Cover image for Chinese Cinderella : the true story of an unwanted daughter
Chinese Cinderella : the true story of an unwanted daughter
Mah, Adeline Yen, 1937-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : [Random House], [1999]

Physical Description:
xv, 205 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Adeline Yen Mah tells the story of her childhood as an unwanted, unloved "bad luck" child of an affluent Chinese family. Based on the memoir "Falling Leaves".
General Note:
Publisher imprint varies.
Reading Level:
960 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 5.7 8.0 31890.

Reading Counts RC High School 6.8 11 Quiz: 19259 Guided reading level: NR.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
CT275.M45115 A3 1999B Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
CT275.M45115 A3 1999B Adult Non-Fiction Reading List

On Order



This powerful memoir about a girl growing up in a wealthy but dysfunctional Chinese family during the 1940s evokes the classic fairy tale, Cinderella.

Author Notes

Although Adeline Yen Mah was born into a wealthy family in Tianjin, China in 1937, her childhood was an unhappy one. Born female in a culture that often devalues women, her situation was made worse by the fact that her family blamed Yen Mah for her mother's death, which occurred just after she was born.

Her autobiography, Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, details the emotional abuse she suffered from her father, siblings and, in particular, her stepmother. Most notable was the fact that her family, fleeing to Hong Kong in 1948 as the Communist army gained control of China, initially left the 10-year-old Yen Mah behind, in a boarding school in northern China.

An international play-writing competition made it possible for Yen Mah to escape her unhappy family life when she was 14. She won the competition, and this convinced her father to send her to a boarding school in England. Yen Mah remained in England for 11 years, attending college and earning a medical degree. When she returned to Hong Kong in 1963 to do an internship, however, Yen Mah found that her family's attitude toward her had not improved. She left again, this time to accept a residency in the United States.

In the U.S., Yen Mah found professional success, eventually becoming the chief of anesthesiology at Anaheim Community Hospital in California. She also found personal happiness with her second husband, Bob Mah, and their two children. However, she was always troubled by her estrangement from her father and stepmother, and after their deaths she went through a period of severe depression. She began writing Falling Leaves as a way to work through her feelings of rejection, never imagining that her story would become an international bestseller.

(Bowker Author Biography) Adeline Yen Mah is a physician and writer. She divides her time between London, Hong Kong, and her home in Huntington Beach, California.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gr. 6^-12. "Mama died giving birth to you. If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive." Even though Mama died two weeks after the birth from a fever, this brutal message dooms Wu Mei (Fifth Younger Sister) throughout her sad and lonely childhood in China during the 1940s and 1950s. Wu Mei, whose English name is Adeline, faces the anger and cruelty of her family; only an aunt and frail grandfather are supportive. Shunted off to boarding schools, left out of family activities, Adeline nevertheless thrives academically and hopes desperately (and futily) to please her father. In this young adult version of the author's Falling Leaves, Mah offers a bittersweet look into the pain of childhood and a fascinating glimpse at a tumultuous time in China. Amazingly unscathed by the Communist revolution, her wealthy family heads for Hong Kong after Mao assumes power and resumes its privileged lifestyle. There are moments of clumsiness, as when Adeline verbalizes her distress in ways young people probably would not: "And if I should be so lucky as to succeed one day, it will be because you believed in me," she tells her grandfather. But this is a captivating read because we care so much about the heroine and her future. --Anne O'Malley

Publisher's Weekly Review

Mah revisits the territory she covered in her adult bestseller, Falling Leaves, for this painful and poignant memoir aimed at younger readers. Blamed for the loss of her mother, who died shortly after giving birth to her, Mah is an outcast in her own family. When her father remarries and moves the family to Shanghai to evade the Japanese during WWII, Mah and her siblings are relegated to second-class status by their stepmother. They are given attic rooms in their big Shanghai home, they have nothing to wear but school uniforms, and they subsist on a bare-bones diet while their stepmother's children dine sumptuously. Mah finds escape from this emotionally barren landscape at school, but the academic awards she wins only enrage her jealous siblings and stepmother, and she is eventually torn from her auntÄher one championÄand shipped off to boarding school. That Mah eventually soars above her circumstances is proof of her strength of character. The author recreates moments of cruelty and victory so convincingly that readers will feel almost as if they're in the room with her. She never veers from a child's sensibility; the child in these pages rarely judges the actions of those around her, she's simply bent on surviving. Mah easily weaves details of her family's life alongside the traditions of China (e.g., her grandmother's bound feet) and the changes throughout the war years and subsequent Communist takeover. This memoir is hard to put down. Ages 12-up. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Gr 6 Up-This absorbing autobiography tells the story of an unwanted child in upper-class 1940s China. Because her mother died at her birth, Wu Mei (Fifth Younger Sister, renamed Adeline) was a "bad luck" daughter, never forgiven by her father or her four older siblings. When she was a year old, her father remarried. Her Eurasian stepmother produced two more children, who became the favored ones. Wu Mei's efforts to attract her father's attention by consistent top marks at school were ignored and ridiculed except by her Aunt Baba, who shared a similar outcast status in the family. Her aunt's constant affection and encouragement provided the only relief to the girl's daily humiliation and emotional abuse. Determined to separate the two, her parents sent the 11-year-old to boarding school. This was 1948; the Communists were consolidating their power. Soon she was the only student left, abandoned and forgotten by her parents when they fled to Hong Kong. Luckily, an aunt rescued her and returned her to her unwelcoming family. There, enrolled in another Catholic school, she finally gained her father's permission to study in England. Mah has told this story before, in her best-selling autobiography, Falling Leaves (Wiley, 1998). This version for younger readers is more sharply focused, seen through the lens of the story of Ye Xian, a version of the "Cinderella" tale dating back to the ninth century. Fourteen pages of front matter and the slow beginning necessary to introduce the unfamiliar setting may deter some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded by the rich depiction of a very different world.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Top of the Class AUTUMN 1941 As soon as I got home from school, Aunt Baba noticed the silver medal dangling from the left breast pocket of my uniform. She was combing her hair in front of the mirror in our room when I rushed in and plopped my schoolbag down onto my bed. "What's that hanging on your dress?" "It's something special that Mother Agnes gave me in front of the whole class this afternoon. She called it an award." My aunt looked thrilled. "So soon? You only started kindergarten a week ago. What is it for?" "It's for leading my class this week. When Mother Agnes pinned it on my dress, she said I could wear it for seven days. Here, this certificate goes with it." I opened my schoolbag and handed her an envelope as I climbed onto her lap. She opened the envelope and took out the certificate. "Why, it's all written in French or English or some other foreign language. How do you expect me to read this, my precious little treasure?" I knew she was pleased because she was smiling as she hugged me. "One day soon," she continued, "you'll be able to translate all this into Chinese for me. Until then, we'll just write today's date on the envelope and put it away somewhere safe. Go close the door properly and put on the latch so no one will come in." I watched her open her closet door and take out her safe-deposit box. She took the key from a gold chain around her neck and placed my certificate underneath her jade bracelet, pearl necklace and diamond watch, as if my award were also some precious jewel impossible to replace. As she closed the lid, an old photograph fell out. I picked up the faded picture and saw a solemn young man and woman, both dressed in old-fashioned Chinese robes. The man looked rather familiar. "Is this a picture of my father and dead mama?" I asked. "No. This is the wedding picture of your grandparents. Your Ye Ye was twenty-six and your Nai Nai was only fifteen." She quickly took the photo from me and locked it into her box. "Do you have a picture of my dead mama?" She avoided my eyes. "No. But I have wedding pictures of your father and your stepmother, Niang. You were only one year old when they married. Do you want to see them?" "No. I've seen those before. I just want to see one of my own mama. Do I look like her?" Aunt Baba did not reply, but busied herself with putting the safe-deposit box back into her closet. After a while I said, "When did my mama die?" "Your mother came down with a high fever three days after you were born. She died when you were two weeks old. . . ." She hesitated for a moment, then exclaimed suddenly, "How dirty your hands are! Have you been playing in that sandbox at school again? Go wash them at once! Then come back and do your homework!" I did as I was told. Though I was only four years old, I understood I should not ask Aunt Baba too many questions about my dead mama. Big Sister once told me, "Aunt Baba and Mama used to be best friends. A long time ago, they worked together in a bank in Shanghai owned by our grandaunt, the youngest sister of Grandfather Ye Ye. But then Mama died giving birth to you. If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive. She died because of you. You are bad luck." A Tianjin Family At the time of my birth, Big Sister was six and a half years old. My three brothers were five, four and three. They blamed me for causing Mama's death and never forgave me. A year later, Father remarried. Our stepmother, whom we called Niang, was a seventeen-year-old Eurasian beauty fourteen years his junior. Father always introduced her to his friends as his French wife, though she was actually half French and half Chinese. Besides Chinese, she also spoke French and English. She was almost as tall as Father, stood very straight and dressed only in French clothes, many of which came from Paris. Her thick, wavy black hair never had a curl out of place. Her large, dark brown eyes were fringed with long, thick lashes. She wore heavy makeup, expensive French perfume and many diamonds and pearls. Grandmother Nai Nai told us to call her Niang, Chinese term for mother. One year after their wedding, they had a son (Fourth Brother), followed by a daughter (Little Sister). There were now seven of us, five children from Father's first wife and two from our stepmother Niang. Besides Father and Niang, we lived with our Grandfather Ye Ye, Grandmother Nai Nai and Aunt Baba in a big house in the French concession of Tianjin, a port city on the northeast coast of China. Aunt Baba was the older sister of our father. Because she was meek, shy and unmarried and had no money of her own, they ordered her to take care of me. From an early age, I slept in a crib in her room. This suited me well because I grew to know her better and better. Besides a room, we came to share a life apart from the rest of our family. Under the circumstances, perhaps it was inevitable that, in time, we came to care for each other very deeply. Many years before, China had lost a war, known as the Opium War, against England and France. As a result, many coastal cities in China, such as Tianjin and Shanghai, came to be occupied by foreign soldiers. The conquerors parceled out the best areas of these treaty ports for themselves, claiming them as their own "territories" or "concessions." Tianjin's French concession was like a little piece of Paris transplanted into the center of this big Chinese city. Our house was built in the French style and looked as if it had been lifted from a tree-shaded avenue near the Eiffel Tower. Surrounded by a charming garden, it had porches, balconies, bow windows, awnings and a slanting tile roof. Across the street was St. Louis Catholic Boys' School, where the teachers were French missionaries. In December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States became involved in the Second World War. Though Tianjin was occupied by the Japanese, the French concession was still being governed by French officials. French policemen strutted about looking important and barking out orders in their own language, which they expected everyone to understand and obey. At my school, Mother Agnes taught us the alphabet and how to count in French. Many of the streets around our house were named after dead French heroes or Catholic saints. When translated into Chinese, these street names became so complicated that Ye Ye and Nai Nai often had trouble remembering them. Bilingual store signs were common, but the most exclusive shops painted their signs only in French. Nai Nai told us this was the foreigners' way of announcing that no Chinese were allowed there except for maids in charge of white children. Excerpted from Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.