After Adeline's mother died, her affluent father remarried a French-Chinese teenager, Niang, and the family moved to Shanghai where they lived in a large house in the middle of the French Concession. During this time, the 1930s, when everything western in treaty ports such as Shanghai was deemed superior to anything Chinese, Niang was the ultimate status symbol and Adeline's father was besotted.
The author so clearly expresses the pain of her childhood years. In one episode where she talks about a pet chick she had, the scenario is heartrending. It is hard to believe that human beings, particularly parents or those entrusted to care for our young can be so oblivious to their feelings and needs.
I'm disappointed in this book. I thought it would be the story of "an unwanted Chinese daughter" but it's more of a "poor me" litany of diatribes against Adeline's step-mother Niang. It's a pretty one-sided story. I was very upset about how this story was written as if it were a vendetta against her entire family. Even the good points she makes about her family members (except for her dearly beloved and kindly Aunt Baba), she does so with the intent of showing how each hurt her.
If not for her Ye Ye (paternal grandfather), aunt and, later, her second husband, Adeline would not have anyone who nurtured and loved her. Her aunt encouraged and celebrated her educational successes and through this Adeline eventually became a successful anesthesiologist.
What is my reaction to the book? I thought it was interesting, incredible and difficult. Interesting in that it’s the story of a family’s life during major historical events in China and Hong Kong. I use incredible because the level of treachery and betrayal in the Yen family is almost unbelievable. Except for Susan, the youngest daughter of Joseph and Niang who was disowned for telling her mother what she thought of her, the rest of the children continued to allow themselves to be spun within Niang's web throughout their lives—either because of filial responsibility or to ensure that they received their inheritance. So my final word is difficult—difficult reading passages where Adeline, the ever filial daughter, sought love, acceptance and family togetherness and was often duped and betrayed.
This book taught me more about Chinese social and political history than any school book ever did. The use of Chinese writing and proverbs (with occasional discussion of Chinese calligraphy) was fascinating. By the time the book reached its closing chapters I was sorry to see it end.
While his first five children were still young their father remarried, a much younger, glamourous, demanding woman, and the children's lives change dramatically for the worse under the malign, arbitrary and vicious rule of 'niang'.
As the story of a life it is rather depressing - Adeline has brains and determination, but is completely unable to step out of the web of family obligation: even when she is in another country she is in thrall to it.
There are some interesting insights into the Chinese psyche and the affects of Mao's Cultural revolution, and I particularly liked the chapter headings of Chinese proverbs. There are many parallels with Jung Chang's Wild Swans, although that is the better book.
Their only allies in the family are their grandfather, Ye Ye, and their Aunt Baba. The elderly Ye Ye could not do much to offset the problem. But Aunt Baba - She became our surrogate mother, worrying about our meals, clothing, schooling and health. An invisible silken handcuff was thus slipped around her willing wrists, evaporating her chances of marriage and a family of her own.
When the cultural revolution creates hardship on the country, moves must be made, and the family split. Their father (a rich businessman) and his wife flee, taking Ye Ye and some of the children. Aunt Baba and Madeline are left elsewhere. Ye Ye's letters to Aunt Baba became more and more despondent. 'All of us clings tenaciously to life,' Ye Ye wrote, 'but there are fates worse than death: loneliness, boredom, insomnia, physical pain. I have worked hard all my lief and saved every cent. Now I wonder what it was all about. The agony and fear of dying, surely that is worse than death. In this house where I count for nothing, du ri ru nian (each day passes like a year). Could death really be worse. Tell me, daughter, what is there left for me to look forward to?
Madeline describes her childhood, unloved save for Ye Ye and Aunt Baba, and then separated from both of them, her experiences at school, and finally medical school, becoming a doctor, and still under the thumb of her stepmother.
After she is able to return to China, there is a poignant reunion with her Aunt Baba, and Madeline is able to stay with her aunt during her last days. Aunt Baba was not one to dwell on the bitter hardships she suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Love, generosity and humour never left her. Life had come full circle. Luo ye gui gen. (Falling leaves return to their roots.) I felt a wave of repose, a peaceful serenity.
Here is a story of life in China, a bit of Chinese history, a look into the culture and family life through the eyes of one Chinese girl.
Heartbreaking is that shed is relaly unwanted by her whole family and she ends up in an orphanage. You shoudl think that with a big familyh like this there woudl be more love and more democracy but I assume the circumstances and the upbringing of the family memeber to always bow to the family head are hard to understand to us in the modern times.
I was surprise how mean your own siblings can be.
She should have cut her ties to the family instead of trying and trying again to please to be accepted. THere is always two. One who is abusing and one who lets the abuse happen.
very sad but haunting story.
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.
The author's mother died while delivering her. Adeline was the youngest of five, an older sister and three older brothers. A short time after her mother passed away, her father decided to remarry. They called their new mother Niang, a more formal designation for mother. Sadly, Niang was not thrilled to accept five new children along with her new husband. She was cold and distant, and as soon as her son was born, created a hierarchy in the household. Her son was favored. She and her husband kept the wealth for themselves and the chosen child, while the other children were required to practice austerity, supposedly to learn to appreciate the money that their father worked so hard to obtain. Since their father was an extremely wealthy man, this deprivation was cruel and absurd. The first half of the book covered Adeline's childhood, crushed under an oppressive regime. Not only did her parents mistreat her, but her siblings also picked on her, the youngest, the one who killed their mother, the child who earned Niang's special displeasure.
The second part of the autobiography was less infuriating, as the author escaped to England to pursue her medical education, and was not directly under her Niang's influence. Eventually, she moved to America and established a successful medical practice. After a disastrous first marriage, she met someone who truly cared for her, and started her own family. She had two children, and wrote that she was happy for the chance to lavish love on her children in a way that she never received.