In Chinese Cinderella, Adeline Yen Mah tells the story of her painful childhood in China as an unwanted daughter of cruel and abusive parents. Although the physical abuse inflicted by her Father and her stepmother Niang is painful and frightening, it is their emotional abuse that ultimately does the most lasting harm and remains with Adeline even into adulthood. Her story demonstrates the way that the emotional trauma of abuse can be more damaging to children than physical trauma, lingering long after the scars of physical abuse have faded and often having a lifelong impact.
Both Father and Niang physically abuse Adeline multiple times, which is both painful and dangerous. However, this physical harm can only be inflicted while she is living under their roof, indicating that while physical abuse is very painful in the moment, it at least can be escaped from. Adeline is hit, beaten, and whipped, given meager food, and forced to walk to and from school as a very young child, even in cold weather and harsh storms. All of these cruelties pose considerable risks to her physical safety. However, when Adeline is away from her parents—either at a local school, away at boarding school, or traveling with another family—she is safe from their physical abuse. This is perhaps most evidenced by the fact that when Adeline learns she will be placed in another boarding school in Hong Kong rather than going to live with her family, she is actually thrilled by the distance it puts between her and her parents, keeping her out of arm’s reach. In the same way, even when living under her parents’ roof in Shanghai, school becomes a place of safety where Niang cannot reach her. This shows that, while physical abuse is still terrible and harmful, it can be escaped by changes in environment or circumstance.
In contrast, the emotional abuse that Adeline suffers from being an unwanted—even hated—child follows her no matter where she is. Adeline’s her parents’ emotional abuse, though not as immediately dangerous as the physical abuse, is nonetheless severe: Adeline is constantly demeaned, told that she is stupid, ugly, and worthless. Niang tells Adeline that she hates her most of all and goes out of her way to prove it. Father forgets Adeline’s given name, showing his neglect and apathy towards her. Both Father and Niang pay no regard to Adeline’s welfare and rarely offer any words that are not intended to be hurtful or shaming. Even when Adeline lives in boarding schools and is safe from her parents’ physical abuse, she is still tormented by the pain of their neglect and their refusal to love her. At night, she often reads under her covers to pass the hours because she is tormented by “terrifying thoughts” and “nameless monsters of the deep” which make it difficult to sleep. This ongoing struggle indicates that, although she is (for the moment) safe from being struck or whipped, the emotional trauma she has endured from her parents follows her wherever she goes.
Even as an adult, Adeline admits that she is still scarred by the emotional abuse and lack of acceptance from her parents, illustrating how the emotional wounds inflicted by childhood abuse can continue to bring pain long after the abused individual has found safety and shelter. Although Adeline goes on to study at Oxford and become both a doctor and a celebrated author, she describes her adult self as “the same little five-year-old yearning for the love of my parents.” She has found success, freedom from her family, and safety, and yet the emotional wounds of childhood still remain with her. This underscores the manner in which the emotional trauma of childhood abuse may remain with someone for decades, perhaps even a lifetime, long after they have escaped the abusive situation and reckoned with their past.
Adeline’s heartbreaking account of her childhood illuminates the ways in which different kinds of childhood abuse affect an individual. Although the pain of physical abuse is most frightening and immediately dangerous in the moment, it is also temporary. Adeline’s story reveals that it is the emotional trauma of being unloved and unwanted that remains the longest.
Physical and Emotional Abuse ThemeTracker
Physical and Emotional Abuse Quotes in Chinese Cinderella
“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.”
While I was basking in Third Brother’s praise, I suddenly felt a hard blow across the back of my head. I turned around to see Second Brother glowering at me.
“What did you do that for?” I asked angrily …
“Because I feel like it! That’s why, you ugly little squirt! This’ll teach you to show off your medal!”
“Is this medal for leading your class?” he asked.
I nodded eagerly, too excited to speak. A hush fell upon the table. This was the first time anyone could remember Father singling me out or saying anything to me…
“Continue studying hard and bring honor to our Yen family name so we can be proud of you.”
As we climbed the stairs, Big Brother muttered, “To her, we are not separate people. Here we have become one single unit known as all of you. Seems like this is how it’s going to be from now on.”
“Next time you go anywhere for the first time,” he admonished as he handed me a map of Shanghai from the glove compartment of his car, “read this map and find where you are and where you wish to go. This way you’ll never get lost again.”
In those few moments, we had understood everything. Not only about Niang, but also about all the grown-ups. Now that Nai Nai was dead, there was no doubt about who was in charge.
We began to question Third Brother’s sanity—had he imagined that Niang overheard us?—but he stuck to his story. “Perhaps,” he suggested darkly, “we’re being kept deliberately in a state of uncertainty because that’s what Niang most enjoys. The cat-and-mouse game.”
I was no longer the lonely little girl bullied by her siblings. Instead, I was the female warrior Mulan, who would rescue her aunt and Ye Ye from harm.
I felt quite guilty about my favoritism and couldn’t help blaming myself for not having gotten more worms that each duckling could have its own.
“Since it’s so hot tonight,” Father suggested, “why don’t we all cool off in the garden after dinner? It will also give us a a chance to test Jackie’s obedience.” He turned to Big Brother. “Go fetch one of those ducklings…We’ll have some fun tonight!”
Finally, I sat there with my eyes tightly shut, wishing with all my heart that when I opened them again, I would be Jackie and Jackie would be me.
“When you’ve reached my age, you know which children are weak and which are strong. Don’t ask her too many questions. Don’t criticize her or tear her down. I don’t want her to grow up like Big Sister. She is going to be different!”
Though my parents tell me I’m worthless I’ve proved them wrong! Of all the girls in my class, my classmates chose me to be their class president. I must forget about my home. In my other life—my real life—I’m not worthless. They respect me.
“It’s because we won the election today. I’m now class president. We worked hard at it—”
Niang interrupted me in the middle of my explanation. “Stop bragging!” she screamed. “Who do you think you are? … You are getting altogether too proud and conceited! No matter what you consider yourself to be, you are nothing without your father. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!”
“Don’t talk like that! … You mustn’t talk like that! You have your whole life ahead of you. Everything is possible! I’ve tried to tell you over and over that far from being garbage, you are precious and special. Being on top of your class merely confirms this. But you can vanquish the demons only when you yourself are convinced of your own worth.”
Into her lips I injected my loneliness, isolation, and feeling of being unwanted. To my heroine I gave everything of myself.