The Significance of Family in ‘Chinese Cinderella’

Chinese Cinderella is a memoir by Adeline Yen Mah of her life as an unwanted child and as a rising entrepreneur during the transformation of Chinese society while it was under Japanese and French rule. Adeline’s wealthy and influential family regards her as bad luck after her mother dies of a fever following Adeline’s birth. Unfortunately, her life does not improve even after her father re-marries. The step-mother Niang treats Adeline and her siblings terribly, while also spoiling her children. This autobiography shows the readers how once someone has taken control of a family, she will be in charge for a long time; that whenever people have someone who cares about them, they will feel much better; and that whatever is done to them will affect them for the rest of their lives.

This story tells us of a household initially controlled by Father, along with Ye Ye and Nai Nai, who later become cowed by Niang, as shown through imagery: “The room was completely still. The only sound I heard was that of Ye Ye chomping on his apple. Surely he was going to say something to put Niang in her place!” With the shift of power in the household, Niang proceeds to obstruct Adeline’s future, especially after her confrontation with little sister. Following this incident, Niang uses Adeline as a scapegoat to vent her frustrations. This quote shows to us that Niang, as the head of the family, controls everything — from Adeline’s education to what she eats, and that no-one dares to confront her at present.

Soon after Adeline runs for class president and wins, her friends follow her home to congratulate her success. Unfortunately, Niang feels the complete opposite, and severely scolds her stepdaughter for supposed bragging, as borne out by her shrill rant:

“Stop bragging!” she screamed. “Who do you think you are? A princess of some sort, that all your friends should come and pay you tribute? You are getting altogether too proud and conceited! No matter what you consider yourself to be, you are nothing without your father. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!”

This quote informs the reader that Niang has little regard for Adeline. And since Niang is the head of the house, no-one dares to confront her about berating Adeline.

People will feel much better when someone comforts them in a loving way. We see this happen when Adeline expresses her joy with further imagery:

“Adeline! Your aunt is here to take you out of school! She is sailing to Hong Kong next week and wants to take you with her!” My heart gave a giant lurch as her words sank in. For a dazzling moment, I knew with every fiber of my being that somehow, against all odds, Aunt Baba had come to my rescue! The whole of me was vibrating with joy, and I ran as fast as I could toward the visitors’ lounge, followed by Mother Marie.”

This quote shows Adeline’s utter joy that shines through when she sees Aunt Baba. Even though Adeline is trying not to burst into tears, she eventually does, not because she is sad, but because she is happy. Yet even though Aunt Baba has provided an essential role in Adeline’s life by comforting her in the past, she does not seem to do so this time. All she seems to do is wait for Adeline.

During the whole of the autobiography, it is evident that Ye Ye always believed that no matter what you try to change, you will always be who you are. And instead of trying to overcome yourself, you should accept it, even embrace it. This idea is presented through symbolism in the following passage:

“My mind was full of gloomy thoughts, and I suddenly burst out, “I’m sick and tired of blindly copying Chinese characters over and over into my notebook like a robot! I hate studying Chinese! It’s a waste of time.”

“You may be right in believing that if you study hard, one day you might become fluent in English. But you will still look Chinese, and when people meet you, they’ll see a Chinese girl no matter how well you speak English. You’ll always be expected to know Chinese, and if you don’t, I’m afraid they will not respect you as much.”

Together, these quotes explain to us that even if Adeline pours all her time and energy into learning English, she will forever be Chinese, expected to speak and understand the language.

This memoir reveals to us the importance of having a stable and loving family, with people who care about you and who will remain valid for life. This is emphasised throughout the whole book. Even though Adeline was regarded as back luck, she was still able to see it through and live a happy and fulfilling life in the end.