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“Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter”
Born in 1937 in a port city a thousand miles north of Shanghai, Adeline Yen Mah was the youngest child of an affluent Chinese family who enjoyed rare privileges during a time of political and cultural upheaval. But wealth and position could not shield Adeline from a childhood of appalling emotional abuse at the hands of a cruel and manipulative Eurasian stepmother. Determined to survive through her enduring faith in family unity, Adeline struggled for independence as she moved from Hong Kong to England and eventually to the United States to become a physician and writer.
A compelling, painful, and ultimately triumphant story of a girl’s journey into adulthood, Adeline’s story is a testament to the most basic of human needs: acceptance, love, and understanding. With a powerful voice that speaks of the harsh realities of growing up female in a family and society that kept girls in emotional chains, “Falling Leaves” is a work of heartfelt intimacy and a rare authentic portrait of twentieth-century China.
By Adeline Yen Mah
About the author
Adeline Yen Mah was born in 1937. In August 1952,
she left her family in Hong Kong and went to England
to study. At University College in London, she studied
medicine and became a doctor. She has written two other
books: Chinese Cinderella and Watching the Tree. She lives
with her husband in California and has two children.
Falling Leaves is the true story of Adeline Yen Mah, who
was born in north-east China in 1937 – her parents’ fifth
child. Her mother died as a result of her birth, which left
her father a sad man feeling in need of a new life. Adeline’s
father seemed never to fully forgive her for his wife’s
death. He married again soon after and Adeline’s new
stepmother, a beautiful young woman they called Niang
(a Chinese word meaning mother), strongly disliked
her. Father and Niang had two other children together:
Franklin (who Niang loved) and Susan (who Niang did
not love). Adeline and her brothers and sisters suffered
emotionally and physically from their cruel stepmother’s
words and actions – but Adeline suffered more than the
others. Her story is full of the pain and heartbreak of a
young girl always hoping that her father will be proud of
her. But it is also a story of hope. Adeline works very hard
in school and wins prizes. When she wins a play-writing
competition, her life changes. She goes to England and
studies medicine and becomes a doctor. After a failed
marriage, in which she has a child, she finds real happiness
with her second husband. The lives of all the members
of her family, as seen through the troubles of twentieth
century China, make this an unforgettable and very
interesting story, which begins and ends with the reading
of Adeline’s father’s will. Niang has left him penniless.
She has taken all of his money and property. When Niang
dies, she leaves nothing to Adeline. The relationship
between Adeline and Niang is painful and shocking, but
the Chinese tradition of obedience makes it impossible
for Adeline to be anything other than dutiful towards this
Chapters 1–2: Jun-ling was born in 1937 in China.
Her mother died shortly after her birth, so Jun-ling is
an unwanted child. Jun-ling’s father remarries and Niang,
changes the children’s names.
Chapters 3–4: Adeline’s ( Jun-ling’s) childhood was
unhappy. She was badly treated especially after she stopped
her stepmother, Niang, from beating her daughter Susan.
Her Aunt Baba was kind to her but it was a difficult time
as Niang controlled everyone’s money.
Chapters 5–7: Adeline’s friends come to see her and
she is whipped as a result. She is sent away to school and
becomes ill and nearly dies. Her father visits her once.
The family escape to Hong Kong when the communists
Chapters 8–12: Adeline wins a writing competition and
goes to England to study medicine. When she returns to
Hong Kong, her father organizes her career. She moves to
America, where she marries Byron and has a son. Byron
is violent and the marriage fails. Susan, Adeline’s sister is
disowned by the family.
Chapters 13–16: Aunt Baba, who stayed in China, has
suffered a lot under communism. Adeline goes to visit her.
Adeline’s father dies and the family finds out that he has
left them nothing. Everything has been put into Niang’s
name. Later Niang develops cancer and dies. Afterwards
Adeline goes back to visit Aunt Baba who is dying too.
Adeline realizes that Aunt Baba loved her and was like a
mother to her. Both women are peaceful at the end of the
Background and Themes
Social and political upheaval: Throughout the
nineteenth century China suffered from rebellion,
war and foreign take-overs. By the end of the century,
the world powers controlled areas in most large cities and
these areas were not considered Chinese. In this story,
Adeline’s father and stepmother move the family to the
French area of Tianjin.
The government at that time was weak and dishonest.
It did, however, try to make some improvements but in
1911 there was a revolution led by Sun Yat Sen, which
saw the start of a republic in South China. In 1912 the
Empress died and Manchu rule ended. This was a time
of great social change and political upheaval. As modern
and democratic ideas spread, young men cut off their long
hair, and women refused to have their feet bound. These
were very daring, and even dangerous things to do.
Communism: In 1921 the Chinese communist party
was formed, and for some time worked together with the
nationalist Kuomintang. Sun Yat Sen even invited advisers
from the Soviet Union to help with the changes. But
after he died in 1925 anticommunists in the Kuomintang
formed a nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek
and they began fighting against each other.
War: The Japanese had taken a large area of North China
as a result of the First World War. They soon began to
fight for more land, including Shanghai, which was
heavily bombed in 1937. After the Second World War all
foreign countries gave up their areas in China, but fighting
between the communists and nationalists continued
until the communists drove out the Kuomintang. They
formed the government in Peking (Beijing) in 1949. The
nationalists escaped to the island of Formosa, now Taiwan,
where they claimed to be the real government of China.
The only part of China that remained under foreign
rule was Hong Kong, which had been leased to Great
Britain for ninety-nine years. The communist government
changed many traditional things in China, and not all of
these changes were popular.
Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution: In 1956,
to make the government more popular and to make
people feel they could express views and opinions on the
government, Mao Zedong began the Hundred Flowers
Campaign (sometimes called the Double Hundred
Campaign). This was followed by the ‘Great Leap
Forward’, which aimed to encourage speedy economic
development. There were arguments about both
campaigns in the Communist Party, and Mao himself
was criticized. In 1966, to regain control, Mao began the
Cultural Revolution. He encouraged young students and
workers to form the Red Guards, whose job was to stop all
protest or complaint about the communists. At this time
millions of people, many of them educated intellectuals
and party officials who didn’t support Mao, were sent
to work camps or even killed. The Cultural Revolution
finally ended when Mao died in 1976.
Adeline Yen Mah
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
|Adeline Yen Mah|
|Native name||Mǎ Yán Jūnlíng|
30 November 1937 (age 77)
Tianjin, Republic of China
|Other names||Adeline Mah, Adeline Yen, Adeline Yen Mah|
|Education||St Joseph’s Primary School,Tianjin
Sheng Xin primary School, Shanghai
Sacred Heart Canossian College, Hong Kong
London Hospital Medical School, London, UK
|Notable work||“Falling Leaves”, “Chinese Cinderella”|
|Title||Dr. Adeline Yen Mah|
|Religion||Traditional Chinese beliefs|
|Spouse(s)||Byron Bai-lun Soon
Robert A. Mah
|Parent(s)||Joseph Yen Tse-Rung
Aunt Baba (paternal aunt)
Jeanne Virginie Prosperi (step-mother)
Yen Shunzhen (great-aunt)
Adeline Yen Mah (simplified Chinese: 马严君玲; traditional Chinese: 馬嚴君玲;pinyin: Mǎ Yán Jūnlíng) is a Chinese-American author and physician. She grew up in Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong and is known for her autobiography Falling Leaves. She is married to Professor Robert A. Mah with whom she has a daughter, and a son from a previous marriage.
Adeline Yen Mah was born in Tianjin, Republic of China on 30 November 1937, to Joseph Yen (Yen Tse-Rung), a businessman, and Ren Yong-ping, an accountant. She had an older sister called Lydia (Jun-pei) and three older brothers, Gregory (Zi-jie), James (Zi-lin) and Edgar (Zi-jun). She has stated in Falling Leaves that she did not use the real names of her siblings and their spouses to protect their identities but she did, however, use the real names of her father, stepmother, aunt and husband, while referring to her paternal grandparents only by the Chinese terms ‘Ye Ye’ and ‘Nai Nai’ .
Yen Mah also writes of her Ye Ye’s younger sister, whom she calls either ‘Grand Aunt’ or ‘Grand Uncle Gong Gong’, and cites as founder and president of the Shanghai Women’s Bank.
When Yen Mah was a year old in 1938, Joseph Yen married a half-French, half-Chinese (Eurasian) 17-year-old woman named Jeanne Virginie Prosperi. The children referred to her as Niang (娘 niáng, another Chinese term for mother), and she is called so throughout the whole book. They had two children, Franklin and Susan (Jun-qing).
Her legal birthday is 30 November, as her father did not record her date of birth and instead he gave her his own (a common practice prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949). Two weeks after her birth, her mother died ofpuerperal fever and according to traditional Chinese beliefs, Yen Mah was called ‘bad luck’ by the rest of her family.
Allegations of child abuse
In her autobiography Chinese Cinderella, Adeline Yen Mah talks about the emotional and physical abuse she suffered in her childhood from her parents. They did such things as starve their children, slap them, send them off at the age of 14 to leave and get a job, and did not protect their children during the war. Needless to say, her parents were only half of her parents. Her mother, the ringleader of it all, was actually a step mother. When her father and step mother had new children from the second marriage, they loved, cherished and pampered those children while leaving all the other children out.
Eventually, her parents one by one let an older child come into the “new and better” family, but Yen Mah was never included in this. They left her out because out of all the children they disliked, they disliked her the most. She was the youngest of the first family, and they hated her and abused her the most. She only had 2 relatives who really cared about her, and that was her Ye Ye (Grandfather) and her Aunt Baba.
Aunt Baba and Ye Ye
Aunt Baba and Ye Ye were the only family members who really cared for Adeline Yen Mah. Later in the book, Adeline is not allowed to see Aunt Baba anymore because of her parents’ cruelty and Ye Ye also later dies because of his old age and he is weak. This leads to when Adeline starts writing books and plays from her experiences and wins awards, such as gaining her father’s love and pride. She gets her one wish to go to college and everything has changed from then. She is free from her parents and free to see Aunt Baba and remember Ye Ye.
Shanghai and Hong Kong
After the death of Nai Nai, Yen Mah’s father (Joseph) and stepmother (Prosperi) moved from Tianjin to Shanghai to a house along Avenue Joffre; Yen Mah and her full siblings joined them at the house soon afterward. Two months later, her aunt, Ye Ye, and Susan arrived (the former two delayed moving to observe the hundred days’ mourning period for Nai Nai). When Susan arrived, she was too young to recognise her mother, Prosperi, who thus beat her soundly in frustration. Yen Mah intervened, leading Prosperi to declare that she would never forgive her.
The Yen family later moved to Hong Kong when Yen Mah was eleven, and she transferred to Sacred Heart School and Orphanage (Sacred Heart Canossian College). At the age of fourteen, as her autobiography states, Yen Mah won a play-writing competition for her work Gone With the Locusts, and her father allowed her to study in England with James.
Yen Mah left for the United Kingdom in August 1952, and studied medicine at London Hospital Medical School, eventually establishing a medical practice in California. Before the start of her career in United States, she had a brief relationship with a man named Karl, practised medicine in Hong Kong hospital at the behest of her father, who refused to give her air fare when she expressed plans to move to America. She has stated in an interview with the South China Morning Post that her father wanted her to become an obstetrician in the belief that women wanted treatment only from a female doctor, but as she hated obstetrics she became an anaesthesiologist instead.
Her autobiography, Falling Leaves, was published in 1997, shortly after Jung Chang‘s memoir Wild Swans. It made the New York Times Bestseller list, selling over a million copies worldwide and translated into twenty two languages. Beginning with her traumatic childhood under her stepmother’s cruelty, it goes on to recount how, after Joseph Yen died, Prosperi had prevented his children from reading his will until her own death two years later. When the wills were read, Yen Mah had apparently been disinherited. The success of Falling Leaves prompted Yen Mah to quit medicine and devote her time to writing.
Falling Leaves was translated into Chinese for the Taiwan market. It was titled Luoyeguigen (T: 落葉歸根, S: 落叶归根, P:Luòyèguīgēn). Unlike other cases of memoirs, the novel was translated by the original writer.
Her second work, Chinese Cinderella, was an abridged version of her autobiography, and sold over one million copies worldwide. It received numerous awards, including The Children’s Literature Council of Southern California in 2000 for Compelling Autobiography; and the Lamplighter’s Award from National Christian School Association for Contribution to Exceptional Children’s Literature in June 2002.
Published in 2001, her third book, Watching the Tree, is about Chinese philosophy and traditional beliefs (including Traditional Chinese Medicine). A Thousand Pieces of Gold was published in 2002, and looks at events under the Qin and Han dynasties through Chinese proverbs and their origins in Sima Qian‘s history, Shiji.
Yen Mah has written three further books for children and young adults. Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society, her first fiction work, is based on events in World War II, and Along the River, another fictional book based on Chinese history.China, Land of Dragons and Emperors is a non-fiction history book for young adults.
In 2004, Yen Mah was voted fourth on the New Zealand children’s best seller lists.
“Falling Leaves Foundation”
Adeline Yen Mah is Founder and President of the “Falling Leaves Foundation,” whose mission is ‘to promote understanding between East and West’ and provides funds for the study of Chinese history, language, and culture. There is also a website dedicated to teaching Chinese over the Internet for free, and the foundation has established a poetry prize at UCLA.
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