Falling Leaves Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 58-page guide for “Falling Leaves” by Adeline Yen Mah includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 32 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Strength Through Storytelling and Racism and Discrimination.
Falling Leaves is an 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 the Chinese concept of filial duty and the role of women in traditional Chinese culture. Detailing the broader sociocultural and economic changes that form the background of her family’s legacy—spanning from the late 19th century to the late 20th century—Adeline Yen Mah’s autobiography also examines the intersections of personal experience and major historic events.
In Falling Leaves, Adeline Yen Mah describes her troubled birth (as Jun-ling, her parents’ fifth child) in northern China, 1937. Jun-ling’s mother dies from complications only a few days after her birth. Her father 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.
Soon after, he meets a younger woman of mixed French and Chinese heritage named Jeanne Prosperi. He marries her—enchanted by her European heritage and cosmopolitan style—and demands that his children refer to her as Niang, or “mother.” Niang has two children of her own with Jun-ling’s father. She takes a strong dislike to his earlier children, and to Jun-ling in particular. Niang insists on changing the children’s names, giving them English names like her own children, Franklin and Susan. Jun-ling is given the name Adeline.
Both Adeline and her older siblings are emotionally abused by their stepmother, with Adeline taking the brunt of the abuse. However, despite this, Adeline never gives up hope that her father will love her and be proud of her. She channels her energy into her schoolwork and excels academically. Adeline finds solace in the affection of her grandmother and grandfather, Ye Ye. She finds both love and affirmation in her aunt Baba, who extols Adeline’s intelligence and encourages her studies.
When the Communists take power in China, Adeline and her family flee to the British colony of Hong Kong. However, Aunt Baba stays behind, and Adeline grieves the loss of the family member she is closest to. In Hong Kong, Adeline’s life improves 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 school in England.
After graduating from college, Adeline returns to Hong Kong. Her father takes charge of her career, sending her to a low-paid hospital internship. Through the internship, Adeline meets an American named Martin, who helps her move to a boardinghouse run by his parents in New York. There, she meets a Chinese immigrant named Byron and marries him after only a few weeks in America. Their marriage quickly sours, and Byron is both dishonest and abusive. Eventually, Adeline divorces him and marries Robert Mah, a Chinese American professor at UCLA. With Robert, Adeline enjoys a happy and supportive “tian zuo zhi he (heaven-made union)” (210).
After the fall of Communism, Adeline returns to China to visit with Aunt Baba. She is moved by her aunt’s determination to survive the hardships she experienced under Communist rule. When her father dies, Adeline returns to Hong Kong and learns that Niang has effectively disinherited her entire family, claiming all of her father’s wealth and assets. When Niang dies of cancer, her will generates tensions between Adeline and her siblings, revealing deep familial conspiracies and betrayals.
The book closes with Adeline’s return to China just before Aunt Baba’s death. She realizes that Aunt Baba was more of a parent to her than her father or Niang ever were, 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 toward children. She has also written a series of children’s novels loosely based on her childhood.