Adeline is the fifth youngest of the Yen family and the protagonist of the novel. The book follows her childhood from the age of four to her departure to England in her early teens. Adeline is an outcast in the eyes of much of her own family, since her birth brought upon the death of her mother. Her inadvertent role in her mother's passing causes animosity between her and her older siblings and contributes to her father's apathy towards her.
Adeline maintains a very close relationship with her Aunt Baba and both her grandparents, turning to them for reason and comfort throughout her early years. Her Aunt's support combined with her father's brief flashes of approval lead Adeline to pursue academic excellence, leading to her outstanding performance in school and indomitable drive. Although her siblings and stepmother Niang often abuse her, Adeline attempts to overcome her problematic home life with her performance and community outside it.
Niang (Jeanne Virginie Prosperi)
Niang is the stepmother to Adeline and her four older siblings and the natural mother to 4th Younger Brother (Franklin) and Little Sister (Susan). Niang is married to Adeline's father one year after the death of Adeline's mother, at the age of 17. Father is very proud of his "French" wife, showing her off to friends and treating her to her every whim.
Niang establishes her as the de facto head of the household by the time the family moves to Beijing, setting a clear separation between her natural born children and her adopted ones. This leads to conflict with Father's first four children, with power imbalance and manipulation rendering the conflict toothless. The main dissenter to Niang's power is Adeline, who stands up against the injustices she perceives, unlike her other siblings. However, Adeline is still very much conscious of the power Niang holds over her Father.
While she outwardly expresses respect and deference to the natural head of the household, Ye Ye, for the sake of Father's feelings, their relationship is a frigid one. Likewise, she sees Aunt Baba as a threat, after an incident with Little Sister on the first night in Beijing, and does her best to remove her influence from the household. Niang's personality is fairly static throughout the novel, permanently the antagonist to Adeline's story.
Father (Joseph Yen)
Joseph is the father of Adeline and all of her siblings, referred to as "Father" throughout the novel. Affluent, intelligent, business savvy and ambitious, Father is seemingly ignorant of the feelings of others, particularly his children. Continually abandoning Adeline, ignoring the wishes of his own father, he appears to value only the opinion of his new wife Niang and an overwhelming drive to be materially successful.
However, his distinct aloofness can perhaps be traced back to the death of his mother, Nai Nai. After being away in Shanghai to establish a stable job, his first appearance after returning to Tianjing is distinct for his only outward display of emotion: Adeline notices his reddened eyes from mourning Nai Nai. This is not replicated again, not even at Ye Ye's funeral. Indeed, the aftermath of Nai Nai's death leads to a permanent severance with his Tianjing life, demanding that Aunt Baba burns all pictures of his first wife.
Adeline's relationship with her father stems from a desire for approval, based on his happiness when she earns distinction in her classes. Father's pride makes her feel like a member of the family, pushing her to succeed at academics. Although she notices his apathy towards her on occasion, Adeline's desire to please Father is very prominent in the novel.
Ye Ye is Adeline's grandfather on her father's side and the head of the household at the beginning of the novel. A devout Buddhist, Ye Ye maintains a moral compass unseen in the rest of the family. Working at the same company as his son, Ye Ye has a tight bond with him. Ye Ye is traditionally seen as the patriarch of the family, but his role is undermined by Niang's introduction to the family. While Ye Ye remains an influence within the household, it's primarily ceremonial, if that.
Ye Ye's relationship with his grandchildren is slight, except in the case of Adeline whom he views as "different." He supports her as best he can, telling Adeline that she has the talent to break out of her unfortunate cycle. In his later years, Ye Ye is visibly saddened by the state of his family and the behavior of his son.
The eldest daughter of Ye Ye and Nai Nai, Aunt Baba is described as "meek, shy and unmarried," wholly dependent on her younger brother--Adeline's father--financially. Tasked with taking care of Adeline, the two develop a close bond due to their position as the unwanted and powerless members of the family. Aunt Baba provides encouragement for Adeline to pursue her dreams, a decision that causes her to lose favor in the eyes of Niang.
A constant source of patience and rationality in the tumultuous world of this novel, her separation from Adeline furthers the latter's loneliness and forces her to become more self-reliant. Indeed, the dynamics between Aunt Baba and Adeline and Aunt Baba and Niang serve as the driving factors of the story.
Big Sister (Lydia)
The eldest of Father's original children, Big Sister is vicious, jealous, and spiteful. Born with a lame arm, she uses her handicap to her advantage, by forcing her siblings to carry out her chores. This is just one of the ways she manipulates those around her. Big Sister constantly attempts to curry favor with Niang and Father to advance her own situation. By ratting out her younger siblings, she is invited to join the "superior" children on the second floor, and becomes one of Niang's spies. Though she is one of the cruelest to Adeline, Big Sister is just a lonely girl looking for love and attention.
While on a visit with Father and Niang to Tiajin, Niang arranges Big Sister's marriage to Samuel, a thirty-one year old stranger. Big Sister is thrilled with the idea of marriage, but Adeline is horrified. She cannot imagine being taken out of school at seventeen and "thrust into the arms of a stranger," though Big Sister is overjoyed to have all eyes on her. This is the last we see of Big Sister, as she joyfully leaves for her honeymoon.
Nai Nai is Adeline's paternal grandmother, the wife of Ye Ye. Born under a different dynasty, her feet were broken and bound as a child. This causes her constant pain and she "hobbles" instead of walking tall. In the few chapters where she's present, Nai Nai is portrayed as a sensible and strong woman, capable even with the handicap imposed on her. The traditional matriarch of the Yen family, the family structure falls apart with her death. Without her support, Ye Ye is no longer able to hold his position at the top of the chain, and Niang takes over the household. Nai Nai's death is a turning point in the novel, from a time of tranquil freedom to an oppressive atmosphere and a segregated home.
Big Brother (Gregory)
Adeline's eldest brother is distinct from the other three in that he often shows a maturity corresponding to his position, albeit interposed with flashes of malice that corrode any of Adeline's built-up good will. Big Brother, along with his other two natural brothers, is forced to have an outdated hairstyle and wear antiquated clothes, leading to much ridicule from their classmates. Although he takes up the banner of rebellion against Niang, his resolve is extinguished by his stepmother's all-encompassing influence.
Big Brother shows flashes of compassion towards his younger siblings and has a bond with his fellow brothers. However, he instigates many of Adeline's misfortunes, as seen in the case of the urine orange juice and the death of PLT. At the end of the day, Big Brother's character is left unsatisfactorily underdeveloped, considering the difficult balance that is expected of him, a leader among his siblings but a subordinate towards an unjust mother.
Second Brother (Edgar)
The cruelest of all Adeline's brothers, Second Brother often goes out of his way to make life miserable for Adeline. He hates when she is praised and always doles out some punishment each time she has some positive attention. Second Brother comes up with many of the tricks they play on Adeline. Our protagonist is always on edge when near him and can find no real reason for his supreme hatred for her; she only knows that her existence is reason enough for the family to hate her.
Third Brother (James)
Third Brother is the youngest of the three brothers born out of Father's first marriage. While he is very close to his two older brothers and is involved in their hijinks, he is portrayed as exceptionally compassionate towards Adeline. Adeline loves her brother for this and often sees him as the most reliable of the bunch. However, she feels betrayed by his conspiracy in the urine-orange juice prank on the day Adeline won a major academic award. Although Third Brother is the closest to Adeline, their relationship is not exceptionally intimate.
Fourth Brother (Franklin)
The oldest child in the Niang/Joseph Yen marriage, Franklin is raised in a different world than his stepsiblings even though they occupy the same house. Always having the most stylish haircuts and modern clothing, Franklin is afforded every amenity that is kept from the others. Franklin's character is not developed beyond his favored status, at least not until the malicious prank he attempts to pull on Ye Ye near the end of the latter's life. Although it is implied that he is spoiled, his cruelness only materializes through this event.
Little Sister (Susan)
The youngest of all the children, she is pampered and well looked after. Niang treats her like an angel and showers gifts on her constantly, making the others jealous. Initially, Little Sister's relationship with Niang was tumultuous, as they were separated for a year and a half. Upon her homecoming, Little Sister didn't recognize her own mother and Niang beat her for her disobedience. After this rocky reunion, Little Sister settled into her role as favorite child. Though she is one of the children given special treatment, Little Sister appears to have more empathy than Fourth Brother, calling him out for his misbehavior when he attempts to hurt Ye Ye.
A beacon of kindness in an unkind landscape, the Schillings (Aunt Reane, Victor, and Claudine) serve to act as a foil to the harshness of the Yen household. Adeline lauds the ideal brother-sister relationship exhibited by the Schilling children; she wishes very deeply to become part of their family. The Schillings treat Adeline as an equal instead of an outcast, drawing lots to see who sleeps on the ground when Adeline assumed that the unfortunate lot would naturally fall to her. Victor also loudly stands up to Niang's treatment of Adeline, a unique scene of warmth and action within the novel.
Chinese Cinderella Questions and Answers
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Niang divides the loyalty of her stepchildren by treating them differently, withholding allowances, and forbidding them their natural dependency on Ye Ye and Aunt Baba. She uses them one against the other until slowly but surely..... they break....
The truth comes to light when Big Sister reveals that there are plans to marry her off to Samuel, the son of the family doctor. The age difference between the two frightens Adeline, who vows to never be married off at such an early age.