Poor Little Rich Girl, Chinese Style

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

If you are a person who knows anything about Chinese culture, beginning in the medieval period through the 20th century, you probably know that women were not valued in society, except as pawns in their family's quest for wealth or political gain.  Foot binding and female infanticide are the two most horrific examples of this attitude I can think of, but overall the fate of women and girls in China has largely been left in the hands of their fathers and husbands.  Foot binding continued into the 20th century, and even today in China girl babies are abandoned to orphanages at a much high rate than male children.

And, as Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter demonstrates, this sad state of affairs for women and girls crossed class lines, and affected both the rich and poor alike.  But Falling Leaves is more than just a story of a Chinese girl who grows to thriving womanhood in spite of her family's cruelty. It is the story of China's transition from monarchy to communism, both from the perspective of how it affected the daily lives of its people, and how it changed the economic landscape for the wealthy and well-educated. The author, Adeline Yen Mah, is the titular unwanted daughter.  She was the result of her wealthy father's first marriage, but her mother died soon after giving birth to her.  In Chinese tradition, this was the first mark against her-she brought bad luck to her mother, so she was bound to bring bad luck to others.  When her father remarried, to a much younger Eurasian woman, she and her older brothers and sister were shunted from the forefront of family life to the background.  They were forced to watch as their younger half-brother and sister were given every advantage, while they had to beg for even the most basic necessities, such as train fare to get to school.  Her step-mother, Niang, was cruel and manipulative, setting the siblings against each other whenever possible, and eventually beating down her husband's spirit such that he no longer stood up for his older children.  Ma and her siblings were mostly able to escape their step-mother's day to day control, but she held the reins on the family finances and pitted her children against each other until her death.

Despite her lonely, abusive childhood, Ma was extraordinarily privileged compared to most of her countrymen.  Her family was able to escape to Hong Kong before the Cultural Revolution, and was able to keep most of it's wealth along the way, But that privilege did not keep her from being affected by the larger societal forces at work, and it certainly didn't help her beloved aunt, a mother figure for Ma, or her elderly grandfather, who was made to feel like a beggar in his own home.

Ma tells her story matter of factly, without drama or exaggeration.  In a way that makes her story all the more chilling, reflecting as it does the emotional barrenness that Ma lived with most of her childhood. Just relating the events as they happened was enough to make me feel her loneliness, her longing for acceptance, her anger, and, in the end, her resignation.  Ma's story should strike a chord with anyone who has desperately tried to gain acceptance and love from people who were never able to give it, as her step-mother appears not to be able to do.  May as well try to get love and acceptance from a piece of cold, green jade.

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