"'But then Mama died giving birth to you. If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive. She died because of you. You are bad luck.'"
The first lines we hear from Big Sister set the tone of both the novel and the character. The blame that rests on Adeline from her birth prohibits any hope of an easy childhood; with her siblings believing that she brought about the end to their idyllic lives, she is in no position to convince them otherwise. The endless cycle of hate and bias has already begun, fed by any negative turns or disappointing results. Although this is brutally unfair, it--like being a daughter and being Chinese—is a part of realities that Adeline has no choice but to overcome.
“It hurt so badly I couldn’t sleep. I screamed in pain and begged my mother to free my feet, but she wouldn’t. In fact, the pain has never gone away. My feet have hurt every day since they were bound and continue to hurt today. I had a pair of perfectly normal feet when I was born, but they maimed me on purpose and gave me lifelong arthritis so I would be attractive.”
The practice of footbinding in Chinese culture was a cruel one that persisted for many centuries and only ceased in the early days of the 20th century. This form of subjugation for Chinese women was on of many ways that a pervasive anti-female culture was ingrained in the Chinese psyche. The belief that women were vastly inferior to males allowed for the ill treatment of daughters and the propagation of arranged marriages, creating an imbalance that would make it difficult for young girls like Adeline to succeed. The history of footbinding through the eyes of Nai Nai and what that meant for women of the day was another disadvantage that Adeline had to overcome while growing up.
"I was winning the medal every week and wearing it constantly. I knew this displeased by siblings, especially Big Sister and Second Brother, but it was the only way to make Father take notice and be proud of me."
Adeline's flaunting of the medal can be seen as another show of excessive pride within the novel but it is instead the means through which a young girl looks to gain acceptance within an uncaring family. The pride over that measly medal shows the sadness that is Adeline's day to day, with her siblings hating her achievement and her dad only caring when she receives it. Adeline only truly matures when she realizes that her achievement should only matter if it makes her happy, not her dad. As long as she is stuck in this dependent cycle, Adeline will never be content and independent.
"The room was completely still. The only sound I heard was that of Ye Ye chomping on his apple. Surely he was going to say something to put Niang in her place!"
The balance of power within the Yen household has shifted dramatically by this point of the novel. What was originally a house run by Father under the supervision of Nai Nai and Ye Ye has become the empire of Niang, with Ye Ye only preserved as a mouthpiece. The importance of this scene is that the shift of power strongly hampers the future of Adeline within the household, especially after the fiasco with Little Sister and Aunt Baba. Without Ye Ye's protective and sympathetic presence holding any sway, Adeline's life is surely going to go from bad to worse.
Everyone laughed, including Mother Marie. "And if you could have one wish granted, what would it be?"
"To receive a letter addressed to me. Just one letter. From anyone."
Adeline's loneliness is exemplified in this quote from her time at St. Joseph's in Tianjin, far away from any family or friends. There is nothing like isolation, especially in cases this extreme. With no one looking for her and no one writing her letter, not even her Aunt Baba, Adeline feels as alone in the world as one can be. The will to keep going even after that shows the perseverance that this book promotes.
“My heart gave a giant lurch as her words sank in. For a dazzling moment, I knew with every fiber of my being that somehow, against all odds, Aunt Baba had come to my rescue! The whole of me was vibrating with joy, and I ran as fast as I could towards the visitors’ lounge, followed by Mother Marie.”
The joy exhibited by Adeline when she is given reason to believe that her savior has come at last is heart wrenching. After all the misfortune that has befallen this young girl in her eleven years of life would lead one to believe that something had to break right. In a strange way, something finally did. Even though Aunt Baba, who the reader views as the primary positive adult figure in Adeline’s life, had still not taken an active role in helping her situation, the Schillings turned out to be an unexpected blessing. The quote shows the utter joy that our otherwise steadfast protagonist lets break through, a revealing relief after putting on a brave face. As much as Adeline is working hard to not let the unfortunate turns get to her, the outpouring of emotion shows how much she actually needed something to go her way.
“You may be right in believing that if you study hard, one day you might become fluent in English. But you will still look Chinese, and when people meet you, they’ll see a Chinese girl no matter how well you speak English. You’ll always be expected to know Chinese, and if you don’t, I’m afraid they will not respect you as much.”
Ye Ye expresses a level of insight that has been apparent within him for the entirety of the novel but never outwardly expressed until this instance. The quote expresses finality: regardless of all the effort or sweat that Adeline pours onto her goals, there are some inescapable truths that come with her birth. Perseverance is an admirable trait that Adeline exhibits throughout the novel, leading the reader to believe that anything can be overcome with faith and hard work. Ye Ye shows us that diligence doesn't destroy all barriers but rather that some must be first accepted to be overcome.
“Above all, there is the wisdom and magic of our language itself. When you read a Chinese book, try to look at the characters and think about them. I have met many who appear to know a good many Chinese words but never actually grasp the true meaning of any of them.”
This quote by Ye Ye reflects a core principle of Yen Mah’s novels, the beauty of the Chinese language. This is followed by a monologue on how the pictographic aspect of Chinese characters can help tell a story in ways that the Western alphabet cannot, reflecting the message of the author’s foundation which aims to teach youth of Chinese heritage their language. This also reinforces the theme that people should be seen as much more than what society views them as, a message that is clearly lost on the rest of Adeline’s family. Her father understands the importance of appearances and the value of daughters in society, but does not truly grasp the potential that his daughter exhibits until it is shoved in his face, well after all the damage is done.
“He climbed out to stand by my side. Together, we watched the car drive off. I was overwhelmed by his chivalry but could find no words sufficient to express my gratitude. After a painful pause, I ran upstairs, dug out my book Paper Magic, gave it to him and said, “This is for you.””
Victor is the only person to see the injustices heaped on Adeline for what they are and then take an active role in protesting them. By refusing to get in the car with Niang and the others, Victor vocalized his opposition, something that Ye Ye and Aunt Baba never did. The gift offered by young Adeline can be seen as a means to highlight this distinction; while Aunt Baba and Ye Ye earned a level of loyalty, Victor deserved a higher distinction. The book was the only possession of any value that Adeline had, yet she understood the actions of Victor to be worthy of such high praise. In this exchange, Yen Mah relays the message that, while empathy is valuable, embodying the change is deserving of greater praise.
“Contrary to all logic, I had the uncanny sensation that Shakespeare had actually had my Ye Ye in mind when he wrote his immortal play four hundred years earlier.”
King Lear is a powerful symbol of the tragic relationship that has befallen Ye Ye and his son, a story of a wise old king driven to ruin by the destruction of his family. Although the wedge driven between Father and Ye Ye is not at the center of our novel, it’s impact reverberates throughout. While the love between the father and son continues to be strong, the connection is rendered hollow thanks to the sway that Niang has over the direction of the family. The loss of influence that Ye Ye suffers is indicative of the breakdown of what was once an strong family, getting to the point where Adeline is treated like she is. The loss of perspective and the tragedy of Ye Ye’s disempowerment are representative of the larger workings of the novel.
Chinese Cinderella Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Chinese Cinderella is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.