Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter
Although the focus of this memoir is the author’s struggle to be loved by a family that treated her cruelly, it is more notable for its portrait of the domestic affairs of an immensely wealthy, Westernized Chinese family in Shanghai as the city evolved under the harsh strictures of Mao and Deng. Yen Mah’s father knew how to make money and survive, regardless of the regime in power. In addition to an assortment of profitable enterprises, he stashed away two tons of gold in a Swiss bank, and eventually the family fled to Hong Kong. But he was indifferent to his seven children and in the thrall of a second wife who makes Cinderella’s stepmother seem angelic. His first wife, Yen Mah’s mother, died at her birth, and the child, considered an ill omen, was treated with crushing severity. But she was encouraged by the love of an aunt and eventually made her way to the U.S., where she became a doctor, married happily and, ironically, was the one her father and stepmother turned to in their old age. In recounting this painful tale, Yen Mah’s unadorned prose is powerful, her insights keen and her portrait of her family devastating. —from Amazon.com
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Review by Melissa Marks
This autobiography illustrates one person's life in Shanhai during the political upheavals of the 1940s and 1950s. When her well-to-do father remarries, her life changes: she no longer feels cared for and the traditions in her life are altered. She moves to England and then to America, but her Chinese culture (obviously) continues to influence who she is, her relationships, and her life-views.
The book is very well written and interesting, showing all types of specifics about family/generational dynamics in China, the historical changes that the Revolution brought, and how it affected "regular" individuals as well as the clothing, food, and celebrations of the time. Weaving the culture so seamlessly into the story provides the specifics recommended in multicultural literature; the use of language/idioms, religious customs, and family expectations within the story allows the reader greater insight to the Chinese culture. Additionally, this would provide the individualization needed to complement a history survey course when focused on China.
Because of this book has a lot of psychological depth to it, it would be best for juniors or seniors in hgih school -- or even AP students. Selections of it could be read by ninth and tenth graders, but there is a lot of mature content in it.
Review of Falling Leaves
Review by Dr. David Kenley
Adeline Yen Mah’s biographical account of growing up in China in the midst of the Chinese Revolution is filled with heartache and frustration. Continually psychologically abused by her father and siblings, Mah eventually moves to Hong Kong, Britain, and the United States. Yet, each step of her life is marked with pain and neglect. Though the text provides a fascinating look at China’s great communist revolution, this story is more about the collapse of a family and the feelings of abandonment on the part of a young girl.
In Chinese there is a popular idiom: Luo ye gui gen, meaning, “falling leaves return to their roots.” It suggests that in the end, it is impossible to leave behind your own culture, clan, and village. Yet this book is less about returning and more about rejection. Mah’s own mother dies when she is only two weeks old, and the sense of loss pervades Mah’s consciousness for the rest of her life. Though she is raised in a wealthy family of privilege, she is rejected as an “unwanted daughter” by her father, siblings, and extended family members. After she leaves home and marries, Mah is still unable to find peace, discovering that her husband is emotionally abusive and detached. In the end, her marriage falls apart and they divorce.
Indeed, Mah’s story is so tragic and heart wrenching, the reader almost loses patience with her. As with battered woman syndrome, Mah returns to every abusive situation seeking some validation and acceptance. The reader becomes frustrated with her own passivity (and becomes skeptical of her accuracy in describing each situation). Nevertheless, it is impossible not to care.
In short, Falling Leaves provides a tragic view of the Chinese revolution, though it is social and familial structures—not political and economic structures—that are to blame for the tragedy. As such, it can generate interesting discussions in the classroom, including questions such as:
Why did Mah choose the title she did?
What was the social hierarchy within Mah’s household? How were those hierarchies reinforced?
How does Mah change as she moves from China to Hong Kong to the U.S. to Britain? How does she stay the same?
What does this memoir say about power and gender?
What role does Chinese culture play in this book? How culturally specific (or universal) are the themes of abandonment and rejection?
Falling Leaves is appropriate for high school students and advanced middle school students. It was a New York Times bestseller in 1997.