Book review

Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah (1999)

The secret story of an unwanted daughter. To be honest, I wasn't sure I really wanted to read this one, so when I finally opened the book I was relieved to find that it is a memorable and even enjoyable story.

When Yen Jun-ling is born her mother dies, and that is the catastrophe of her life. Not only does her father turn from the five children he had by his first wife when he marries again, but her three brothers and sister also despise Jun-ling for being the cause of their own neglect. Third Brother tells her:

It all stems from our mama dying when you were born. Big Sister and our two older brothers knew her better than I did. I only remember her a little. Things were much nicer when she was alive. You made her go away.

Chinese Cinderella is an autobiography. It is a story written by a woman in her fifties about her own childhood. The story is set against a background of life in Japanese-occupied China and the civil war between the communists and nationalists which followed Japan's defeat at the end of the Second World War. There are some fascinating snapshots of the old way of life such as the binding of Grandmother Nai Nai's feet which had been the custom in China for over a thousand years. But this is mainly an account of the relentless neglect and loathing which was heaped on Yen Jun-ling during her excruciating childhood, and the way she chose to cope with it. Her account is delivered with the insight of a mature woman:

In spite of my writing and academic record, my classmates probably suspected there was something pathetic about me. I never spoke of my family; neither issued nor accepted any invitations outside the school; and always refused to eat the candies or snacks brought by my friends. My hair-style, shoes, socks and book bag did not inspire envy. No one from home ever came to be with me on prize-giving day, regardless of how many awards I had won.
They didn't know that, in front of them, I was desperate to keep up the pretence that I came from a normal, loving family. I couldn't possibly tell anyone the truth: how I was held responsible for any misfortune and was resented for simply being around; how my mind was racked with anxiety and constantly burdened by an impending sense of doom. How I simply loathed myself and wished I could disappear, especially when I was in front of my parents.

Jun-ling's story is seen through the filter of time, and, perhaps her own, old defensive guard is up. At any rate, she simply does not ask for nor expect any sympathy, (with the possible exception of the interlude with PLT, Precious Little Treasure, which I leave you to read for yourself).

Whatever you make of Yen Jun-ling herself, I think you will find this book highly memorable. It is an extraordinary catalogue of abuse and malice which will stay with you for quite a while after you finish the book. And I think you might find this book actually enjoyable, despite the content, because it is so well written. Narrated by Jun-ling herself, it is an intimate and simply told story. Read it for yourself and see if you agree with me.

What can I read next?

As an autobiography, it is difficult to follow this book. But if you enjoy Chinese Cinderella, you might like to look at these by Virginia Euwer Wolff:

If you like an emotionally-charged read, you could try practically anything by K M Peyton:

Also, you might be interested in this one by Gaye Hicyilmaz about refugees:

Or, this one, also about refugees, by Elizabeth Laird:

One final suggestion, you could have a look at this one by Livia Bitton-Jackson:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Chinese Cinderella features in these lists: