Mah, Adeline Yen

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Mah, Adeline Yen

Mah, Adeline Yen (1937- ) Chinese- American memoirist and fiction writer

Like the journalist and Holocaust survivor ELIE WIESEL, Adeline Yen Mah, an anesthesiologist turned memoirist and author of philosophical narratives and young adult literature, anchors her fiction and nonfiction to personal experiences during World War II. Born in Tianjin, China, she lost her mother to medical complications two weeks after her birth and grew up unwanted and abused after her father, a wealthy realtor and importer-exporter, married a Eurasian. After the family moved to Shanghai, Mah’s emotional survival depended on the training in calligraphy and philosophy provided by Grandfather Ye Ye and the example of New Woman philosophy presented by her unmarried Aunt Baba, a clerk at the Women’s Bank of Shanghai. As Japanese invaders penetrated Shanghai, the family had to sail to Hong Kong in a leaky boat. In 1947, Mah’s father sent her to St. Joseph convent school in Tianjin, ironically in the path of communist soldiers pressing south from Manchuria; an aunt rescued her from the school in 1949. After training at London Hospital Medical School, Mah practiced anesthesiology in Hong Kong and in Anaheim, California, before becoming a writer of historical fiction and autobiography. Her narratives present an insider’s perspective on the breakdown of empire and the threat of seizure by a rival empire.

Mah’s canon examines the conflicts of the 1940s from a variety of viewpoints. Her first work, Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter (1997), a New York Times best seller, earned global renown for blending the menace of world war with child rejection. From a little girl’s perspective, she recalls, “Japanese soldiers in armoured vehicles were ordered to roll over flimsy barbed wire barricades and take over the foreign concessions of Chinese treaty ports” (Mah 1997, 31). She recalls the shock that the Japanese could invade Malaya, bomb Singapore, defeat the American and British in Asia, and herd their citizens into concentration camps. An era of secret whisperings and plans to salvage the family fortune are common to children’s lives during conflict: Like the Norwegian sledders in Marie McSwigan’s Snow Treasure (1942) and Anne Frank, Dutch-Jewish author of The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) (see CHILDREN’S LITERATURE), Mah lost her innocence while she was still in grade school.

Mah rewrote her AUTOBIOGRAPHY for young readers under the title Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter (1999), an awardwinning story of family dissension. She moved into historical fiction with an espionage novel, Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society (2005), based on Japanese atrocities against collaborators with the Chinese resistance on Nan Tian Island in April 1942. Between these two works, she produced wartime philosophy in Watching the Tree: A Chinese Daughter Reflects on Happiness, Traditions, and Spiritual Wisdom (2000) and A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Memoir of China’s Past through Its Proverbs (2002). Mah's memories of Shanghai, an open city requiring no passport or visa, recall a safety zone for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. She fills in background on Chiang Kai-shek’s creation of a Chinese republic and on Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, in retaliation for the December 7, 1941, bombing of an American military installation in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Mah’s writing reveals a childhood filled with uncertainty and low self-esteem. Her informed narrative blames the Versailles Peace Conference for allowing Japan to seize Germany’s territories in Shandong Province and to advance occupation forces into Manchuria and Tianjin. From childhood observation of the Japanese secret police on the streets of Shanghai, she dredges up details of the Chinese underground that saved the Doolittle raid pilot Ted Lawson and his American B-25 crew from capture, torture, and possible execution at the Bridge House interrogation center. Mah’s private gender war parallels her nation’s struggles to throw off the invader at a time when “women in China were expected to sublimate their own desires to the common good of the family” (Mah 1997, 25). Details of female domestic life among the moneyed elite reflect the hardships of the servant class and of unwanted girls. Unlike those sold on the streets into concubinage at Shanghai brothels, Mah makes her own way in society through self-reliance. Critics value her contributions to young adult, feminist, and anti-imperial literature.


Dave, Shilpa, et al., eds. East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture. New York City: New York University Press, 2005.

Grice, Helena. Negotiating Identities: An Introduction to Asian American Women’s Writing. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Mah, Adeline Yen. Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter. New York: John Riley and Sons, 1997.