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The autobiography ‘Chinese Cinderella’ provides an inside look into a true life account similar to the fairy tale Cinderella.

This lesson will go over the major characters and include quotes to better illustrate them.

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Deja Vu

Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella has a lot of the same elements of the fairy tale Cinderella, except this story is true. We meet the poor, unwanted protagonist, and we want her to succeed and be treated fairly.

Throw in an evil stepmother, an indifferent father, and a few mean siblings and privileged, spoiled half siblings, and you have the makings of a story guaranteed to bring out the sympathy in you. Let’s take a look at characters and quotes that make up this story.


Adeline is the youngest of the five siblings, and she was only an infant when her father married her ‘evil’ stepmother, Niang. Her brothers and sisters call her the unwanted child, and they like to taunt her and blame her for their mother’s death. They cry out, ‘.

..Mama died giving birth to you. If you had not been born, Mama would still be alive.’She is twice unwanted – she is a girl (in Chinese culture, girls are not as valued), and she is seen as the cause of her mother’s death. Her fate is sealed. But, Adeline believes that if you ‘Transcend your abuse and transform it into a source of courage, creativity and compassion’ you can make a difference, and that is what she tried to do.

Adeline poured her heart and soul into school. She excels and even wins medals. She shows them proudly to get attention from her father, saying, ‘I was winning the medal every week and wearing it constantly. I knew this displeased my siblings, especially Big Sister and Second Brother, but it was the only way to make Father take notice and be proud of me.’ It takes her a long time to realize that pride for her accomplishments should come from within. Then and only then is she free.


Enter the stepmother, Niang who makes no bones about the fact that she does not want anything to do with the children her husband had before they were married. She makes sure they know that they are unwanted, unloved, and a bother in her life. They are not welcome in the family home; they must stay in the basement level.When Adeline’s friends from school stopped by for a visit to celebrate her election to class president, Niang goes crazy. She slapped Adeline and said, ‘Do you hear me? I want them out of the house this minute. Are you deaf? Tell them to gun dan (get lost) and never come here again. Never! Never! Never!’ The rules in the house are clear, and Niang defies them.

No going out to visit, and no one coming to visit.Niang’s stepchildren pay a great price. She shuns them, beats them and mistreats them, and Adeline receives the worst of her mistreatment. When Niang is finally angered enough because she cannot break Adeline, she ships her off to a boarding school, away from all that she knows. Niang wins a few battles, but Adeline emerges victorious in the end.


Adeline’s father is a wealthy businessman who is ambitious and dedicated to his work, but oblivious and neglectful when it comes to the needs of his children.

It appears that there are only two things he values in life: his beautiful French-Asian wife, Niang, and succeeding in business.Adeline’s main goal is to please her father. She can see he is happy with her when she does well in school, and because she has been so starved of attention, she works harder in school to gain his approval.

Ye Ye

Ye Ye is Adeline’s grandfather on her father’s side.

There was a time when he and his wife Nai Nai played a significant role in the running of the household. But once Niang moves in, all that changes. While he has a close bond with his son, Ye Ye is not happy with the way his son behaves.

He believes Adeline has the ability to change her situation in life, but he knows there isn’t much he can do. He tells her, ‘You may be right in believing that if you study hard, one day you might become fluent in English. But you will still look Chinese, and when people meet you, they’ll see a Chinese girl no matter how well you speak English.

‘ He knows she must accept who she is if she is to move forward in her life.

Aunt Baba

Aunt Baba is Father’s older sister and is in charge of taking care of Adeline. Niang does not approve of her, and because Adeline and Aunt Baba are both unwanted in the family, they form a bond that is as tight as glue. Adeline knows that she will be there for her. It is Aunt Baba who urges Adeline to go after what she wants, to dream big in life, and believes she will succeed.

But this belief in Adeline puts her in Niang’s cross hairs.

The Schillings

The Schilling Family is the family of Niang’s sister, but turns out to be the light in the tunnel of darkness for Adeline. Victor, one of the children, is the only person who ever stands up for her. They treat her as an equal, and Victor speaks up when Niang is mistreating Adeline. Yen Mah writes, ‘He climbed out to stand by my side. Together, we watched the car drive off.

I was overwhelmed by his chivalry but could find no words sufficient to express my gratitude.’

Lesson Summary

The characters in Chinese Cinderella provide a window into the life of the young Adeline. In this autobiography, we watch the young Adeline deal with her cruel stepmother, Niang, her father who cares only for his wife and his business, and a host of others who make it clear they don’t care much about her. Adeline feels twice unwanted, being an undervalued girl and causing her mother’s death in childbirth.She tries to gain favor and attention from her father by doing well and winning medals in school.

Aunt Baba is also unwanted, so she forms a bond with Adeline, but Adeline ends up also feeling valued with the Schilling family, who are relatives of Niang.

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