Review by Annette Dale Meiklejohn

Magpies Magazine -September 2004

Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society was written in response to numerous young readers of Chinese Cinderella asking for kung fu stories similar to the ones Adeline Yen Mah wrote as a child. Unlike the earlier book, this one is not autobiographical.

Ye Xian or CC as she is called by her friends (the reason why is explained early on) shares more than her name with Cinderella: she too has a terrible stepmother and a father who takes little responsibility for her. After being thrown out of her home, CC joins Grandma Wu and the three boys who live with her, and becomes a member of the Secret Dragon Society dedicated to overthrowing the Japanese occupation of China. CC becomes adept in kung fu, learns much of the philosophy of the ancient masters and helps in a daring rescue of the crew of one of the planes from the Doolittle raid.

In a valuable historical note at the end of the book the author quotes her sources and outlines where she has changed history in order to involve her young characters in a daring escape that did not occur. It will be up to individual readers as to whether or not they feel this is justified. I asked a young reader for comments on the story, the historical manipulations and the sometimes lengthy philosophical ideas. The answer was that she really enjoyed the exciting adventure and found the discussions of beliefs really interesting. The blending of fact and fiction was not a concern.

In this carefully designed book, with the characters for Chinese words inserted throughout and useful explanations appended, readers will find an easily read exciting adventure and empowering adventure story and a history little known to its intended readership.


Fran Knight, Richmond Primary School, SA

Originally posted on the website of the publisher, Allen & Unwin

A timely production with the Beijing Olympic Games just around the corner, this book by Adeline Yen Mah will have classes enthralled. Not only is it a spirited history book, but it contains dozens of entertaining asides and anecdotes which will thrill and titillate the reader. I found myself wholly engrossed in this chatty history book, revealing the scope of China’s history from the time of the first emperor to today.

Beginning with the first emperor, Quin Shi-huang, ascending the throne in 247 BC ready to amalgamate the seven states, the reader is given an overview of just how he maintained power, deciding to build the Great Wall, and using 700,000 men from all over China to build his tomb. His tyrannical rule saw canals, highways and bridges built, and he stipulated that every book before his rule be burned and that history should begin with him. Within this chapter is also a double page spread about the Terracotta Army and a scattering of astounding facts about the tomb.

Each of the 10 chapters goes on in this vein, giving a potted history, an amazement of facts and inserts which reveal more information about specific subjects. In chapter three concerning the Han dynasty, we read of the Silk Road, in chapter five, within the Tang dynasty appears a double page spreads about Printing. Each chapter has a specialist section within its pages, expanding on something for which China is famous.

For the specialist or for the interested reader, for the student, class and teacher, this book is a winner. Its profusion of photos, drawings, maps, and inserts makes it an entertaining and informative book to read. In a class room, a set of this book will be a most useful addition for students of China, history or the Olympics. It gives a tantalizing insight into the country where this year’s Olympic Games is to be held; a country which is gaining in prestige and influence in world politics and a country to which Australia is increasingly tied.

Highly recommended.

Judith Way , Mill Park Secondary College, VIC

With the Beijing Olympics being held this year, this is more than a timely introduction (or a broadening of one’s knowledge) on China, its history and its people. Did you know that one fifth of the world’s population is Chinese? (That’s 1.3 billion people) Did you know that there are more Chinese learning English today than all the native English speakers on the earth? Told by famous author Adeline Yen Mah this history of China is written with a younger audience in mind. Clearly told, the book covers the first emperor of China to the communist rule of Mao Zedong, to modern day China. Visually enticing Mah captures need to know facts with photos, maps, sketches, information pages, etc. The mysticism surrounding China and its people is interestingly documented in this compacted history.

  • Have you ever wondered when and why The Great Wall of China was really begun?
  • That the wall is sometimes referred to as the longest cemetery on earth?
  • Do you know what the connection between Opium and the British taking occupation of Hong Kong in the mid 1800s is?
  • Why did China get Hong Kong back in 1997?
  • Why was it compulsory for all Chinese men to have a pigtail (queue) between 1644 – 1911?
  • What is the cultural significance of the Chinese Dragon?
  • Did you know that porcelain, fireworks and gunpowder are Chinese inventions?
  • What has the Boston Tea Party got to do with China?
  • Within China: who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese or Hokkien?
  • With over half a million words in the English language, how many Chinese words are there?

China: Land of Dragons and Emperors is a perfect starting point for any young person exploring China’s country and its culture.

Jodie Webber, Hurlstone Agriculture High School, NSW

China: Land of Dragons and Emperors is a wonderful book by a favourite author. This time, Adeline Yen Mah has brought us a non-fiction book just in time for the Beijing Olympics. The beautiful design of the book brings history to life and the small chunks of information made the book very readable, whether it is cover to cover or dipping in and out of pages that grab you. An excellent index also contributes to the overall appeal of the book. China: Land of Dragons and Emperors could be used by classes in a few different ways:

  • In English classes as a companion to books such as Chinese Cinderella
  • Giving a background to the book by looking at a brief history of China.
  • As a history text studying ancient civilisations.
  • In art or graphic communication to look at successful book design.

Knowing that many students will be studying China this year (and into the future), China: Land of Dragons and Emperors is a book that every school library should have at least one copy of.

Julie Davies, Sutherland Shire Christian School, NSW

When I first unpacked this book, I must confess to some initial disappointment: I’ld envisaged a larger format, colour illustrated book describing something of the history and civilisation of the Olympics™ host nation, and backgrounding its contemporary culture and customs. That’s my fault though, for having wrong expectations. What we do have instead is a very readable compendium of Chinese history following the stories of the six major dynasties, beginning in 259BC with the man who first united the separate Chinese stages, and the communist regime of the 20th century. Along the way, the author singles out important individuals from that history for special mention, as well as giving the story of the amazing number of inventions that saw their first manifestations in China

There are generously sprinkled black and white illustrations: line drawings, diagrams and photographs, a bibliography (including websites), comprehensive index and a very handy timeline. While there are included two 2-page maps, I found it frustrating that

there were often references to cities which I couldn’t find on either map. Another helpful addition would be a pronunciation guide for the most common Chinese diphthongs. Sometimes these are given in the text, but not always, and a systematic list would be very useful.

This is a good introduction to an important and very significant part of Chinese history. It is, however, somewhat repetitive (see for example the discussion of gunpowder, Pages 147 and 188) and sometimes it is a little less than clear to which earlier referent the author is alluding.

In the introductory To the Reader section, the author provides a simple but compelling reason for all libraries to hold one copy at least of this book: Presently, one-fifth of the world’s population is Chinese, totaling over1300 million people. There are more Chinese learning English today than all the native English speakers on Earth. One day China could become the number one English-speaking nation as well as the world’s largest manufacturer and consumer. Perhaps it is time to know something about China. (p.xi)

For teachers wanting teaching materials for backgrounding a unit on the forthcoming Olympics, we will need to look elsewhere. For those teaching a unit on Ancient China, as our Year 7 HSIE staff is doing this term, China: Land of Dragons and Emperors will be an invaluable resource.

Susan Stephenson, NSW

If you’re looking for a unique perspective on Chinese History, this book, written by the Chinese-born author of Falling Leaves, is a great place to start. From the table of contents, with headings like “great leap forward that wasn’t” and “chairman with green teeth”, to the index – gunpowder, Treasure Fleet and tiger tally, China: Land of Dragons and Emperors shows Adeline Yen Mah’s skill. She has the knack of not only getting to the heart of the matter, but of finding the heart that will resonate with students.

China : Land of Dragons and Emperors , though packed with fascinating facts, does not have the off-putting appearance of densely written text. It is well set-out, with plenty of white space, and interspersed with text boxes, maps, black and white illustrations, and photographs. There are so many places where Yen Mah shows her skill in targeting young readers. Like the section on the Chinese language, where she tells kids exactly what not to say to a Chinese person in Mandarin (Good one, Adeline!)

China : Land of Dragons and Emperors would make a great addition to a Stage 3 classroom, or the school library. It can be read in a linear way, first looking at myth, then moving through recorded history, or dipped into via the contents and index as a reference book. With heightened interest in China because of the 08 Olympics, it gives students from Year 5/6 and beyond the opportunity to delve into a truly fascinating and ancient culture.

Isabelle Baelde, Marcellin College Randwick, NSW

Adeline Yen Mah manages to summarise in some 234 pages the long history of China with humour and sensitivity to young readers’ interest. From the First Emperor to today’s rulers, the major events, heroes and villains, are depicted sprinkled with various anecdotes and one-page explanations. Some with a gruesome flavour likely to both thrill and shock a young imagination. e.g., What is a eunuch? Others document China’s contribution to well-known inventions: silk, paper, powder, etc.

The information and illustrations provided are enough to allow entertaining light reading, kids just do not have time to get bored, the story goes on with the next tyrant. By small touches, one invention after another, the author gives tribute to China’s contribution to the world history and progress, but she does not turn a blind eye to its darker times. Like most countries with a long history, China has quite a few skeletons in its closet. Adeline will sometimes warn the reader of some dreadful� things coming up. The Great Wall of China compared to a cemetery is an indication that the author has not shied away from sad but true facts.

This history of China will attract young readers because it is full of fascinating stories and characters and gives a human dimension to this gigantic and so little known country. It can be used in class but also read on its own, its compact size and mix of historical facts, anecdotes and curiosities makes it a very attractive book.

Helen Wilde, SA

The foreword by the writer promises gifts- “treasures more enchanting than pearls, more precious than jade”. The scope of this little book is very wide, and the richness of Chinese history means that it must be of necessity a summary of many of the major achievements and historical turning points of the people of this ancient land. Yen Mah confesses she is ‘enthralled’ by stories of China, and aims with enthusiasm to communicate her own fascination to the reader.

The presentation of the text is very attractive, with some handwritten style fonts, and lots of illustrations, including drawings, photographs and maps. The book is in black, white and grey, so some of the richness of the visual feast are lost, but the text is enhanced by these visuals. The font size is reader friendly, and the text is broken into short, manageable pieces, with the language and layout making the book suitable for an age group ranging through 10-15. Adults interested in a quick read of Chinese history and culture would also find it interesting and useful. The addition of a Timeline and an index would help with middle school study. The short section on language is fascinating, and Yen Mah’s chatty tone extends to providing a list of words to avoid in Mandarin, which would no doubt be of great interest to some young readers! I am able to report that as somewhat of a˜Sha gua” myself, I still found this a highly accessible and fascinating read, one which I will enjoy going back to for some time to come.

Shelly Draga, Auckland, New Zealand

Finally a book about China one can gets one’s teeth stuck into without losing the taste for it. With the Olympic Games being staged in China later this year together with China emerging as a modern, rich superpower; this book will enlighten all who read it. The rich history of China is told in simple language for young readers to remain focused, without losing interest. Emperors, dynasties and eunuchs shaping China, with all the interesting and juicy revelations of the main protagonists that keeps one reading page after page. China: Land of Dragons and Emperors by Adeline Yen Mah is yet another example of this great author who wrote Chinese Cinderella and her memoir Falling Leaves.

It begins with the Chinese dragon, a mythical creature which is connected with water and rainfall. In times of drought, government ministers offered sacrifices to the dragon and prayed for rain. The book goes on to explain lucky and unlucky numbers as well as what colours mean in China. For example; Red is the colour of fire, it corresponds to summer and the south and also symbolizes success, happiness and good luck.

We read that the history of China goes back thousands of years but the book starts 2200 years ago with the First Emperor, who united China. We go on to read why the Great Wall of China was built and how a tomb for the Emperor was constructed, where thousands of terracotta life-size soldiers and horses were made to protect the tomb. The book continues through history with the founding of other dynasties; The Han, The Tang, The Song until the last crippled dynasty; The Qing in 1912.

The history of China in the twentieth century is remarkably different, with China being dominated by four men. We learn about Communism in China and why and how Taiwan became a democratic society in 1988. Scattered through out the book are interesting facts; for example – what are eunuchs? Who is Confucius? What is the Silk Road? What happens during Chinese New Year? What is the Moon Festival? There are also interesting revelations of inventions; cast iron, paper, matches and fireworks and many more.

After being completely absorbed by this book, I would thoroughly recommend China: Land of Dragons and Emperors to young and old alike. It would be an excellent read for 10 year olds plus and be a valuable tool in the classroom, especially with The Olympic Games being held in China in a few months. Many classes will be studying China and The Olympic Games and this book will fill in many gaps of the knowledge of China.

There are black and white maps and pictures throughout out the book and also a valuable timeline of China’s rich history at the back. China: Land of Dragons and Emperors is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it.

Barbara Wilson, St George Christian School, Hurstville NSW

Adeline Yen Mah’s China: Land of Dragons and Emperors is a brief, 240 page, introduction the Chinese history and society. The clearly written text, which also features black and white maps, illustrations and photographs, begins with a section on dragons, lucky numbers, colours and silk, which are many of the stereotypical things we associate with China. We are then taken on a journey through the familiar and the lesser known dynasties, followed by a short chapter on the past 100 years.

Interspersed throughout are relevant sections on subjects like education, the Great Wall, Terracotta Army, Inventions, Women, Chinese New Year and Confucius, The history is accurate and well organized, with enough detail to provide a coherent account, but not so overburdened with content to deter the average reader non-historian. The language level would suit students from age twelve and up and the print size and style is clear and appropriate. At the end of the book there is a timeline, useful references and an index.

The obvious application for using this volume, published in China’s Olympic year, might seem to be in a unit on the Olympics. Primary students would probably find the monochromatic publication less appealing than other full-colour volumes, but older students wanting solid, carefully researched and written information will be delighted by this book.

Rachel Froude, Galen College, Wangaratta, VIC

This is an interesting book from the pen of Adeline Yen Mah. I had waited in anticipation for her next book and found it to be very different to what I had expected. However, once I got into the book I found it to be most informative and engaging. Considering the depth of Chinese history Adeline has managed to condense it into distinct periods and then highlighting the wonders of each period.

The text is supported by explanations of unusual words to give the reader a thorough understanding of what they are reading, words such as eunuch. Other helpful and interesting additions are the pronunciation of Chinese words, especially names which generally would be impossible for the reader to know. Illustrations, shading and boxes also assist the readers’ enjoyment of the book. The pockets of information are easy to cope with and encourage the reader to keep turning the pages.

However, I was disappointed that the illustrations are all in black and white. Colour would have further enhanced the reader’s visual pleasure of the book. The fact that only emperors wore yellow would have not only been visually informative but also pleasant to the eye. Also the gorgeous silks, Ming vases and other Chinese wonders would have been a delight in colour.

Students of any age will enjoy this compact and readable account of China ’s history, especially from the trusted pen of Adeline Yen Mah.



Teachers’ Notes

Written by Susan La Marca

This book is the moving autobiography of a young Chinese girl, Adeline Yen Mah. Born the fifth child to an affluent Chinese family her life begins tragically. Adeline’s mother died shortly after her birth due to complications bought on by the delivery, and in Chinese culture this marks her as cursed or ‘bad luck’ (p.3). This situation is compounded by her father’s new marriage to a lady who has little affection for her husband’s five children. She displayed overt antagonism and distrust towards all of the children, particularly Adeline, whilst favoring her own younger son and daughter born soon after the marriage. The book outlines Adeline’s struggle to find a place where she feels she belongs. Denied love from her parents, she finds some solace in relationships with her grandfather Ye Ye, and her Aunt Baba, but they are taken from her. Adeline immerses herself in striving for academic achievement in the hope of winning favour, but also for its own rewards as she finds great pleasure in words and scholarly success.

The book was written following the successful publication of Adeline Yen Mah’s first autobiography, Falling Leaves, which details the years of Adeline’s life from fourteen years of age into adulthood.

‘The secret story of an unwanted daughter

(The book’s subheading)

The idea of an unwanted daughter, blamed for the death of her own mother, is a superstition that may have caused the abandonment of many.

  • What is the strength of such a superstition?
  • How does such a superstition come about?

In her life Adeline Yen Mah has been many things, a brilliant academic, doctor and a writer, yet it is the role of ‘unwanted daughter’ that plays heavily on her heart.

  • Why is this so?
  • Why does it overshadow all other achievements?
  • Why is it so difficult to move beyond childhood hurts?

The pain felt by Adeline is acute and permeates almost every scene in the book. The story is, at times, a catalogue of one unhappy incident after another. Some events that display her anguish are particularly violent, cruel and senseless, as in the episode when her duck, PLT, is killed by the dog (p.94 onwards). Others show the power of cruel words to truly destroy the child’s own sense of self worth. Adeline is an unwanted, even unnoticed daughter. Upon leaving her beloved grandfather’s funeral, Niang (her stepmother) comments loudly that Adeline is becoming ‘uglier and uglier as (she) grew older and taller’ (p.213). An unnecessary and crushing remark made at a most difficult time.

Adeline suffers constant rejection from her stepmother but perhaps it is the indifference of her father that crushes Adeline more brutally. Most telling is the scene in the plane (p.40) in which her father remembers neither her real name nor her birthday. She is a forgotten child to him.

Adeline’s answer is to immerse herself in academic life, pursuing success. Her personality, though, is scarred by her treatment at the hands of her parents. She has no sense of self, no sense of where she belongs. Her self-loathing and doubt are often intensely felt:

‘They had tossed me aside like a piece of garbage’ (p.143)

‘Now they knew the pathetic truth! Unloved and unwanted by my own parents! How long did it take for a person to die of shame.’ (p.129)

‘I’m nothing. Less than nothing. A piece of garbage to be thrown out.’ (p.207)

“Oh, the misery of it all! I felt I was being skinned alive. (p.214)

‘Everything is ugly. I loathe myself.’ (p.215)

Family offers us acceptance and a place to belong, affirmation, help and guidance, things Adeline lacks in her interaction with her parents – she is an ‘unwanted daughter’ in many senses of the word.


This autobiography is written in chronological order. It relies on the memories of Adeline presenting us vignettes, or small scenes, from her childhood. Because of this, the book often jumps periods during which Adeline either may remember little, or little of import happens, yet many scenes are vividly recalled. In a preface to the story, Adeline writes:

‘Although Chinese Cinderella was written when I was in my late 50’s, inside I am still the same little child yearning for the love of my parents.’

  • How easy do you think it would be to recall events from so many years ago?
  • Does a series of vignettes really enable us to come to a true understanding of what the life lived was like?
  • Why, when we reconsider our lives, do certain scenes come to mind whilst others defy recall of any kind?
  • To what extent do the early years of one’s life shape the person that we become?


Autobiography and biography are very popular genres. They are both windows into the lives of others. For some readers these genre cater to the voyeuristic urge to view someone else’s life, perhaps to allow comparison with our own existence or history.

  • When reading such a story, do you compare the life to your own?
  • Can you imagine writing about your own life?
  • How easy do you think it is to write honestly about experiences that have affected you, or are all views subjective in the final analysis?

Consider the following quotations in the light of Adeline Yen Mah’s story and your own views on the writing of life stories:

‘Autobiography is probably the most respectable form of lying.’

Humphrey Carpenter, 1982

‘Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form.’

John Berger, 1992

‘Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something truly disgraceful.’

George Orwell, 1944

‘Richard Freadman, head of the unit for studies in biography and autobiography at Latrobe University, says part of the genre’s attraction is the notion that we will discover more about ourselves if we read about the lives of others’.

Corrie Perkin ‘The life to write movement’ The Age, Sunday July 14th, 2002. p.13

Consider and compare other biography and autobiography. Possible texts that are part of this genre, though varied in style and content, are:

Adeline Yen Mah Falling Leaves (detailing Adeline’s later life)

Boori Pryor Maybe Tomorrow

David Harris and Max Jones A Man called Possum

Roald Dahl Boy

Daryl Tonkin and Carolyn Landon Jackson’s Track


Adeline Yen Mah’s story is ‘a life marked off on the soul by feelings, not by dates’ (Helen Keller on biography). The book is a series of small windows into how Adeline was feeling at the time, how particular events affected her and marked her for life. Her voice comes through vividly in her writing, bringing to life each scene as she unveils to us the raw emotion she felt, her uncertainty and confusion. Adeline describes tremendous lows, such as when her little duck is killed by the dog:‘I was overwhelmed with horror. My whole world turned desolate’ (p.96), and at the death of her grandfather (p.213) – she feels as if the world will end for her at these times.

Similarly, less frequently, but no less eloquently, her highs are powerful and all encompassing. Upon hearing of her writing competition win, and finding her father pleased, Adeline felt:‘My whole being vibrated with all the joy in the world. I only had to stretch out my hand to reach the stars’ (p.220)

As a result of this glorious win Adeline’s father agrees to send her to University in England to study medicine, though she would prefer literature. To her: ‘Does it matter what you do after you get to heaven?’ (p.220)

She quotes Wordsworth to describe her feelings: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ (p.221)

The descriptions of Adeline’s powerful highs and lows capture her voice most effectively. Simple, straightforward description, the power of her writing lies in the depth of feeling in her most extreme moments. This, set against an almost monastic life of study and emotional deprivation gives to the book an extraordinary force and uncommon insight of great strength.


The characters in any autobiography are seen through the eyes of, or given to us, by the author. As with narrative, they are ‘created’ for us by the author, who subjectively chooses what to include and what to leave out.

  • Do you think we can be given honest portrayals of characters in this way?
  • Can the author of an autobiography, or the author of fiction, manipulate the reader to have them see things as they wish?
  • Might the participants in the book see themselves, or their actions, differently from the view the author presents?
  • How might Adeline’s relatives describe themselves if given the chance to do so in their own life story?

Niang (Step mother)

Niang is a central character in Adeline’s young life. A source of cruel and cold treatment for all of her step-children, she has a particular hatred for Adeline. Calculating and manipulative, though outwardly charming and stylish, Niang is the stereotypical evil stepmother. Whilst Adeline appears to crave the approval of her father, she senses this is not possible with Niang and only wishes to disappear in her presence.

  • What does Adeline’s physical description of Niang tell us about them both? (p.4)
  • Why does Niang behave towards Adeline, and her other stepchildren, as she does?
  • Reread Adeline’s confrontation with Niang at the time of her friend’s birthday party. (p.110 onwards) What does this tell you of Niang?


Adeline’s father is a mysterious character, aloof and seemingly untouchable. At times indulgent, at others cruel and uncaring, he is portrayed as ruled by his new wife’s whims and having little regard for his elder children except when he may be able to bask in reflected glory. Adeline’s only early memory of him is his pride at her having topped the class during her first week at school (p.11). This pattern of being noticed only for academic success is recurrent throughout the book.

Affluent, intelligent, business savvy and ambitious, Yen is thoughtless of others. Continually abandoning Adeline, ignoring the wishes of his own father, he appears to value only the opinion of his new wife Niang and chase success for himself based on wealth and power.

Of her father and Niang’s reaction when she is saved from Communist China by an aunt, Adeline says: ‘So far, they had not addressed me at all. Theirs was the gaze that glances but does not see.’ (p.167)


Adeline’s three older brothers are treated with marked difference to Niang’s son within their father’s household. Neglected and starved of affection, they survive due to the possibilities that they offer as ‘sons’ as opposed to Adeline, female and the apparent cause of her mother’s death. Whilst the younger children, Adeline’s half brother and sister, are allowed to wear modern western dress and eat special foods, the brothers are treated like ancient Chinese monks. Whilst their younger brother (fourth brother) has the latest page-boy haircut and a navy jacket with matching trousers, they endure shaved heads and traditional high collared robes. (p.102)

  • Why are Adeline’s brothers treated in this way?
  • At one point, Adeline feels close to her third brother. Any bonds, however, are broken by the segregated nature of their family life and Adeline’s placements in boarding schools. Why is this relationship difficult and changeable?

Big Sister (Lydia)

The view we have of Adeline’s older sister is only fleeting. She is portrayed as both manipulative and manipulated, prepared to beg and obey for the trifles she wishes to have (tram fare p.47). For most of the novel she is symbolic of the arranged marriage that Adeline wishes desperately to avoid for herself.

‘I’m terrified they’ll force me into an arranged marriage like Big Sister’s just to be rid of me.’ (p.206)

In her dealings with Niang involving the jade necklace (p.104) Adeline’s big sister is shown as weak and unable to help anyone except for herself. She too, craves acceptance as do the other children within the family.

Aunt Baba

Aunt Baba is a fascinating, impenetrable character, unmarried and hard working she should perhaps be a figure of power in Adeline’s life, but this is not so. Partly this is cultural, as in Chinese society at this time an unmarried older Aunt must bow to the wishes of the male head of household. Adeline describes the circumstances that lead to her closeness to Aunt Baba, ‘ordered to take care of me’ (p.5) Though she is a comfort and support, and there is obvious affection between them, Aunt Baba is unable to affect what happens in Adeline’s life.

Aunt Baba puts great faith in Adeline’s intellectual abilities and praises all of her academic efforts, often being the only one to recognise and celebrate her achievements. It is Aunt Baba who reverently saves all of Adeline’s reports and commendations.

  • What does Aunt Baba’s letter to Adeline (p.222) tell you about Aunt Baba and her place in the family?
  • Why do you think Aunt Baba doesn’t do more to ‘rescue’ Adeline?
  • Why does Aunt Baba stay in China?

Adeline’s Aunt Baba

Ye Ye (Grandfather)

Adeline’s grandfather is one of her most fervent supporters. Towards the end of the book, when Adeline is bemoaning her possible fate at the whim of her parents, he says:

‘You mustn’t talk like that! You have your whole life ahead of you. Everything is possible! I’ve tried to tell you over and over that far from being garbage, you are precious and special. Being top of your class merely confirms this. But you can vanquish the demons only when you yourself are convinced of your own worth.’ (p.207)

Earlier, grandfather tells Aunt Baba to be supportive of Adeline. He says: ‘Don’t criticize her or tear her down. I don’t want her to grow up like Big sister. She is going to be different!’ (p.122)

Adeline credits her grandfather’s support with enabling her to succeed. She says: ‘And if I should be so lucky as to succeed one day, it’ll be because you believed in me.’ (p.208)

Despite his encouragement and support Adeline’s grandfather is unable to give her any truly constructive help in her struggles. Though we are not aware of what he may have done away from Adeline’s sight, perhaps he did remonstrate with Adeline’s father over his treatment of his older children. Certainly Adeline cannot understand how her grandfather has been made to feel dependent, answering to his daughter-in-law for money. (p.42)

Through the eyes of Adeline we see that her grandfather tries to alleviate some of what she, and her older siblings, suffer, but he is powerless to do much. Upon seeing him after her time in St Joseph’s convent, Ye Ye has changed, grown older. Adeline realises then that he has ‘given up,’ there was ‘defeat’ in his eyes. (p.168)

  • Why is Ye Ye unable to offer Adeline more constructive support?
  • Why does he ‘give up’, and what is it that he ‘gives up’?


Though obviously neglected and deprived in some senses, Adeline is part of an affluent family.

  • What would her existence have been like as an unwanted daughter of a destitute family?

As Adeline enters the Peninsula hotel with Niang she sees a girl for sale

(p.181). Earlier, she describes how:

‘I had seen infants wrapped in newspapers left to die in doorways. Beggar-children in rags routinely rummaged the garbage-cans searching for food’ (p.131)

  • How does this deprivation and despair compare with Adeline’s own life?
  • How are they the same, yet also different?
  • The beggar children are desperately poor but may be loved. Can you contrast this with the life Adeline leads?
  • Food, pets, school work, friends and relatives all play an important role in Adeline’s young life, not unlike the life of any young person. How do her experiences and her lifestyle contrast with the same areas of life for a student living in Australia in the year 2002?


As an ‘unwanted daughter’, Adeline is almost a pariah in Chinese culture. Are there similarities between this and other cultures you are aware of?

  • Food, spiritual beliefs (Nai Nai’s funeral p.22), language and writing (p.171) are important parts of any culture. How are they part of Adeline and her families lives?
  • What differences do you see between the Chinese culture of Adeline’s grandfather Ye Ye, and the views and culture of Adeline’s parents?
  • Consider the photograph in the book of Ye Ye with that of Adeline’s parents. (between pages 92 and 93). Read the description of the Shanghai streets (p.31). How does this compare with Adeline’s descriptions of Niang and her implied lifestyle?
  • Nai Nai, Ye Ye’s wife, has had her feet bound as a child (p.7 and p.20). This ‘custom’ is part of another time. Culturally, the world of Adeline and that of her grandparents is very different. From Adeline’s story what can you see that has changed and what has stayed the same?
  • Can you see similar changes between your generation and that of your own grandparents?
  • Was change in Adeline’s world happening quickly or slowly?
  • What affected these changes?
  • What does the term ‘cultural revolution’ refer to in Chinese History?

Historical context

From page 138 Adeline describes, from a historical viewpoint, some of the background to the period through which she lived as a child. Though these events certainly affected her life and that of her family at the time, as political and social events they were not fully understood by the young Adeline.

Whilst Adeline is unceremoniously placed in a convent boarding school in Tianjin (p.142), the Communists, under their leader Mao Ze-Dong, are moving through China swiftly taking power. At thevery time when Adeline is placed in this convent, away from family and friends, the members of the population who can afford it, or are able, are fleeing China in droves. In only a short time Adeline finds herself the only student remaining in the convent (p.148) as everyone else has been collected or evacuated by their loved ones. It is only well-meaning relatives who, without consulting Adeline’s parents, collect Adeline at the last minute (p.153).

  • What might life have been like for Adeline if she had not been collected by Aunt Reine Schilling (p.154)?
  • Do you think her parents were aware of her possible fate once they left at her at St Joseph’s Convent?
  • How does the historical context of war and conflict infiltrate the life of Adeline Yen Mah?
  • Are you affected by the political or social context in which you live?

The Chinese Cinderella Story

Beginning on page 224 ‘The story of Ye Xian: the original Chinese Cinderella’ is told in a letter to Adeline from Aunt Baba. For Aunt Baba Adeline is her Chinese Cinderella.

  • How is Adeline a Chinese Cinderella?
  • How does it compare with the most well known Western, or ‘Disney’ versions of Cinderella?
  • Can you see similarities between the Cinderella story and other tales of fiction or nonfiction? The variations on this theme would be worthy of research.

Other cultures in Young Adult Fiction

Exploration of other cultures and the lives of others can lead to a better understanding of ourselves. There are many very good books that explore other cultures. The following list is only a selection – check your school library for others.

Suzanne Fisher Staples Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind

Brian Ridden Sweet Tea

Boori Pryor and Meme Mc Donald Njunjil the Sun

Ron Bunney The Hidden

An Na A Step from Heaven

Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli Tapestry

Henning Mankell Secrets in the Fire

Kierin Meehan Hannah’s Winter

Ji Li Jiang Red Scarf Girl

Christobel Mattingley No Gun for Asmir (and sequels)

Allan Baillie Little Brother

Allan Baillie The China Coin

Joseph Vondra No-name Bird