Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter

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A riveting memoir of a girl's painful coming-of-age in a wealthy Chinese family during the 1940s. A Chinese proverb says, "Falling leaves return to their roots." In Chinese Cinderella, Adeline Yen Mah returns to her roots to tell the story of her painful childhood and her ultimate triumph and courage in the face of despair. Adeline's affluent, powerful family considers her bad luck after her mother dies giving birth to her. Life does not get any easier when her father remarries. She and her siblings are subjected to the disdain of her stepmother, while her stepbrother and stepsister are spoiled. Although Adeline wins prizes at school, they are not enough to compensate for what she really yearns for -- the love and understanding of her family. Following the success of the critically acclaimed adult bestseller Falling Leaves, this memoir is a moving telling of the classic Cinderella story, with Adeline Yen Mah providing her own courageous voice.
Curriculet Details
56 Questions
61 Annotations
3 Quizzes

Designed for students in 7th grade, this free digital curriculum contains annotations explaining the genre of autobiography, figurative language, and various aspects of Chinese culture. It also contains interactive videos that support comprehension, such as videos about dramatic irony and making inferences. Over the course of the book, students will answer Common Core questions and quizzes related to the subjects of using vocabulary in context, summarizing, and analyzing events and details. This free online unit will increase student engagement while building reading comprehension.

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To All Unwanted Children

The author has dedicated this book "to all unwanted children... because I understand only too well the rankling (bitter feelings) in your heart and what you are going through." 
This is a true story about the author, Adeline Yen Mah's, childhood. It is written by Adeline Yen Mah which makes it an autobiography. Autobiographies are a type of nonfiction where the author is writing about his or her own life.  (This annotation contains an image)


This preface is important to read because it gives us a lot of background information which will help us better understand this true story. 
Shanghai is a major city in China and one of the most densely populated cities in the entire world. It is a global financial center and huge shipping/trading city located near the Yangtze River with possibly the busiest port in the world.  (This annotation contains an image)
Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun, dedicated her life to helping the poor people in Calcutta, India. Think of this quote while you read Yen Mah's story. You will discover as you read that Adeline's family was not at all poor, but she suffered the type of loneliness that Mother Teresa is describing in this quote. Below is a picture of Mother Teresa. (This annotation contains an image)
This is important since Adeline Yen is the name she kept and is known by today. If you get confused about the names at any point in this book, you should look back to these two pages. 

Chapter 1 - Top of the Class

Since this is an autobiography--where a writer is telling the story of his or her life, I will refer to Yen Junling with her name as well as refer to her as "the author" throughout this curriculet. 
What kind of school can you infer the young Yen Junling went to based on the information on this page? 
What type of feelings does Aunt Baba have for Yen Junling based on her actions here? List three things Aunt Baba does or says that show this. 
This is extremely important information. Now we know the author's mother died when little she was only two weeks old. This means she doesn't remember her mother at all. It explains why she wants so desperately to see a picture of her real mother. We also know from the quote on one of the introductory pages that Yen Junling is blamed for her mother's death by members of her family. She was made to feel like she was bad luck and that it was her fault. Carrying this guilt will be a major inner conflict throughout her childhood. 

Chapter 2 - A Tianjin Family

The term "Eurasian" means that her stepmother, Niang, was both European and Asian. This will affect Yen Junling throughout her childhood because Niang is not loyal to Chinese and they often live in French influenced parts of Asia. 
Like many children today, the author comes from a blended family. She has one older sister and three older brothers. She also has one younger stepbrother and one younger stepsister. Keep this in mind as you read. 
This is a picture of Tianjin around the 1950's.  (This annotation contains an image)
This war began with conflict over China's control of importing the drug opium. The war ended in 1860 and many historians mark the end of this war as the beginning of modern life in China. 
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently... Is there a word on this page you need to look up? 

Chapter 3 - Nai Nai’s Bound Feet

Foot binding was a sign of status and is no longer practiced in most of China. Below is a picture of a Chinese woman's deformed feet due to foot binding when she was young. (This annotation contains an image)
Here you should get an idea that Third Brother is much kinder to Yen Junling than Second Brother. When you read, it is important to be able to infer and draw conclusions based on your understanding of the text. Sometimes you may be asked to point to specific details in the text that led you to your conclusions. Watch this video for more on text evidence and inference.  (This annotation contains a video)
Remember, this is another name for the author as a child. It means "fifth younger sister." 
This is a type of tropical Asian fruit. Below is a picture.  (This annotation contains an image)
What can we infer from this paragraph about the author and her father? 

Chapter 4 - Life in Tianjin

Here is a picture of a rickshaw and a man pulling it.  (This annotation contains an image)
Young Yen Junling goes to a Catholic school. Catechism is a book or manual that summarizes and explains beliefs and sacraments of the church. Children are often required to memorize certain parts. This is what a nun in the school may look like.  (This annotation contains an image)
These actions show that Big Sister is 
Why do you think that Big Sister hadn't wanted to go to school that day? 
Remember the time period of these events. It is during WWII and Japan has immense power. 
Why do you think Father, Niang, and Fourth brother go away for awhile? 
Mah-jongg is a game of skill and strategy using 144 tiles with Chinese characters and numbers. It is very popular in Asian countries.  (This annotation contains an image)
Women's feet were believed to be important for securing a husband. It was thought they should be very tiny. Watch this video for more information on this cruel ancient custom of foot binding.  (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following is the best way to describe what Big Brother is doing? 

Chapter 5 - Arrival in Shangai

Buddhism is a type of  
Shanghai is the most populated city in China. 
Details like "velvet curtains, thick woolen carpets, and white orchids in an antique Ming dynasty vase" show that Father is ________________ in Shanghai. 
Explain what this sleeping arrangement of bedrooms and floors suggests? 

Chapter 6 - First Day at School

In this paragraph, what is the author's purpose in listing so many details? 
What life lesson do you think Yen Junling learns that day? 

Chapter 7 - Family Reunion

What advice would a child psychologist probably give to Niang in this situation? 
What is your reaction to how Niang treats her two year old daughter? What does this show you about the kind of woman she is? 

Chapter 8 - Tram Fare

Missionary schools are run by missionaries (people doing mission work overseas). They are most often religious schools. 
What trait is revealed by the fact that Yen Junling doesn't go to Niang for tram fare? 

Chapter 9 - Chinese New Year

Yen Adeline Mah chose the title Chinese Cinderella, for this autobiography. Based on what you know from the Grimms' fairy tale "Cinderella," what are two similarities between the two stories and two differences? 
Throughout this autobiography, the author has retold the events from her point of view. However, the point of view has changed here for a moment. From whose point of view is this page told? 
Which of the following serves as the best context clue for the meaning of the word tremulously? 
So Niang is using the strategy of "dividing to conquer" on her five stepchildren. Do you think this is a smart strategy? 
This is an example of figurative language. What does Third Brother mean when he says this? 
The author comments that Big Sister has "...completely gone over to the other side." Which of the following phrases about Big Sister expresses the same thing? 
The Chinese heroine, Mulan, first appears in a ballad, which is a narrative poem that often tells the tragic story of a hero. According to legend, Mulan takes her father's place in the army and fights bravely for many years. When she has served her time, she refuses to become an officer and only wants to return home to her family. Her fellow soldiers are shocked to learn that she is actually a girl. Disney made this heroic tale into a popular movie. Watch this clip as Mulan is honored by her people. (This annotation contains a video)
In this highlighted section, the author conveys how desperate and sad she is feeling at this point in her life. Which of the following phrases from the text helps develop this idea? 
Quiz #1--Preface through Chapter 9 

Chapter 10 - Shanghai School Days

A typhoon is a tropical storm that occurs in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. Hurricanes and typhoons are really the same weather disturbance, but they strike in different oceans. Typhoons occur in the Pacific, and hurricanes occur in the Atlantic.  (This annotation contains an image)
This is an example of a simile. Figurative language, which includes similes, is used in all types of writing, not just poetry. Watch this video to review the main types of figurative language. See how many you already know.  (This annotation contains a video)
Congee is a thick rice soup often served as breakfast in Shanghai. It is eaten with a variety of pickled vegetables like bamboo shoots, mustard greens, and sour green beans. Below is a picture of congee. (This annotation contains an image)
Using the context of the sentence, what must errant mean here? 
This gives us more information about the motives behind Yen Junling's siblings and why they resent her. They blame her for her mother's death. 
Why would a father want his children to forget their own mother? It is a reasonable assumption that Niang asked Father to do this or perhaps he did it on his own for Niang's benefit. 
Use the Define feature on the word malice. This word contains the prefix "mal" which means bad or evil. There are many words in our language (as well as in languages like Spanish and French) that contain "mal" and mean bad in some way. (Maladjusted, malignant, malnourished, malfunction, malnutrition). Think of the name of the evil sorceress from Sleeping Beauty--Maleficent.  (This annotation contains an image)
A persimmon is a type of fruit.  (This annotation contains an image)
Certainly you've heard of Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor was the first attack on American soil in history. It occurred on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked our naval base at Pearl Harbor. As retaliation, America entered into World War II.  (This annotation contains an image)

Chapter 11 - PLT

Why were Father and Niang in Tianjin? 
What children's story does this remind you of? What are some similarities between that story and Yen Junling's story? 
Which type of figurative language is used here? 
Yen Junling is fiercely loyal to those few who stand by her and show her love. Besides PLT, she only has this love from Aunt Baba and Ye Ye. 
This is an idiomatic expression which means "to perfection" and is usually used to describe someone who dresses very well and very professionally. 
What are you predicting here? 
Did you predict that something like this would happen and tear PLT away from Yen Junling? Explain how you feel about Yen Junling's family and what happens to her duck. 
Even though this story is really about the sad and lonely childhood of the author, since it takes place in China we also learn about the culture there. Write down three things you've learned about Chinese culture from this book. 

Chapter 12 - Big Sister’s Wedding

A "qipao" is a traditional dress worn by Chinese women. Big Sister's may have looked like this, except in pink.  (This annotation contains an image)
So instead of staying loyal to Yen Junling in appreciation for Yen Junling warning Big Sister about the pendant, Big Sister betrays her by turning Niang further against Aunt Baba. 

Chapter 13 - A Birthday Party

To conspire is to plan secretly together to do something evil or wrong. Which of the following phrases is closest in meaning? 
Why is this an effective comparison? 
Oh, no. We know what trouble is coming. 
Explain why losing Aunt Baba is the worst thing that can happen to Yen Junling. 

Chapter 14 - Class President

Who are the "lower-formers" ?  
You've probably heard the saying "Friends are the family we choose for ourselves."  Explain how Wu Chun-mei is better to Yen Junling than her own parents or siblings. 
Who do you think is worse, Niang or Father? Explain why. 
Sun Yat-sen was the first president and founding father of the Republic of China. (This annotation contains an image)
Throughout this novel we read evidence of the respect and admiration others have for Yen Junling. It is ironic, then, that most members of her own family look down upon her. Irony is when something is opposite of what you expect. Watch this video for further information about irony.  (This annotation contains a video)
Quiz #2 --Chapters 10-14 

Chapter 15 - Boarding School in Tianjin

This is horrible. Try to put yourself in Junling's place here for a moment. What if your father couldn't remember your full name or your birthday? What if no one remembered your birthday and it was never celebrated? 
The woman's reaction of disbelief at Yen Junling's situation proves what to us as we read? 
We know that Yen Junling hasn't done anything wrong and doesn't deserve this treatment. This is an example of dramatic irony--when the reader knows something someone in the story doesn't know. Watch the video for a further explanation of dramatic irony.  (This annotation contains a video)
We all know this poem. It begins, "Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."  (This annotation contains an image)
Why do you think Yen Junling has not received a letter? 
Origami literally means paper folding; it is a Japanese form of art.  (This annotation contains an image)
Who is Yen Junling expecting? 
The People's Liberation Army is the military of Communist China. The soldiers that Yen Junling sees may have looked like this.  (This annotation contains an image)
This means that Niang or Yen Junling's father did not ask Aunt Reine to rescue Yen Junling. The aunt does it on her own. This truly shows that Yen Junling's family does not care about her. 

Chapter 16 - Hong Kong

Aunt Reine and Uncle Jean and their children treat Yen Junling much better than her own family. She feels more at ease with this family than she does her own. This is the opposite of what you would normally expect.What is it called when situations turn out opposite of what you would expect? 
This word contains the prefix "bi" which means two. Bilingual means you are able to speak two languages. There are many other words with this prefix such as biennial, biweekly, bilateral, bisect, bikini, bifocal, etc.  
Why do you think Aunt Reine devises a clever way of bringing Niang her diamonds? 
Yen Junling's grandfather said this of China's importance back in 1949. Considering today's world, do you think Ye Ye was right? Explain. 
Below are examples of some Chinese characters.  (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Yen Junling give Victor this particular book? 

Chapter 17 - Boarding School in Hong Kong

Comparing Ye Ye's situation to being imprisoned is a metaphor. Explain in your own words how Ye Ye is indeed a prisoner. 
Which reason below is the best explanation of why Yen Junling is relieved? 

Chapter 18 - Miserable Sunday

This is an example of two literary devices. What are they? 
King Lear is one of Shakespeare's tragedies about a once powerful king who is disrespected and taken advantage of by his selfish daughters. Only his youngest daughter truly loves him.  (This annotation contains an image)
This is a medical/technical term for someone who is mentally challenged and does not develop intellectually beyond that of a four or five year old. 
Yen Junling always hides the cruelty and neglect she receives from her parents. When others try to show her sympathy, how does it make her feel? 
All of the following are examples of Yen Junling's unfortunate situation except which one? 

Chapter 19 - End of Term

Penicillin is a common antibiotic that is often prescribed for ear and throat infections. 
Using the Define feature, read the definition for the word sauntered. Which of the following words is an antonym (opposite meaning) of sauntered? 

Chapter 20 - Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an inflammatory sickness in the lung caused by a virus or bacterial infection. Symptoms include high fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, and chest pain.  
Do you remember where Aunt Baba is? 
We know something that Yen Junling, the author, doesn't know at this time in her life. We know that someday she will become a writer and that her books will be read all over the world. What do you call it when the reader knows something someone in the story doesn't? 
This is very sad because it means that Yen Junling, after years of feeling neglected and unloved, looks down on herself. It is hard to keep a healthy self-esteem when you are rarely around people who care about you. 
She does show the world doesn't she? Ye Ye, like Aunt Baba, truly loves and respects Yen Junling. He sees her tremendous character and potential.  
Use the Define feature on the word "spartan." Which of the following meanings of "spartan" is used here in the story? 
One of the reasons we read biographies and autobiographies is because we can learn through the experiences of others, especially those who have overcome many challenges to succeed. Think of two important lessons we can learn from Yen Junling's hardships and how she faces them. 

Chapter 21 - Playwriting Competition

By comparing the school during the holidays to a tomb, the author expresses the loneliness and quiet she experiences. Which type of figurative language does she use here? 
Yen Junling has both of these things: inspiration and the drive to work hard, which is what is meant by perspiration. First, explain who or what gives Yen Junling the inspiration. Then give one example from what you've read that shows her willingness to work hard. 
This is another example of how uncaring Yen Junling's parents are of their daughter. Instead of sending for her to come home immediately after her grandfather died, and give her a day or two to grieve, they send for her the actual day of the funeral. 
What type of figurative language does the author use here to show how much the thought of not going to school bothered her? 
Niang recently told Yen Junling that soon she would no longer be going to school because she needed to get a job. Niang claims they can no longer afford to send her to school. But look how they live: an elegant villa with a swimming pool, a chauffeur, and servants.  
Why do you think Father is so pleased with Yen Junling winning the competition? Think of all the times he has cruelly neglected her or allowed Niang to treat her cruelly. 

Chapter 22 - Letter from Aunt Baba

You've heard this name before. Who else was named "precious little treasure"? 
Remember, Ye Ye was so angry when he heard Yen Junling put herself down. He always saw her potential and didn't want her to just marry. He wanted her to go to college and become whomever she wanted to be. 
"Folk" means people and "lore" means stories. So "folklore" is literally "stories of the people." Every culture has its own folklore--stories that reflect its values and culture and that were often told orally before they were ever written down. American folklore includes tall tales like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, and legends like Davy Crockett. Since most Americans can trace their descendants from other countries and continents, we've picked up many other stories as part of our folklore heritage. That's why we are familiar with the European fairy tale of Cinderella.  (This annotation contains an image)
After you finish reading this retelling, you may want to view an animated version of Yeh Shen, a Chinese Cinderella. The film is in three parts. The link to part one is below.  (This annotation contains a video)
This is a Chinese version of the fairy tale "Cinderella." List three details from this story that are similar to the version you know. 
Final Quiz