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Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter

3.87  ·  Rating Details ·  20,540 Ratings  ·  1,590 Reviews
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. Determi ...more
Paperback, 280 pages
Published April 6th 1999 by Broadway Books (first published 1997)
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Mar 09, 2013 Chelsea rated it liked it
I half liked this book. I didn't like how Adeline made herself out to be this perfect little angel who gave to everyone and just kept getting shit on. She was constantly a victim to everyone in her family, yet kept going back for more abuse. The things that happened to her as a child were sad and horrible, but I don't understand why you would ever purposely keep going back to a family who despised you as an adult when she wasn't dependent upon them. I also found it strange that she longed for a ...more
The book was published in the height of the Chinese-mania in America. It was the time when the likes of Joy Luck Club and Wild Swan were bestsellers. I thought it was another 'me-too' and never got to read it until now. This is the summary of what I think:

The good:
- her style of peppering the story with chinese proverbs (characters, pronunciation, translation);
- interesting peek of Shanghai in its glory straight from the person who lived that kind of life; and
- engaging story-telling.

The bad:
- a
Brent Jones
Mar 12, 2009 Brent Jones rated it it was amazing
This book is a look at a culture and a country. It was also a look at a family and relationships that just didn't work for any of the children but especially for one young girl, Adeline Yen Mah. Her respect for and commitment to be part of a family offered an insight into the culture. Her relationships with her siblings as a young girl and later as a successful women added a dimension to the cruelty she suffered from both of her parents.

This Chinese proverb described her life. "When leaves fall
Nov 01, 2008 Dorothea rated it it was ok
This memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter failed to fully gain my sympathy for its author. Adeline Yen Mah was born in 1937 to a wealthy family in Tianjin. Her mother died shortly thereafter and her father married a woman who would become Adeline's wicked stepmother.

When the family moved to Shanghai, Adeline was forced to endure the hideousness of her straight Chinese hair when she longed for a "perm" like the stylish westerns had. She and her brothers were forced to walk nearly three miles t
Mar 31, 2008 Melissa rated it did not like it
I really didn't like this book. About 1/3 of the way through, I thought to myself, "Why do I care about this person." I even asked out loud a couple of nights later why I was reading the book. To which my husband replied, "Then don't read it." But, not one to stop a book half-way through, I continued on. I hoped that eventually I would come to understand why I should care about the author. At the end though, I still didn't. Sure, she had a crap childhood. For that, I give her pity. Her step moth ...more
Paul Wallis
Apr 07, 2013 Paul Wallis rated it it was amazing
This is a bio with a particularly brutal twist. It's not a "pretty" book. It's a narrative of a viciously dysfunctional family. For those who don't know Chinese culture, it's also a pretty authentic look at the old hierarchy of family relationships.

The nauseating/insane character of Niang, a truly Machiavellian monster of a stepmother, pervades the story, deforming family life. Adeline's innocent and understandably bewildered blundering through her early life is bad enough, but the story gets e
Mar 13, 2016 Denise rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This fabulous autobiography is both a Cinderella story and a view into 20th century Chinese life. The author was born to a successful family in Shanghai, but had the bad luck to be the baby born just before her mother's death. She was despised, not only by her siblings but by the woman that her father married. She spent her young life trying to please her parents and trying to bring her family together. It is a portrait of a very dysfunctional family. My heart ached for Adeline at the numerous i ...more
Jun 07, 2008 Polly rated it it was amazing
Shelves: advisory
Falling leaves is the second book I read from Adeline Yan Mah, which is a connecting story to The Chinese Cinderella. Since I read The Chinese Cinderella first so the Falling Leaves doesnt seem as interesting. I got pretty bored at the beginning so I strongly recommend readers to read this book before the other. The first half of the book discuesses how Adeline was teased by her siblings because after few days of her birth, her mother pass away. Which her rich father got another wife that is ha ...more
May 12, 2012 Katie rated it liked it
I couldn't put down this book, but it was utterly, utterly depressing. I mentioned that to a friend, who glanced at it and said, "Uh, did you see the subtitle? What did you think it was going to be?" Touché. The few moments of respite from wanting to cry were when Mah put in Chinese history for context, which worked well, was helpful, and as I said, let me breathe for a moment before I inevitably wanted to go back in time and adopt this poor creature.

And that was the thing that got me - at least
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
In English we say "An apple falls close to the tree" meaning you are like your family. In Shanghai they say "The leaves fall close to the roots" meaning you always go back to family, to your roots--like it or not.

Covering a sweeping range of China's immediate past, from the 1930s to today, this book is partly fascinating history of a period of enormous upheaval and change, partly telenovela of the "Falcon Crest" sort, as it tells the story of a wealthy family and the machinations of the wicked s
Dec 27, 2010 Ruth rated it it was ok
I don't like to be negative about stories like this--hard childhoods. As a book, it is okay. Well written, some good descriptions. The author is about the same age as my mother, and this gave a context for me. She grew up as a miserable rich girl in Hong Kong. Read it yourself if you want to.

My negative point of view is that I find children who keep chasing their parents' love and approval annoying. This is nothing against Ms. Yen Mah, she really survived a lot of rejection, lousy marriage, etc.
Amber Karnes
Jul 09, 2008 Amber Karnes rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in Chinese culture, those who like memoirs
You know those books you can't put down? This was one of em for me. I was mesmerized by the cruelty the author was subjected to by her own family in this quite depressing account of a child's life, and somehow I still left with a positive impression. She didn't slam her family or say anything hurtful about them (which they MORE than deserved), she just presented her memories and the memories of her siblings as laid out facts. This is what happened to me. She's more courageous than I would have b ...more
Danley Hu
Apr 03, 2008 Danley Hu rated it it was ok
I picked this book out because I thought there could have been some connections I could have made with it, considering my heritage is also Chinese. This book was however a book that didn't quite capture any essence of true culture. It was more of a narrative about how the protagonist's childhood was horrid and negative. A majority of the book was insignificant and I didn't really understand why I was reading this book. It didn't make a lot of sense to me. It was a book that, in ways, asked for p ...more
Oct 04, 2010 Nicole rated it did not like it
couldn't even get half way through. the only emotion that this account brought up was anger - anger that such a whiny, spoilt child is still holding on to her mistreatment as a child while there is true abuse and neglect going on everyday that makes her inability to get tram fair (oh no, she had to walk 3 miles to her private school while her classmates took their chauffered limos!) look pathetic. she no doubt had an unhappy childhood and her stepmother clearly did not understand mothering, but ...more
May 18, 2011 Jim rated it liked it
This book is by no means a feel-good memoir in almost any sense, as the dominating character---the author's stepmother---is on a par with any evil character conjured in fables or by Disney. Few of the supporting cast are of much redeeming value as well, from the successful but weak father who lets his new wife control and destroy his family, to the siblings who scheme, plot, and connive. One aunt is a shining light of strong will and determination and kindness. The children each react to oppress ...more
Jan 28, 2009 Terry rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
I suppose I should say SPOILER ALERT since I mention some plot points ahead. I enjoyed about 75% of this book; after a while the haggling over her father's will and stepmother's will and the details of the never-ending dramas with her siblings got a tiny bit tiresome. Everyone is so abusive that you wonder why she keeps going back for more, but, then, isn't that always the way? It's easier to see when you're outside of the situation. The most poignant part of the book to me is when her brother f ...more
Apr 03, 2008 Laura rated it liked it
I was excited to read this book. Now that I'm finished, I'm a little flummoxed as to my reaction. So I review it through two different lenses. Whenever I read memoirs, I look at them in terms of "this is someone's life story, it's not going to fit a traditional book story narrative" and then I do think of it in terms of a standard narrative. Memoirs are a unique mix of these perspectives.

First, as a memoir, it's excellent. Her recall of detail, clearly aided by her siblings' memory and supplemen
Oct 16, 2011 Laurie rated it did not like it
Spoiler Alert! I never felt any connection or deep sympathy buildup with Adeline Yen Mah. Apparently she did not have the best of chilhoods. Her brothers teased and hit her and her stepmother did hit her once, but was she sexually molested, locked in closets, sold down the river? Nooooo, she was well educated (admittedly lonely), fed, clothed, and hospitalized when sick, sent abroad for more education, all on her father's dime! Then she has the nerve to say he didn't love her when she felt left ...more
Rachel Blanchard
Apr 11, 2008 Rachel Blanchard rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Any girl who's ever felt marginalized because whe wasn't born a boy
Recommended to Rachel by: My dad
Ever wonder what it would be like to grow up as the unwanted daughter? In Chinese culture, where people are ranked by sex, social status, and order of birth, the main character finds herself on the bottom of every measuring stick. Learn how she overcomes feelings of worthlessness, abandonment, and rejection to triumph over a culture that tries to kill her spirit simply because she was born a girl, the unwanted daughter of her father's least favorite wife.
Mar 28, 2016 Licha rated it liked it
Read this a looong time ago. Remember liking it, but that's about all I remember.
Jan 26, 2011 Melissa rated it really liked it
Shelves: china, memoir, non-fiction
To preface, let me say that I have read "Chinese Cinderella" by the same author which is essentially the same book, just written for a younger audience. Another difference in the two is that "Chinese Cinderella" ends when Adeline (the author) goes off to college. "Falling Leaves" however, ends in the late 1990's when she has grown up and is a middle aged woman.

This is an autobiographical book and details teh life of Adeline Yen Mah, an unwanted Chinese daughter. The early part of the book descri
Stephen Gallup
Feb 03, 2009 Stephen Gallup rated it liked it
Since memoir is my primary area of interest as a writer, and since Chinese culture/history remains one of my favorite subjects, this book ought to have thrilled me a lot more than it did.

I like the way the story is structured, with the bereaved family gathering in the lawyer's office to hear the reading of their father's will, followed by all the years of earlier events leading up to that moment, a second pass at describing it with more understanding, and then a few more years in which the famil
Maureen Heraty
Mar 07, 2013 Maureen Heraty rated it it was ok
I seem to like books about the plight of Chinese women, good and bad. However, this one disappointed me. This is the autobiography of a girl who was treated very badly by her father and stepmother after her father remarried. The title infers that her problem stems from being Chinese and a girl. In fact, it has little to do with her gender or origin. It's a dysfunctional family story and it could be set anywhere. It's simply the usual tale of the first family being rejected in favor of the second ...more
Sep 07, 2012 Jme rated it really liked it
I started with Chinese Cinderella and fell in love with Adeline and her resilience. Falling Leaves is the adult version of the novel, and gives you an in depth explanation of everything. To endure so much apathy from your own siblings, a stiff stepmother& and greedy spineless father is so sad; it's a wonder she didn't rebel against them in a more destructive manner- the same way teenagers do, today.
The novel is beautiful, heartbreaking, and engulfs you as if you are just a painting on the w
Oct 29, 2009 Lauren rated it it was ok
I like memoirs that reveal the soul of the writer, and enrich the reader with insights gained from his/her experiences. Reading this book, Adeline Yen Mah came across as shallow and tedious, lacking any real depth from her suffering. Which leads me to wonder, how bad did she have it, really? Her disdain for Chinese peasants came seeping through the text, along with a preoccupation with amassing wealth. At a time when millions in her own country were starving, the writer lamented the lack of vari ...more
Dec 11, 2009 Mandy rated it it was ok
I am not sure where to start with this book.

The step mom that was abusive to all the children was only 18 years old when she became mother of 5 kids. Not that that justifies abuse but she was a child herself.

I felt like Adeline was whining throughout the entire book. I felt she was prideful and if she would just apologize, even if she was not the one in the wrong, life could have been easier for her but she chose not to, and she never saw it this way throughout the book. Just be a peacemaker an
Apr 06, 2012 Jane rated it really liked it
I'd recently read Yen Mah's book "Chinese Cinderella." This book, "Falling Leaves," is a slightly different version that leads the reader to learn more about Yen Mah's adult life (picking up in part where "Chinese Cinderella" left off). Yen Mah's family is/was exceedingly dysfunctional. Maybe it's because I'm not part of Chinese culture, but some of the parts seem completely incomprehensible to me (for instance, not looking at the second page of their father's will because their step-mother told ...more
Jun 29, 2011 Teresa rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
I read this book in 3 days. I really admire the author's candor and honesty. Her life story is heartbreaking at times and the history of Shanghai, Tianjin and Hong Kong were brought to life to me through her story. Despite the cruelty she experienced, Adeline was always looking for acceptance and the best in other people. For that alone, she is to be admired and yet others would admire her ability to have survived and succeeded in life academically and ultimately financially with so many obstacl ...more
Bechai Jalea
Mar 22, 2011 Bechai Jalea rated it really liked it

Depression caught up with me while reading this book. I was already touched by its condensed version (Chinese Cinderella) and reading this book felt like rubbing in the "touchy feeling" even more.

My heart goes to Aunt Baba who survived being a spinster, a worker in a male-dominated labor force, and a victim of war. It's amazing how a person endures, and live through life amid utmost cruelty.

Lezlee Hays
Sep 09, 2012 Lezlee Hays rated it really liked it

Adeline Yen Mah's memoir is interesting from several vantage points: spanning her childhood in china, young adulthood in England and the remainder of her life in California, her story is one that lends great context to the pre-world war 2 china and it's transition to communism following the revolution. But her story is really about yearning for love and acceptance in an extremely difficult family and ultimately the will to survive and triumph.
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Adeline Yen Mah (Chinese: Yen Jun-ling; Pinyin: Mǎ Yán Jūnlíng; Yale (Cantonese): ma5 yim4 gwan1 ling4) (official birthday 30th November 1937, however real birthday not known, this is in fact her father's birthday) is a Chinese-American author and physician. She grew up in Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong with an older sister, Lydia; three older brothers, Gregory, Edgar and James and a younger half ...more
More about Adeline Yen Mah...

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“Don't trust anyone. Be a cold fish. I hurt no one. And no one can hurt me.” 27 likes
“You have your whole life ahead of you. Be smart. Study hard and be independent. I'm afraid the chances of your getting a dowry are slim. You must rely on yourself. No matter what else people may steal from you, they will never be able to take away your knowledge. The world is changing. You must make your own life outside this home.” 16 likes
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