For my first book in the World Citizen challenge, I selected the memoir Falling Leaves: The True Story of An Unwanted Chinese Daughter, by Adeline Yen Mah. Someone gave this book to me eight or nine years ago, quite oddly in response to the fact that I was then reading (and enjoying) Memoirs of A Geisha. She told me that Falling Leaves was “better.” I assumed for a long time that Falling Leaves must be about a Chinese concubine. Now that I’ve read both books, I’m more puzzled than ever by her strange pronouncement, as the books could not be more different.
Where Memoirs of A Geisha is a fictional account of a Japanese geisha, Falling Leaves is the true story of a Chinese woman’s struggle to overcome years of neglect and abuse by her family, set against the Communist uprising in China. Adeline Yen Mah was born in 1937 in the city of Tianjin, during the Sino-Japanese War, as the youngest of five children that included Lydia, the eldest and only sister, as well as three brothers: Gregory, Edward and James. Her mother died of infection two weeks after Adeline’s birth. Around a year later, Adeline’s father remarried, choosing as his bride a seventeen year-old French-Chinese woman whom the children were instructed to call Niang, one of the Chinese terms for mother. Adeline’s father and Niang quickly had children of their own, a son, Franklin, and a daughter, Susan, bringing the number of children in the household to seven. Completing the extended family were her father’s father, Adeline’s Ye Ye (Grandfather), and her father’s sister, her Aunt Baba.
Adeline’s story reads like a cross between Shakespeare and the grisliest of fairy tales. Even without the Communist revolution in the background, this would be a heart-wrenching and complicated tale of the inexplicable hurt family members can inflict on one another. Niang, Adeline’s stepmother, is jealous, controlling, and manipulative on such an astounding scale, one almost wonders if these tales haven’t somehow fused with fiction in the writer’s memory. If she were only looking back to recount her childhood, I would believe that was possible, but, sadly, the manipulation and control Niang exerted carried all the way through the book and Adeline’s life, until Niang’s death in 1994.
Throughout her childhood, Adeline suffers abuse from every member of her family except her Ye Ye, her Aunt Baba, and her youngest half-sister, Susan. Her Aunt Baba does everything she can to encourage Adeline to do well in school, knowing that it’s her only way out:
“She made me believe I was brilliant. Her pride in my small achievements was truly inspirational. She filed each report diligently in a safe-deposit box and wore the key around her neck, as if my grades were so many priceless jewels impossible to replace. When things were bad, she consoled us by taking them out and looking at them. ‘See this one? First grade and all of six years old and getting As in everything already. My! My!’ Then ‘I’m certain nobody going to university could have a more perfect record.’ or ‘We’ll be the most successful banker yet, just like your grand Aunt, and we’ll work together in our own bank.’”
Adeline is eventually sent to England to study, to follow her father’s plan for her to become a doctor. Eventually she comes to live in America, in California, with an abusive husband. She sets up an anesthesiology practice and has a son, eventually divorcing her first husband and marrying her second husband, to whom she is still married. With all she accomplishes, and even after having her own family, she continues to struggle to gain love and acceptance from her father, Niang, and her siblings–something that simply never happens.
Most of the discussion around China’s political situation occurs as a backdrop to what’s happening in her family. While her father and Niang manage to escape to Hong Kong, her eldest sister and her Aunt Baba remain trapped in Communist China. Most of the rest of her family ends up in Hong Kong, America, or Canada, like so many Chinese who escaped Communist rule. One of the most interesting chapters deals primarily with what happened to her Aunt Baba during the years she spent in Shanghai under Communist rule:
“…Aunt Baba was made to move into a single room at a neighbor’s house immediately behind her garden. Meanwhile, many other families moved into her house which was designated off-limits to her. Her abnk account was frozen and mail from Father not delivered. She was allotted fifteen yuan per month by the government for living expenses and instructed to wear a piece of black cloth on her chest with the characters hei liu lei (six black categories) clearly labeled. She was now a despised ‘black’. The blacks were the capitalist , landlord, rightist, rich peasant, counter-revolutionary and criminal element. They were given the most menial jobs and were invariably the last to be served in food lines and other queues, especially when there were shortages. Some were left to suffer and even die while lying on hospital floors waiting for medical attention.
All schools were closed. Buses and trains were crammed with Red Guards who traveled for free all over China. Mail was not delivered and private telephones were disconnected. Buddhist temples and Christian churches were destroyed. Books were burnt. Many city dwellers were sent off to the countryside ‘to reform their thoughts through hard labor and learn from the peasants’.
After many years and as China begins to open during the 1980s, Adeline recovers the family home in Shanghai and reinstates her Aunt.
This book was difficult to read on many levels, but definitely worth the time. Much of Adeline’s life, even with the few privileges she’s accorded, seems so bleak, her pain unyielding. She wants so badly to be accepted by her horrible family that at times I wished I could reach through to her on the page and shake her and tell her to stop. Of course, the times and the vast cultural differences made relinquishing such a goal impossible for her. And although what she covers of the political activity in China is mostly a backdrop to her own story, it helped me to understand the difficulty and made me wish I knew more. At this moment in our country, we believe we are facing such difficulties, but they are not one-tenth of what the Chinese suffered under war with the Japanese and the rule of the Communists. It seems worthwhile to know more about that great nation and its history. As Adeline’s Aunt Baba tells her:
“ ‘The way I see it, the nineteenth century was the British century. The twentieth century is an American century. I predict that the twenty-first century will be a Chinese century. The pendulum of history will swing from the ying ashes brought by the Cultural Revolution to the yang phoenix rising from the ashes.’”
I’d like to pass this book along. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments, and I’ll draw a name on Saturday, March 7.
*image from powells.com