Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter

by Adeline Yen Mah

Hardcover, 1998




John Wiley & Sons, Inc (1998), Edition: 1st, 278 pages


The true story of a young Chinese girl who grew up feeling unloved by her father who remarried shortly after her mother's death and treated his new family and subsequent children as upper class compared to his first children.


½ (479 ratings; 3.7)

User reviews

LibraryThing member billythefish
Absolutely and by far and away the worst book I have ever read. Really badly written, self indulgent and egotistical, with no narrative pace or polish and spectacularly unrevealing about people, places or history (except the humourlessness of the author). Like pulling teeth.
LibraryThing member magst
Loved this book. At times I had to put it down because of the cruelty inflicted upon Adeline, but in the end I know her childhood made her a stronger person. I have re-read this book several times and it always gets to my heart.
LibraryThing member ahgonzales
This was a frustrating read. At the beginning of the book, the writing felt clunky despite the story moving pretty well. All and all, it was a litany of bad experiences from birth to adulthood all stemming from an "evil" stepmother who wasn't much older than some of her new stepchildren. The point
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of the book seemed unclear and the ending was not worth the read.
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LibraryThing member MsNikki
My friend lent me this book, and I forgot the name until I saw it on someone else's LibraryThing library. My memories of it are faint, but it was a great book. I remember how it made me feel, her struggles were so real. and her horrors were simply that.
LibraryThing member apartmentcarpet
This is an incredibly frustrating book. It is a memoir - an absolutely horrifying story of emotional abuse suffered by a small girl at the hands of her wealthy and cruel stepmother. As Adeline grows older, I alternated between wanting her to succeed, and wanting to shake her by the shoulders and
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tell her to stand up for herself. Since this is real life, the ending is unsatisfying.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
Adeline Yen Mah grew up with one sister, three brothers, one half-sister, and one half-brother, her father, her Aunt Baba, he grandfather Ye Ye, and her stepmother Niang. Adeline’s own mother died while in childbirth with her. The woman whom her father married kept her and her bothers subservient
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in the household. However, she was the one who took the brunt of the negative feelings both harbored and expressed by Niang and, unfortunately, followed by her father.

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.
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LibraryThing member andreablythe
And incredible story -- Adeline is given so little love in her childhood that the smallest kindnesses are incredibly important and moving. Truely a well written and touching memoir.
LibraryThing member elleayess
Despite previous bad reviews of this book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was very hard to put down and I couldn't wait to get back to it every evening. I know that many books are "to each their own", this book was definitely enjoyable to me. I was not aware that the author had another book out, I may
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try to look for that one.
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LibraryThing member autumnesf
This is written by the author of Chinese Cinderella. I wanted to know a little more about her life so I ordered this book. It is an unbelievable story of neglect and emotional abuse from her whole family. It is amazing that she succeeded like she did. A very good book but not easy to read
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LibraryThing member nawapak
After I read the first book (Chinese cinderella) of Adeliene Yen Mah there was an absolute effect on me but now after I read Falling leaves I was dazzled, amazed and struck with how this could all happen. It was really mind blowing after sequence and sequence of problems and solutions. It was as if
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we the reader were also in the command of Niang. I felt really bad when the book ended and I can only hope that Adeliene will have a better life in the future
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LibraryThing member jayne_charles
After a slow start, in which I struggled to keep track of the numerous family members, this improved rapidly as it progressed. Billed as a story about a deprived childhood, it surprised me that things seemed to start off more or less OK. It took the arrival of the duck to get me properly outraged
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(animals always get us Brits going of course). And, fair enough, this family really did have the Stepmother from Hell.

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.
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LibraryThing member kakadoo202
once i was 1/3 into teh book I could not stop and read it in one sitting. Interessting background on Chinese history. since I jsut had read SHANGHAI GIRLS it was amazing to read the story of another girl in the same time frame in the same city.
Heartbreaking is that shed is relaly unwanted by her
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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.
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LibraryThing member amlet
A quick read because it was easy to relate to the author's voice. She reminded me of my mother in her stubbornness to succeed academically. The descriptions of Niang's family politics were a bit foreign and were so petty and manipulative that I was almost wary of the dynamic halfway through the
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LibraryThing member heinous-eli
Whiny, poorly written, humorless, and dry. I understand that she had a wicked stepmother, and the abuse was horrible, but I would stop short of calling her a Cinderella -- she wasn't starved or forced to scrub floors or anything. Her story would have been better served if her tone were a bit less
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full of self-absorbed self-pity, and if she were able to at least elicit a single smile in the whole book.
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LibraryThing member xuesheng
Adeline Yen Mah should have had an easy life. She was the second daughter and fifth child of a very wealthy Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong businessman, Joseph Yen. However, a few weeks after she was born her mama died from puerperal fever. After her mother's death, her father became obsessed with
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and married Jeanne Prosperi, a woman of French and Chinese descent, that the children were instructed to call niang, another term for mother. Niang along with her husband's consent and participation was a manipulative woman who kept the family in a state of emotional turmoil. As the children grew, she often pitted them against each other for no apparent reason than her own gratification.

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.
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LibraryThing member JeannetteK
I enjoyed Falling Leaves and would have given it 3-1/2 stars had that option been available. Would I read it a second time . . . . No.
Fallen Leaves is a memoir about a Chinese girl whose father marries a real Bitch. He seem beguiled by his wife's beauty and strength and stands silently by as she
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torments his children, Adeline in particular. As the years roll along and more children are born, the house is divided, His children on one floor of the large home and her children on the floor where their parents live.
For this woman's entire life she aches to get her parent's approval and love.
Why she does this to her own detriment, isn't explained well enough, but is that something that can be explained????
I enjoyed her writing, she has a lovely vocabulary and paints a nice picture.
Was the book exciting, riveting . . . no, but I did want to know what happened in the end.
Falling Leaves is a sad look, at a family and the back stabbing that comes with a (and I hate to use the word) dysfunctional family.
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LibraryThing member bfolds
Fascinating glimpse into a painful past. Well worth the read.
LibraryThing member LAteacher
It is about a girl named Adeline Yen-mah who was born in 1937 to an affluent Chinese family. Because her mom died in childbirth, Adeline was mistreated by all her siblings because they thought she was bad luck and killed their mom. This is the story of ADeline's struggle for acceptance and becoming
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a psychian and doctor in the UNited States
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LibraryThing member woollymammoth
A gift from my Grandma affter I starting learning Chinese and muttering about going to China. A book about the dark side of china. The autobiography of an unwanted daughter. I've started it a few times and keep thinking 'hang on children in the UK have an awful childhood too'.
LibraryThing member countrylife
Falling Leaves is a heartbreaking tale of a broken family in China. Madeline's mother dies after delivering her, and her father remarries to a beautiful but ruthless woman. She wants nothing to do with the baby and little to do with the other children. The others eventually work out a sort of peace
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with their stepmother. But this peace is not extended to her. Their father does not see what the new stepmother is inflicting on them, until it is too late and he suffers from her cruelty himself.

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.
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LibraryThing member nmhale
Adeline Mah writes about her tragic childhood and troubled young adult life with restrained emotion and polished writing, conveying both the historical context of her life and the personal episodes that deeply influenced her. This autobiography is not a joyful one; but then, most memoirs are born
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out of a cathartic need to revisit the problems in our life, so this is hardly surprising. What is more remarkable is the healthy woman the author became, rising out of a bitter family always at conflict with each other, with the conviction to find peace and hope, and retain her dream of a unified family.

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.
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LibraryThing member Goldengrove
This is the well-written story of a life blighted by the Chinese obsession with 'face'. The author is disadvataged from the start as she is not only a girl, but also the youngest, and her mother died of puerpural fever when she was born. This marks her as unlucky. Of course, the death of her mother
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is in no way Adeline's fault, but no one ever points this out, and Adeline bears all the blame.
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.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
2.5 stars ...
Adeline's mother dies after giving birth to her, the 5th child. Her father remarries a beautiful, young, half-French woman - the epitome of the wicked stepmother. The verbal and emotional abuse heaped on Adeline and her siblings 9but mostly on her), as reported, is heartbreaking. It's
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a fascinating story. But ...

I couldn't help but wonder why Adeline didn't wake up and assert herself as she grew to adulthood. Perhaps it's because she is of a different culture than I, but she winds up sounding somewhat "whiny" to me.

The use of Chinese sayings (in chinese characters) was effective at first - but I got tired of this device.
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LibraryThing member TLHelen
The book is an autobiography by Adeline Yen Mah. By reading it we can find out about the hardships she went through when she was a child and how she overcame them. Also, during the period of Communist threat in China, not only are there family issues in her life, it is also a battle between
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patriotism and wealth. The development in her character over the years is quite inspriational and touching. I do believe it would be a worthwhile book for anyone to read.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
The Chinese-American author Adeline Yen Mah is best known for her two books of memoirs, Watching the tree. A Chinese daughter reflects on happiness, traditions, and spiritual wisdom and Falling leaves. The memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter, the latter of which has also appeared in a Young
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Adult version as Chinese Cinderella. The true story of an unwanted daughter. These two (or three) books all deal with the same issues.

From a historical point of view, any person's memoirs can be very interesting, and given the fact that Adeline Yen Mah comes from a wealthy family makes her autobiographical work of more significance. Her work may be of interest to historians who study Chinese history, the history of immigrants into Hong Kong or Chinese-Americans, particularly in the first half on the 20th century. However, the dual editions of Falling leaves indicate that the author does not specifically have that audience in mind.

The picture that emerges from her memoirs, shows that the author comes from an incredibly privileged background. However, throughout the book the reader is struck by her portrayal of her family members, who are all exposed as extremely selfish. Her father, and especially her step-mother, most of her brothers, and Lydia, the family member left behind in Communist China. This selfishness reaches its pivot in the final chapters when the inheritance is to be divided.

Throughout the book the author describes herself as the great pacifier, the angelic daughter who studies medicine to become a doctor and thus a helper of mankind. While the emancipatory novelty is a fact, the author tends to make more of her own effort, and downplay the role of her wealthy family background of privilege.

The subtitle of the book indicates very clearly what the author's real preoccupations are: The memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter. Throughout the book she keeps raising her wining voice, calling for pity with her, for being an unwanted daughter, unwanted, unloved and denied what? Oh, yes... her share of the inheritance. In essence, the book is not much more than a vain attempt by a narcissistic and spoilt woman to have the last say.
The book is a perfect illustration of the decadent, privileged life of the upper-class Chinese that the Communist Revolution in China so successfully got rid of. The book is very well-written, and the historical transitions from Tianjin to Shanghai, on to Hong Kong and her life in other parts around the world are of historical interest. Above all, the book is of interest because it exposes the degrees of greed and hatred of wealthy Chinese families, in as far as we can separate those facts from the self-pity of the author.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

278 p.; 5.8 inches


0471247421 / 9780471247425


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