling Leaves: Return to Their Roots is a 1997 autobiography by Chinese-American author, physician, and activist Adeline Yen Mah. Based on her traumatic childhood and her relationship with an abusive stepmother, as well as her later life in the United States and her troubled first marriage, Falling Leaves explores themes including the Chinese concept of filial duty, traditional Chinese culture and the role of women, as well as the historical period the story takes place in. Yen Mah was born in 1937, and grew up amid the Cultural Revolution and the rise of Mao Zedong, and Falling Leaves does not shy away from depicting the harshness of the environment. Falling Leaves is considered one of the most significant and enduring autobiographies dealing with the era and culture.

Falling Leaves begins in northeast China in 1937, as Adeline Yen Mah is born Jun-Ling, her parents’ fifth child. Tragically, her mother dies only a few days after her birth from complications, which leaves her father a broken man. He seems to blame his youngest daughter for his wife’s death, and he is determined to find a new wife and create a new family. Not long after his wife’s death, he meets a younger woman named Niang and marries her. However, Niang, who has two children of her own with Jun-Ling’s father, takes a strong dislike to his earlier children and Jun-Ling in particular. Niang insists on changing the children’s names, giving them English names like her own children Franklin and Susan, and this is how Jun-Ling becomes Adeline. Adeline and her older brothers and sisters are consistently emotionally and physically abused by their stepmother, with Adeline taking the brunt of the abuse. Niang’s hatred for Adeline especially stemmed from an incident when Adeline tried to protect the young Susan from her mother’s beatings.

However, despite the abuse, Adeline never gives up hope that her father will love her and be proud of her. She is very focused on school and excels there, despite suffering from health problems. At one point, she becomes very sick while at school and nearly dies. Despite this, she manages to persevere. However, her home situation only becomes worse. At one point, some friends of hers from school come to visit, and this enrages Niang and results in Adeline being whipped. The only bright spot for Adeline in her family life is the presence of her grandmother and grandfather, who love all their grandchildren equally, and especially her kindly Aunt Baba. Baba tries to make things easier for Adaline, but this is complicated by the fact that Niang has developed an iron grip on the family’s finances and controls the purse strings tightly to make sure that she and her children benefit.

When the communists take power in China, Adeline and her family free to the British colony of Hong Kong. However, Aunt Baba decides to stay behind and Adeline grieves the loss of the family member she was closest too. In Hong Kong, Adeline’s life begins to improve when she wins a playwriting competition. Her father seems proud of her for the first time, and she is able to convince him to send her to study in England when she is 15 years old. Adeline finishes school and goes to college, and eventually returns to Hong Kong where her father takes charge of her career. Although her father remains distant, she is pleased to have some form of a relationship with him at last. She soon marries a man named Byron, and the two have a son. However, the relationship quickly sours and Byron turns abusive. She divorces him, and eventually marries Robert Mah, a Professor with whom she has a daughter and a happy marriage.

Back in Hong Kong, Susan, Niang’s daughter who she always had a contentious relationship with, has been disowned by the family. In the absence of Adeline, Niang’s need for a scapegoat has turned to the rest of the family. Adeline returns to China to visit with Aunt Baba, and hears of the horrors of Communism that her beloved aunt has experienced. Adeline returns to Hong Kong when her father dies, and learns that Niang has drained her father’s resources and has gotten him to leave everything that was supposed to be left to her to Niang, essentially disowning his own children. Niang dies not long afterwards of cancer, and Adeline returns to China one last time to visit with Aunt Baba, who is now old and sick herself. She realizes that Aunt Baba was more of a parent to her than her father or Niang ever was, and the two women are able to find peace in their bond.

Adeline Yen Mah is the founder and President of the Falling Leaves Foundation, an organization designed to promote understanding between the East and the West and to provide funds for the study of Chinese history, language, and culture. The foundation awards a yearly poetry prize at UCLA and promotes the learning of Mandarin through online games and tutorials. Since the release of Falling Leaves, Adeline Yen Mah has released six additional books, including Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter, an abridged version of Falling Leaves focusing on her childhood years and geared towards children. She has also written a series of children’s novels loosely based on her childhood but with fictional events under the Chinese Cinderella brand.