Book Review of Falling Leaves: Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter


Though called a memoir, Adeline Yeh Ma’s Falling Leaves is really a historical account of the past 100 years in China craftily written through the eyes of a young girl who grows to become an accomplished woman and characters that bring history to life. In a short book, the reader is given a breadth of Chinese culture, economy and family.

Each one of her characters represents a character from Cinderella’s world. But this princess lives a very different life, becoming her own Prince Charming in the end. Ma’s memoir breaks away from traditional biographies so that her story begins before she was born. The detailed background she displays to the reader about her father, grandfather, and grandaunt creates that illusion of comfort that she will be afford when she born. In this, the picture of life in China is outlined, waiting to be filled in through subsequent chapters.  

Ma’s strength lies in the beautiful convergence of history and life, so as the two become one. She remembers the time when her father was under inspection by the then increasing power of the communists, so much so that he was forced into hiding. Instead of eliciting pity from the reader, she delves into the details of the Communists revolution and their rapid ascent of strength and takeover as an incredible background piece that adds depth to the story rather than stripping it of its emotional value. The hope and turmoil felt by the Chinese people is expressed with anecdotes of the helping hand of the Communist militia to the very scary downward spiral of corruption of the government and the panic of the people. Any family that could afford to fled to Hong Kong into order to retain their wealth and avoid abuse, demonstrating the special position Hong Kong in world politics.

And through Hong Kong, we see the rapid change from small towns to the burgeoning the massive city made at first to imitate Shanghai and then to surpass it as it flourishes with capitalism as Shanghai falls to ruins with ill maintenance. As Adeline escapes her own prison in Hong Kong, she travels to England and America to pursue her dreams. Here is where we see the true strength and resistance against the new China both from foreigners and native Chinese. Many of the Chinese who choose to study abroad imposed self-exile to demonstrate their loyalty to their motherland. Ironically, because of their devotion to their motherland encouraged them to pursue higher degrees in the best institutions, they were also ostracized once they returned.

Ma’s best quality is that she makes her memoir access to all by not letting her story get the way of reality. Ask yourself the question: Why do we read biographies and memoirs? Why is this person important enough to know about their life, and how does it change ours? Ma makes the decision to not let the connection you will form with her get in the way of a story worth telling. 


The book is available for purchase at any major bookstore and Amazon at



Written by Ramsina Lazar, Asia Society Southern California Program Intern