Although Adeline is abused most often, Father and Niang’s cruelty affects everyone in the family. The life of the family entirely revolves around the parents’ demands, desires, and preferences, creating a toxic family dynamic in which everyone is bent towards serving the whims of one or two people. Niang and Father’s demand for total control and their utter selfishness has the greatest negative impact on their children, ultimately causing most of the children to become resentful of each other and similarly mean as individuals. The effects of Niang and Father’s cruelty demonstrate the way in which wrathful, controlling leadership of a family can lead to an utterly toxic family dynamic, amplifying the misery of each individual and encouraging them to become similarly cruel.
Niang, with Father’s cooperation, heavily favors her own biological children over the children of Father’s first marriage, creating immediate division and resentment among the seven children of the household. This dynamic illustrates the way that favoritism and unequal treatment creates enmity among siblings and pits them against each other. Niang is resentful of her stepchildren’s existence and goes out of her way to show that she despises them in comparison with her own biological children. Although the family is affluent and she spoils her own children with good food, new clothes, and luxurious rooms, she refuses her stepchildren even basic amenities like clothes that fit, their own rooms, and proper food. Niang even denies her stepchildren money to take the tram to school, forcing them to walk for miles through the cold winter.
This favoritism divides her children and her stepchildren. The stepchildren know that Niang hates them, and thus they view both her and her biological children as their enemies. The household fosters hatred and spite, demonstrating the terrible effects of such unjust and divisive parenting. Niang is also ruthlessly manipulative. Although Big Sister initially hates Niang since she is a stepchild, Niang buys her loyalty by treating her almost as well as her own children, turning Big Sister against the other stepchildren to break up their resistance. Big Sister becomes Niang’s informant and betrays her biological siblings with whom she was once close, earning them severe punishments from Niang. Niang’s connivance and manipulation further demonstrate how a toxic parent can destroy even the relationships between siblings who may once have been united.
Almost all of the children learn to imitate the cruelty modeled by Niang and Father, demonstrating how such toxic and cruel behavior can be passed down generationally. Both the stepchildren and Niang’s biological children gradually act more vicious towards Adeline, since she is the most hated by Niang, in order to curry favor from her and gain small benefits to relieve their own suffering, such as money to pay the tram fare to take them to school. This demonstrates the way in which such wretched behavior is often inherited by children from their parents. The only time that Father pays any positive attention to Adeline is when she brings him honor by excelling in school. However, this brief admiration from Father brings the hatred of the other siblings down upon Adeline, who are jealous of Father’s rare praise and embarrassed that their young sister is outperforming them academically. For Adeline to even be briefly acknowledged by her Father, she must face the torment of her siblings, further demonstrating the manner in which cruel, toxic behavior may be passed down from parent to child, creating an utterly dysfunctional and malicious family dynamic.
The goodness of Ye Ye, Aunt Baba, Adeline, and even kind Third Brother are all suffocated whenever they are in Niang and Father’s household. Their example shows how such a toxic family environment makes it difficult to cultivate any other personal qualities beyond cruelty or detachment. Both Ye Ye and Aunt Baba, seeing that the stepchildren are suffering, secretly give them money for basic necessities and occasional small gifts. However, this earns them the wrath of both Niang and Father, until they are dissuaded from offering the stepchildren any more aid. Ye Ye becomes defeated and resigned to the will of Niang and Father even though, as the family patriarch, he should be honored and respected. Similarly, Aunt Baba is separated from Adeline so that she cannot continue to influence Adeline with her kindness. Although Aunt Baba and Ye Ye desire to love and care for the stepchildren, Niang and Father’s ruthless efforts make it clear than such an overwhelmingly toxic family environment tends to suffocate any good-natured individuals who live there. Third Brother is kind to Adeline when the others are not around, and he seems conflicted about the brutal way she is treated. However, in the presence of his older brothers or his parents, Third Brother succumbs to the pressure to be cruel to Adeline, suggesting that even for a child who wants to be kind and virtuous, the pressure to survive in such a family environment fosters cruelty and malice, rather than compassion. In light of these overall trends, it is rather extraordinary that Adeline does not succumb to such wickedness and self-serving cruelty herself. Adeline’s resilience is proof that, even in the most toxic of family environments, a kind-hearted individual may still survive, though not without experiencing extraordinary pain.
Toxic Family ThemeTracker
Toxic Family 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.”
“I had a pair of perfectly normal feet when I was born, but they maimed me on purpose and gave me arthritis so I would be attractive.”
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.
Did Third Brother truly understand what he was up against? By wanting to have things both ways and straddling the fence, was he aware that each compromise would chip away at his integrity? ... It was the loss of the nicest parts of Third Brother that saddened me.
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!”
“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!”
Afterward, Ye Ye and I sat by ourselves on the long couch, not saying a word. I looked at my grandfather defeated and resigned with a blanket around his drooping shoulders in the blistering heat, his face contorted with sadness and anguish. A tired old man with no one to turn to, imprisoned by his love for his only son.
Father looked radiant. For once, he was proud of me. In front of his revered colleague…I had given him face.