Mah, Adeline Yen 1937-
MAH, Adeline Yen 1937-
PERSONAL: Born November 30, 1937, in Tianjin, China; daughter of Joseph (a trader) and Jeanne (stepmother; maiden name Prosperi) Yen; married Robert Mah (a professor), December 30, 1972; children: Roger, Ann. Ethnicity: "Chinese." Education: Attended University College, London, 1957; London Hospital Medical School, M.B.B.S., 1960; Royal College of Physicians, M.R.C.P., 1962. Hobbies and other interests: Medicine, herbs, cooking.
CAREER: Writer. West Anaheim Community Hospital, Anaheim, CA, anesthesiologist, 1968-94.
MEMBER: Committee of One Hundred.
Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots (autobiography), M. Joseph (London, England), 1997, published as Falling Leaves: A True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, Wiley (New York, NY), 1998.
Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter (adaptation of Falling Leaves), Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Watching the Tree: A Chinese Daughter Reflects on Happiness, Tradition, and Spiritual Wisdom (collection of essays), Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2001.
A Thousand Pieces of Gold: My Discovery of China's Character in the History and Meaning of Its Proverbs, Harper (San Francisco, CA), 2002.
Falling Leaves has been translated into Chinese.
SIDELIGHTS: Adeline Yen Mah's autobiography Falling Leaves: A True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter is a modern-day Cinderella story complete with a wicked stepmother. Mah was born in Tianjin, a coastal city one thousand miles north of Shanghai. She was the fifth and youngest child of a wealthy Chinese family. Her father Joseph was a millionaire when she was born. Her great-aunt and role model founded the Shanghai Women's Bank in 1924, at a time when Chinese women's feet were still being bound. Mah was considered bad luck because her mother died giving birth to her.
Believing their union would improve his social status, her father remarried a part-French woman, Jeanne, called Niang by the children. In a Barnes and Noble online interview, Mah explained that "the lowliest French citizen was higher than the mightiest Chinese Mandarin." She believes that this is why she was dominated by her French stepmother all her life. Niang mistreated all of her stepchildren, but especially the rebellious Mah.
Mah had only her beloved Aunt Baba, who showered her with affection and support. "She was the one who told me repeatedly that I was worthwhile, and demonstrated over and over that I mattered to her," said Mah. "To a child, this concern on the part of an adult is of supreme importance. She was my savior." Although Mah was beaten and subjected to emotional cruelty by her stepmother, father, and siblings, she excelled academically. Mah said that when she received a good report card, her Aunt Baba "locked the card in her safe deposit box and wore the key around her neck, as if my grades were so many precious jewels."
Mah was abandoned at a boarding school as the Red Army approached Shanghai in 1949, while her father, stepmother, and the other children fled to Hong Kong. While at the school, she was allowed no visitors or mail and had no contact with her family. Her isolation fueled her studies, and she was permitted to pursue an education in medicine in England. Mah eventually settled in California, where she established an anesthesiology practice, married, and raised her son and daughter. Toward the end of their lives, Mah's father and stepmother turned to her for help. When her father died, however, Mah and her siblings were cheated out of their inheritance by Niang. When Niang died, Mah found herself completely disowned. "The betrayals and conspiracies surrounding that incident are nearly as chilling as those she suffered in her childhood," observed a critic in Kirkus Reviews.
Not wanting to hurt her stepmother, Mah waited until after her stepmother died to write Falling Leaves, first published in England as Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots. However, her brothers and sisters will not forgive her for writing of family secrets in violation of Chinese tradition. Donna Seaman wrote in Booklist that the memoir "is a testament to the transcendence of moral fortitude and forgiveness." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Mah's prose "powerful, her insights keen and her portrait of her family devastating." Falling Leaves has been translated and became a bestseller worldwide, and Mah has received letters from women across the globe. She became a full-time writer with her success, which she said "has exceeded my wildest dreams."
Mah told CA:"I wrote Falling Leaves because I wished to record the life of one unwanted Chinese daughter growing up in twentieth-century China and encourage all unloved children to transcend their abuse and transform it into a source of courage, creativity, and compassion. Falling Leaves is a morality play pitching the forces of good and evil against each other, as well as a psychological drama describing the striving of seven children for the love of their parents. What inspired me was the desire to give a factual account of the actual inner workings of a Chinese family and describe it with emotional authenticity. I wished to instill in Westerners a desire to learn about Chinese culture and history.
Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter is Mah's adaptation of Falling Leaves for young adults. In the story's preface, Mah discusses why she adapted the novel for juveniles: "Although Chinese Cinderella was written when I was in my late 50s, inside I am still the same little child yearning for the love of my parents." Perhaps she knew many other children would relate to her experience and be inspired by her success. Chinese Cinderlla is essentially the same story told in Falling Leaves but with fewer details.
According to Booklist reviewer Anne O'Malley, Chinese Cinderella "offers a bittersweet look into the pain of childhood and a fascinating glimpse at a tumultuous time in China." Mah recreates the pathos, pain and poignancy of her adult work, convincingly sharing moments of cruelty and victory that draw the reader naturally into the narrative. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly lauded the book, pointing out that Mah "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."
Watching the Tree: A Chinese Daughter Reflects on Happiness, Tradition, and Spiritual Wisdom is a collection of essays interwoven with Mah's personal insights and experiences in a pattern that demonstrates the breadth and depth of the author's knowledge of China's history. Each essay is introduced by an experience or insight from Mah's life and then explores a gift China gave to the world, such as I Ching, the Tao, Confucianism, Yin-Yang, and Feng Shui. The clearly written prose written in a way that is meaningful and easily understood by Western readers. According to Library Journal reviewer Kitty Chen Dean, "Mah is an articulate and fluent writer" who has created a "brief but compelling book [that] is basically a primer on Chinese culture."
Mah continues to wield her gift of storytelling to recreate China's past in A Thousand Pieces of Gold: My Discovery of China's Character in the History and Meaning of Its Proverbs. Using her own life and proverbs handed down to her by Ye Ye, her beloved grandfather, as a thread, Mah weaves an intimate connection between the writings of ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian during the reign of China's First Emperor and the impact these ancient words have on readers of her books today. Mah reveals the rich history of China and exposes the layers of meaning proverbs take on as they pass from generation to generation. Vanessa Bush of Booklist recommended the book saying, "Readers interested in Chinese culture and proverbs will enjoy this collection as well as the broader perspective Mah offers on Chinese and Western life." Polo, writing for the Asian Reporter, considers that "Getting a working understanding of China doesn't have to hurt. Mme Yen Mah does it wonderfully by weaving her own story around eighteen culturally central pillars: age-old proverbs handed down by her loving grandfather and her favorite auntie."
In discussing why she chose writing and embarked on her quest for meaning in life, Mah told CA: "I was greatly inspired, when I was ten years old, by reading the book (translated from English into Chinese) The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but it was Shakespeare's King Lear that changed my life. When I was thirteen years old and going to school in Hong Kong, my English teacher once instructed me to read aloud a passage from King Lear in front of my class. In the middle of my recital, I was so overcome by Lear's poetry and pathos that I suddenly burst into tears and could not continue, because so much of his plight mirrored that of my grandfather's at home. I have wanted to be a writer ever since. Everywhere in the world, there is a real hunger to find meaning in our lives and to understand who we are and why we are here. Philosophy starts with wonder and knowledge is power."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asian Reporter, October 22-28, 2002, Polo, "Lively History," review of A Thousand Pieces of Gold: My Discovery of China's Character in the History and Meaning of Its Proverbs, p. 15.
Booklist, February 1, 1998, p. 884; October 1, 1999, Anne O'Malley, review of Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter, p. 349; April 1, 2000, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Chinese Cinderella, p. 1430; October 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of A Thousand Pieces of Gold, p. 368.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1998, p. 39.
Library Journal, February 1, 1998, p. 96; January 1, 2001, Kitty Chen Dean, review of Watching the Tree: A Chinese Daughter Reflects on Happiness, Tradition, and Spiritual Wisdom, p. 114.
Maclean's, April 13, 1998, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, January 5, 1998, p. 48; July 12, 1999, review of Chinese Cinderella, p. 96; November 1, 1999, review of Chinese Cinderella, p. 58; March 19, 2001, review of Chinese Cinderella, p. 102; September 9, 2002, review of A Thousand Pieces of Gold, p. 55.
Adeline Yen Mah Web site,http://www.adelineyenmah.com (November 23, 2003).
Asian Reporter Online,http://www.asianreporter.com/ (November 23, 2003), Polo, review of Falling Leaves.
Asia Week Online,http://www.asiaweek.com/ (November 23, 2003), Alison Dakota Gee, interview and review of Falling Leaves.
Barnes and Noble Web site,http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (August 18, 1998), interview with Mah.
Innerchange Online,http://www.innerchangemag.com/ (November 23, 2003), Kathryn Lanier, review of Watching the Tree.
Reading Matters Web site,http://www.readingmatters.co.uk/ (October 20, 2002), Jill and David Marshall, review of Chinese Cinderella.
Spirituality and Health Online,http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/ (November 23, 2003), Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, review of Watching the Tree.