Adeline Yen Mah

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Adeline Yen Mah
Native name Mǎ Yán Jūnlíng
Born Yen Jun-ling
(1937-11-30) 30 November 1937 (age 79)
Tianjin, Republic of China
Residence London, UK
California, USA
Other names Adeline Mah, Adeline Yen, Adeline Yen Mah
Education St Joseph's Primary School, Tianjin
Sheng Xin primary School, Shanghai
Sacred Heart Canossian College, Hong Kong
London Hospital Medical School, London, UK
Occupation Author, Physician
Known for Writing
Notable work Falling Leaves, Chinese Cinderella
Title Dr. Adeline Yen Mah
Spouse(s) Byron Bai-lun Soon
Robert A. Mah
Children Roger Mah
Ann Mah
Parent(s) Joseph Yen Tse-Rung
Ren Yong-Ping
Relatives 4 siblings
2 half-siblings
Aunt Baba (paternal aunt)
Jeanne Virginie Prosperi (step-mother) (Niang)
Yen Shunzhen (great-aunt)

Adeline Yen Mah (simplified Chinese: 马严君玲; traditional Chinese: 馬嚴君玲; pinyin: Mǎ Yán Jūnlíng) is a Chinese-American author and physician. She grew up in Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and is known for her autobiography Falling Leaves. She is married to Professor Robert A. Mah with whom she has a daughter, and a son from a previous marriage.


Adeline Yen Mah was born in Tianjin, Republic of China on 30 November 1937, to Joseph Yen (Yen Tse-Rung), a businessman, and Ren Yong-ping, an accountant. She had an older sister called Lydia (Jun-pei) and three older brothers, Gregory (Zi-jie), James (Zi-lin) and Edgar (Zi-jun). She has stated in Falling Leaves that she did not use the real names of her siblings and their spouses to protect their identities but she did, however, use the real names of her father, stepmother, aunt and husband, while referring to her paternal grandparents only by the Chinese terms 'Ye Ye' and 'Nai Nai' .

Yen Mah also writes of her Ye Ye's younger sister, whom she calls either 'Grand Aunt' or 'Grand Uncle Gong Gong', and cites as founder and president of the Shanghai Women's Bank.[1][2]

When Yen Mah was a year old in 1938, Joseph Yen married a half-French, half-Chinese (Eurasian) 17-year-old woman named Jeanne Virginie Prosperi. The children referred to her as Niang (娘 niáng, another Chinese term for mother), and she is called so throughout the whole book. They had two children, Franklin and Susan (Jun-qing).

Her legal birthday is 30 November, as her father did not record her date of birth and instead he gave her his own (a common practice prior to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949). Two weeks after her birth, her mother died of puerperal fever and according to traditional Chinese beliefs, Yen Mah was called 'bad luck' by the rest of her family and because of this, treated harshly throughout her childhood.

Allegations of child abuse[edit]

In her autobiography Chinese Cinderella, Adeline Yen Mah talks about the emotional and physical abuse she suffered in her childhood at the hands of her father and stepmother. They withheld food from their children, physically abused them, sent them each out of the house by the age of 14 to fend for themselves, and failed to tend to them during the war. When her father and stepmother had their own children, they pampered those children while withholding these affections from the older children.

Eventually, her parents let the older children integrate into the blended family one by one, but Yen Mah was never included in this. They left her out due to her being the youngest child of the first family. Her father and stepmother resented her due to the fact her mother died from a fever a few days after giving birth to her. She only had 3 relatives who really cared about her: her Ye Ye (Grandfather), Nai Nai (Grandmother), and her Aunt Baba.

Aunt Baba and Ye Ye[edit]

Aunt Baba and Ye Ye were the only family members who really cared for Adeline Yen Mah. Later in the book, Adeline's parents' cruelty shows as they do not allow her to see her Aunt Baba anymore. Ye Ye dies later due to old age. This inspires Adeline to start writing books and plays based on her experiences; she wins awards, which earn her father's love and pride. He granted Adeline her one wish, to be able to go to college. For Adeline, this moment was pivotal. She would be free from her parents' influence, which meant that she was also able to freely associate with the relatives she loved most.

Shanghai and Hong Kong[edit]

After the death of Nai Nai, Yen Mah's father (Joseph) and stepmother (Niang) moved from Tianjin to Shanghai to a house along Avenue Joffre; Yen Mah and her full siblings joined them at the house soon afterward. Two months later, her aunt, Ye Ye, and Susan arrived (the former two delayed moving to observe the hundred days' mourning period for Nai Nai). When Susan arrived, she was too young to recognise her mother, Prosperi, who thus beat her soundly in frustration. Yen Mah intervened, leading Niang to declare that she would never forgive her.

The Yen family later moved to Hong Kong when Yen Mah was eleven, and she transferred to Sacred Heart School and Orphanage (Sacred Heart Canossian College). At the age of fourteen, as her autobiography states, Yen Mah won a play-writing competition for her work Gone With the Locusts, and her father allowed her to study in England with James.


Yen Mah left for the United Kingdom in August 1952, and studied medicine at the London Hospital Medical School, eventually establishing a medical practice in California. Before the start of her career in the United States, she had a brief relationship with a man named Karl, and practised medicine in a Hong Kong hospital at the behest of her father, who refused to give her air fare when she expressed plans to move to America. She has stated in an interview with the South China Morning Post that her father wanted her to become an obstetrician in the belief that women wanted treatment only from a female doctor, but as she hated obstetrics she became an anaesthesiologist instead.[3]

Literary career[edit]

Her autobiography, Falling Leaves, was published in 1997, shortly after Jung Chang's memoir Wild Swans. It made the New York Times Bestseller list, selling over a million copies worldwide and translated into twenty two languages. Beginning with her traumatic childhood under her stepmother's cruelty, it goes on to recount how, after Joseph Yen died, Prosperi had prevented his children from reading his will until her own death two years later. When the wills were read, Yen Mah had apparently been disinherited. The success of Falling Leaves prompted Yen Mah to quit medicine and devote her time to writing.

Falling Leaves was translated into Chinese for the Taiwan market. It was titled Luoyeguigen (T: 落葉歸根, S: 落叶归根, P: Luòyèguīgēn). Unlike other cases of memoirs, the novel was translated by the original writer.[4]

Her second work, Chinese Cinderella, was an abridged version of her autobiography, and sold over one million copies worldwide. It received numerous awards, including The Children's Literature Council of Southern California in 2000 for Compelling Autobiography; and the Lamplighter's Award from National Christian School Association for Contribution to Exceptional Children's Literature in June 2002.

Published in 2001, her third book, Watching the Tree, is about Chinese philosophy and traditional beliefs (including Traditional Chinese Medicine). A Thousand Pieces of Gold was published in 2002, and looks at events under the Qin and Han dynasties through Chinese proverbs and their origins in Sima Qian's history, Shiji.

Children's literature[edit]

Yen Mah has written three further books for children and young adults. Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society, her first fiction work, is based on events in World War II, and Along the River, another fictional book based on Chinese history. China, Land of Dragons and Emperors is a non-fiction history book for young adults.

In 2004, Yen Mah was voted fourth on the New Zealand children's best seller lists.[5]

Falling Leaves Foundation[edit]

Adeline Yen Mah is Founder and President of the Falling Leaves Foundation, whose mission is 'to promote understanding between East and West' and provides funds for the study of Chinese history, language, and culture. There is also a website dedicated to teaching Chinese over the Internet for free, and the foundation has established a poetry prize at UCLA. In 2013, she created an iPad game, PinYinPal, for learning Mandarin.[6][7][8][9]



  1. ^ Chinese Cinderella, photo insert p. 1.
  2. ^ [1], Yan Shuzhen and Huang Qiong-Xian founded the now-defunct Shanghai Women's Commercial and Savings Bank in 1924.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Kang, Hana. "A Discourse Analysis of Code-Switching in Falling Leaves and Luoyeguigen (落葉歸根)." (Archive) Proceedings of the 20th North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics (NACCL-20). 2008. Volume 2. Edited by Marjorie K.M. Chan and Hana Kang. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University. Pages 999–1010. Available on ProQuest. "Unlike many other translated autobiographies, the writer herself translated her English work (Falling Leaves) into Chinese for Taiwanese readers."
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Letter to my subscribers". Adeline Yen Mah. Retrieved 2016-01-03. 
  7. ^ "Huffington Post: PinYinPal iPad app demo". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  8. ^ Dredge, Stuart. "30 best iPhone and iPad apps this week". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. iPad app PinYinPal looks a lot like Words With Friends (well, Scrabble, obviously) but it's actually got even-more educational ambitions. It's actually an app for learning Chinese through play, as you use letters of the alphabet to spell traditional Mandarin characters. A clever idea that looks good for anyone learning Chinese. 
  9. ^ Ritchie, Rene. "PinYinPal makes learning Mandarin fun for kids". iMore. 

Further reading[edit]

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