Chinese Cinderella

Chinese Cinderella Themes


Adeline's story is that of an unwanted daughter, seeking acceptance within her own family. Although the reader can clearly see the actions of the Yen family as twisted and wrong, it is evident that young Adeline's happiness stems exclusively from the approval of these deeply flawed people. Indeed, Chinese Cinderella shows us that the drive for acceptance does not depend on the quality of the group we seek to belong to; rather, it is innate and entirely encompassing. As the author herself states, "Although this story was written when I was in my late fifties, inside I am still the same little five-year-old yearning for the love of my parents."  


Chinese Cinderella is a story of perseverance, of the idea that a "single positive dream is more important than a thousand negative realities." Adeline Yen shows an unnatural resilience throughout her story, a level of composure unbelievable for a child her age. The treatment faced by young Adeline via her family is so jarring that the reader's mind instinctively classifies them as fictional. However, Adeline keeps trudging on past the point where most people would break, insistent on the belief that something good will come from her effort. Perseverance only truly counts when life is at its bleakest, a journey that Adeline undoubtedly undertook.  


Ye Ye best expresses the importance of self-worth in one of his last messages to Adeline, telling her that she can "vanquish the demons only when you yourself are convinced of your own worth." A large part of Adeline's insecurity stems from her belief that the only road towards belonging is the approval of her father and mother. The novel presents her growth as a person as a concurrent development towards self-reliance, ending with Adeline gaining a measure of self-worth. At the end of the day, the opinion of her insensitive father is not what sparks her glee; it is the bright future that she can now create.


One of the most powerful scenes in Chinese Cinderella is only partly satisfied through Adeline's point of view. When Adeline is spending Christmas dinner all by herself in the large mess hall at St. Joseph's, it only natural for the reader to picture the ostentatious family dinner that the Yen family must be having in Shanghai. The two images juxtaposed show the utter isolation that was imposed on Adeline, placed in a world where no one truly cares if she lives or she dies. Isolation, be it physical (like Adeline's banishment to Tianjin and the Holy of Holies) or mental (as seen with Adeline's refusal to share her status with Wu Chun-Mei), plays an important role in the development of our characters. Adeline, however, seems to draw strength from these extended periods of isolation. Yen Mah's characters show us how isolation can be overcome if seen as a temporary state, a difficult proposition for those in the midst of it.


Father's main goal in life is to be admired by his peers for his material wealth and his business accomplishments, often leading to the neglect of his family. While the reader may initially attribute egoism exclusively to the antagonists of Chinese Cinderella, it is important to note that Yen Mah makes a point of showing us the harmful ego within herself. Adeline refuses to ask for rides from her more affluent friends and makes excuses for the state of her clothes because she is too proud to admit that her home life is anything less than perfect. Although our instinct is to tie this in with positive qualities like strength and loyalty, it is the same problem as that which her dad exhibits. The overwhelming desire to be respected by your peers can lead to lies and deceits that paint a picture far different from reality, creating a prideful facade that is privy to collapse.  

Loss of Innocence

 The growth of Adeline as a character comes with the harsh realization that those who she held up as worthy of praise and adoration did not deserve quite so much of either. Her father's pride is the source of her happiness at the beginning of the novel, but he proves to care so little about his youngest daughter that he does not even know her birth name. Ye Ye--the patriarch of the family--seems untouchable during the time in Tianjin, but cannot stand up to Niang when the family moves. Likewise, Aunt Baba is seen as the protector for a mistreated Adeline yet she does not do anything to prevent her expulsion from the household. While both Ye Ye and Aunt Baba want what is best for Adeline, they do not go out of their way to improve her situation, wary of risking their own comfort. Yen Mah teaches the reader that our heroes are merely people, perhaps not as heroic as we would wish them to be. Adeline eventually learns this and succeeds through her own efforts, not relying on will of others.  

Education and Individuality

The importance of education and the character development, independent of the expectations of others, is evident throughout Chinese Cinderella. Adeline manages to work her way out of her dire beginnings through her academic performance and the personality that develops from those endeavors, growing into an outstanding writer thanks to her love of Shakespeare and her passion for storytelling. Her freedom via England came through this talent and her victory in an international playwriting competition. Indeed, a recurring theme in the novel is Adeline's adamant belief that she does not want to end up like her sister, in an arranged marriage with a man twice her age. Adeline's drive to be her own person is crucial to her ultimate success, supplemented by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.