Adeline Yen Mah: Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter

by Rachel Baker on January 4, 2009

I just got back from a fantastic holiday vacation in the Poconos Mountains.  This is an annual vacation with friends in which I’ve been invited to attend for a couple of years now.  Each year, there is inevitably many ad hoc conversations about various books.  This year, I was telling someone about my personal challenge to read foreign authors in 2009.  Lo and behold, she had a book by a foreign author she hadn’t read yet, but passed on to me anyway.  How thoughtful!  I have to confess, I read the book during the last two days of 2008, which, depending on how you look at it, disqualifies it for the personal challenge of 2009.  However, I think I’m going to allow it as the first book for the challenge.

Falling Leaves is about Adeline Yen Mah’s plight as the fifth younger daughter in a Chinese family.  Her mother died from complications during Adeline’s birth, her father remarried a European woman who was incredibly abusive, and her siblings treated her horribly.  This is the story of how she survived to become a doctor and the most successful in the family.  The story takes its reader through Civil War, the rise of Communist China and the economic boom of Hong Kong, and how the family was affected during these time periods. 

Adeline was isolated, humiliated and more or less, cast away from the family because of her place in the family pecking order.  Over time, she proved her worth by getting an education and receiving high marks in her school subjects.

I enjoyed this memoir, but if you don’t enjoy memoirs, you may not want to venture into this book.  I did get a better understanding than I had previously of what life was like in China during the periods of time covered.  My only exposure to life in China has been Pearl Buck’s writing, and those are mostly fiction.  However, one of the aspects of fascination for me with Pearl Buck is the Chinese familial dynamic system and the roles of each child in the pecking order.  Falling Leaves gives a more detailed account of how each child is treated, as well as what the gender roles dictate how the child’s adult life will play out.  By the way, Adeline Yen Mah beat the odds.  Interestingly, it seemed to be common practice to disown female children at any given time, as each of the daughters in the family at some point were disowned.

On to the interesting technicalities of the book.

The book was copyrighted in 1997, first published in Great Britain, and the specific edition I read was published in 1999.  On the copyrighted page, there are differences to books published in the United States:

“The moral rights of the author has been asserted.”

“Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that is which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser”

No specific thoughts here, just found it interesting, as this page is very different when published is America.

One of the most appealing aspects about this book is the kanji (chinese characters),the Chinese translation, and the English translation at the beginning of each chapter.

Chapter I: [Kanji] Men Dang Hu Dui: The Appropriate Door Fits the Frame of the Correct House

Chapter 2: [Kanji] Dian Tie Cheng Jin: Converting Iron into Gold

Chapter 3: [Kanji] Ru Ying Sui Xing: Inseparable as Each Other’s Shadows

and so on.  I found the chapter titles to be very thought-provoking and at some point in the chapter, the title was defined:

“Every deal was profitable.  In three years, they never had a loss.  Father began to be known in business circles as the ‘miracle boy’ who had the power of [kanji] dian tie cheng jin (converting iron into gold)” (p 17).

Throughout Falling Leaves, kanji is used in the same way – kanji, Chinese translation and then English translation:

“I saw myself standing at the bow of the giant ship gliding through still, dark waters, carrying me on an entrancing journey to those fabulous lands: [kanji] Ying Guo (Heroic Country) and [kanji] Mei Guo (Beautiful Country)!  These words, meaning England and America, conjured up vistas of ivy-covered college buildings, citadels of learning in the shape of baronial castles and holy cathedrals.”

Most appealing to have the text one is reading flowered with kanji.  How I wish I could actually read it!

In closing, Falling Leaves is one woman’s story of rejection, loneliness and humility as she tells of her place in her family’s history.  This was a well written memoir, focused on overcoming adversity, holding on to hope and emerging triumphant. However, it is not a typical book found on the bookshelves of American booksellers.  If you are interested in branching out, by all means, I recommend Falling Leaves; if you are comfortable in your reading habits and aren’t really looking for something different, then I would shy away from this one.  You can find this book on Amazon – United States under different titles:

Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter

Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter

and on Amazon – United Kingdom, the title is

Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter

As an aside: I’m curious about the many different titles…I do think it would be interesting to read some of these other editions/titles to see where the differences are.

And with that, Happy New Year to all my bookish friends!

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